Friday, September 14, 2012

Teaching Compassion

"Modern education is premised strongly on materialistic values. It is vital that when educating our children’s brains that we do not neglect to educate their hearts, a key element of which has to be the nurturing of our compassionate nature." - The Dalai Lama

"Mama, I need to tell you something."

I generally don't hear these words until the end of the day as I'm tucking Katie into bed.  She's not the kind of kid who wants to talk about school right when it gets out.  When she first started school I thought she was just tired and moody when I'd walk her home and get no response to my questions about her day.  Then one day we got home and Katie threw her backpack onto the couch.

"What's wrong?"  I asked, shocked at her violent outburst.  From my point of view we'd just had a nice walk home together.

"I'm tired of listening to people talk!"  She said, slumping onto the couch next to her backpack.

"Oh.  I see."  I sat next to her and put my arm around her warm little shoulders.  "Well, I'm sorry I'm talking a lot, but I've missed you and I want to know how your day has been.  Maybe next time you want some quiet you could say it calmly instead of rudely shouting and hurting my feelings?"

Katie nodded into my armpit.  "Sorry, Mom," she said quietly.  "I'm tired of listening.  I just want to listen to myself."

"Seven hours is a long day, isn't it?  I understand."  I gave her a squeeze and let her be.

Of course.  I feel the same way after a long day at work.  The kid's an introvert and needs a little alone time to recharge her batteries.  I can relate.  

So now when I pick Katie up from school, I say something short and sweet like, "How are you?" just to maintain some semblance of civility in our lives, but for the most part I quit grilling her about her day.  Instead, we're either quiet or we talk about the things we see on the way home.  Lots of mushrooms have been popping up in our neighbor's yard since it's been raining, so that has become a big theme in our conversations lately.  Soon it will be the changing leaves and the birds in the sky heading south.

I'm not concerned about Katie academically.  Either Will or I help her with homework each night, so we see all the amazing things she's learning.  They really push kids to read much earlier now than they did when Will and I were kids.  Katie loves to read so we don't have any issues with that.  

As friends who have visited my house know, I'm pretty happy living in a state of disarray.  For example, I still haven't painted over the graffiti on our bathroom wall and it's been almost two years since my 40th birthday party where I handed everyone a marker and asked them to leave me a message.  We have books and toys and unfinished projects strewn about the house.  And dog hair.  Lots and lots of dog hair.  I've thought about making stuffed animals out of it and selling them on Etsy.  It's not just the filth.  It's the lack of organization.  God forbid I have to find some official document or my last year's bank statements in a hurry.  They're here.  Somewhere.  Just give me a little time to find them.

But I'm almost anally organized about keeping Katie's school work.   It gives me great pleasure to sit with her and go over what she's brought home in her folder each day.   She shows me her artwork and worksheets and I diligently date them and put them inside a plastic storage container marked "Katie's school work" inside our closet.  I take pictures of the particularly funny or unusual or thoughtful things and share them on my Facebook timeline so my mom who lives a state away and can't visit often gets to see Katie's progress too.

But other than straight-up academics, we don't talk much about school until late at night.  That's when she's ready to unwind and unburden herself, to share her questions.

"Mama, I need to tell you something."  Katie rolled over to face me.  It was dark and chilly with the window open, but we were warm under the covers.

"What is it?"  I get excited when I hear those words.  Finally.  I've been waiting since school let out!  But I try to act nonchalant so I don't scare her confessions away.

"I lost a cube today."  She whispered.

"I don't know what that means," I whispered back.

"It means I had to stand at the wall for five minutes before I could have recess."  She raised her voice, clearly hurt by such injustice.

"Oh, standing at the wall.  I remember that."  I said. 

"You had to stand at the wall when you were my age, Mama?"  Katie's voice returned to its calm, quiet pitch.

"Sure.  Sometimes.  Not very often, but sure.  Everyone has to stand at the wall and miss recess sometimes.  That's part of being a kid and learning from mistakes."  I ran my finger across her forehead and traced the shape of her face.  "Why do you think you lost recess time today?"  I asked.  No big deal.  Just wondering.

