Kindergarten is fun.
Most of the time.
We have two pet turtles. They are green with bright orange stripes on their necks. They fit right in our hands when we take them out of their tank to race on the floor.
One turtle crawls so fast. “Go, Speedy, go!” we shout, scrambling beside him on our knees.
The other turtle stays in one spot.
We try tapping his behind.
He won’t move.
“Oh, Slowpoke,” we sigh.
I love the turtles so much that Mama makes me a dress out of turtle fabric she found. It’s “navy blue,” she says, with white turtles all over it. She sews on a ruffled white collar trimmed in red and blue. It’s a little bit like a clown collar.
I am so proud of my turtle dress. I wear it for Picture Day.
But that is not my favorite part of kindergarten.
And I do not know why it is called a garden — I don’t see a garden anywhere.
My favorite part is the rocking boat.
It is brown. It has two benches, so that two of us can sit on one side and two more on the other. We can rock it kind of like a seesaw.
“Row, row, row your boat,” we sing to each others’ faces, “gently down the stream . . . “
Our Teacher teaches us how to sing a Round.
It is SO MUCH FUN, singing the Round, rocking the boat, holding our toys we brought for Show and Tell.
In a box on the floor there are things we can put on — hats, costumes.
I put on a wig so my hair can be long and not short with two cowlicks in the front.
I wonder why a cow would lick my hair and when I ever saw a real cow anyway. I do not remember this. But, during circle time, when The Teacher asks us one by one what we want to be when we grow up, I try to think of something different from everyone else. When my turn comes, I say, “A cowgirl.”
Maybe my cowlicks made me think of it. Or maybe because I love boots (since they don’t have laces that need to be tied) and that job lets you wear them all the time.
I don’t know any cowgirls or cowboys, though. We live in the city.
The Teacher stares at me for a second. She doesn’t smile. She moves on to the next student — a boy who says “astronaut.”
Anyway, I love my long hair when I put it on. If I can’t get anybody to rock the boat with me, I will rock it by myself, wearing my long hair. And sunglasses.
But then is the worst part of kindergarten.
“Class. It is time to take your seats. I am going to call The Roll.”
Our Teacher is very tall. Her voice is very . . . unhappy. Someone has made her unhappy.
We all go to our seats without a sound.
What’s wrong? What have we done? I can’t figure it out.
She’s going to call The Roll.
Is The Roll like The Police? What will The Roll do to us?
Does The Roll wear a big shiny star like The Sheriff in cartoons? Does The Teacher have a secret phone somewhere on her desk, to call The Roll if we aren’t good?
Is this about the cowgirl thing? Maybe I should have said I want to be a Teacher. Like the other girls did.
I am scared.
I do not want her to call The Roll because of me so I stay very, very quiet.
It took months, seriously, for me to understand what my stern, no-nonsense teacher was doing after she made this daily “calling The Roll” announcement. She never picked up a hidden phone to make a call. A shadowy figure wearing a law enforcement badge never materialized. After days and days of wondering why in the world she was just reading our names out loud, I finally figured it out.
Oh. THAT’S what calling The Roll means.
What a relief.
It’s my most vivid kindergarten memory. As much as I treasure the humor of my misconception now, it reiterates several important things to me, as an adult and an educator (for no, I never became a cowgirl, as I thought of that only in the spur of the moment, so to speak).
My takeaways from this trip back in time:
-We forget how literal young children are. How easily misconceptions occur. Someone once told me about hearing this line in Psalm 23 as a child: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It frightened her: Who is Shirley Goodness? Why are she and somebody named Mercy going to follow me around forever? She kept looking back over her shoulder for them to show up. When my youngest son was little, he didn’