"Because I lost a cube."  She said, with a twinge of annoyance in her tone as if to say, "I already told you, Mother."

"But what does that mean?  What is this cube and why did you lose it?"  I pressed, a little.

"Everyone gets three cubes in the morning.  If you lose a cube, you lose five minutes of recess.  If you lose two cubes, you lose ten minutes of recess.  If you lose three cubes, you lose all recess and you have to go to the buddy room," she explained in a monotone as if she were reciting her teacher's speech verbatim.

"What's a buddy room?"  I asked.

"A buddy room is a room where you talk to a buddy."  Clearly the child does not have a future in writing definitions for a dictionary.

"What do you talk to a buddy about?"  I inquired, genuinely curious.  I'm so old we didn't have any fancy schmancy rules for discipline when I was in grade school.  If you weren't doing what you were supposed to be doing, the teacher yelled at you or, if she was young and had newfangled ideas about treating kids gently, she'd write your name on the board.  If you got into too much trouble, you'd stand at the wall at recess, and in extreme cases, you'd get sent to the principal.  I remember learning the difference between the words "principal" and "principle".  My teacher said, "Just remember, the principal is your pal."  I never got sent to The Office until I was in high school and got caught cussing out a bully who had just called my friend a faggot, but even in grade school I knew my teacher was bullshitting us.  The principal is not our pal.  Pals are not there to instill fear in us. 

Katie replied, "You talk about what you did and why you shouldn't do it and how you can follow the RULES."  She was teetering on the edge of annoyance with my prodding questions, so I slowed down.

"Oh.  I see."  Even though I didn't.  Is this a social worker they talk to?  A teacher?  Another kid? What an interesting concept.  Talking about your behavior.  Good job, modern public school.

"But you didn't talk to a buddy today, right?  You just lost one cube?"  I asked, trying to accentuate the positive.  I'm turning into my mother.  Pretty soon I'm going to start telling Katie to count her blessings when she's acting crabby.

"Yeah, just a cube and recess."  She agreed.

"I wonder why?"  I asked, as nonchalant as I could muster.  

"I don't know,"  Katie's voice trailed off as she rolled over.

"Then how can you learn what you've done wrong?  You're at school to learn things.  So losing the cube must be a way for you to learn something.  I wonder what it could be?  What were you doing when you lost the cube?"  I asked, spooning her.

"We were getting ready for story time," Katie revealed.

"So what happened?"  I asked, combing my fingers through her wispy hair.

"I asked Ms. B if we were going to use blankets and pillows and she said, 'That's three times I've said no we are not using blankets and pillows so you lose a cube!'"  Katie made a growly noise.

"I see.  It sounds to me like Ms. B already said you guys weren't going to use pillows and blankets but you weren't listening and so when you asked her she knew you weren't listening.  Does that make sense?"  I asked, wanting to see if she was following me.


"So what were you doing instead of listening to Ms. B?"  I asked.

"Daydreaming!  I'm always daydreaming like Daddy," was her excuse.  One night when he was tucking her into bed, I overheard Will telling Katie he got into trouble in school for daydreaming too.

"Well, that's pretty normal, Honey.  It's hard to listen to people all day.  I know.  But do you know why it's important for you to listen to Ms. B?"

"Why?"  She whined.

"Because her job is to teach you.  How would you like it if you were a teacher and you had twenty-four students in your class and you needed to tell them something - would you rather tell each one of them twenty-four times or would you rather say it once and just have everyone listen the first time?"

"Just have everyone listen the first time," she admitted.

"Yeah.  I'd rather people listen to me too.  Think about how Ms. B feels.  If you're not listening to her, how can you learn what she's trying to teach you?  And if you don't learn what she's trying to teach you, then she probably feels like she's not doing a very good job."  I reasoned, hoping Katie would understand the empathetic skills I was attempting to show her.

Katie sat up in bed and announced, "My teacher could lose her job if I don't listen!"

"Well, Sweetie, I wouldn't worry about that.  Just try to listen as best as you can and don't worry about Ms. B losing her job."  This child has obviously never heard of teacher's unions.

I felt bad for laughing but I couldn't help it.  Who knew it was possible to over-kill with compassion?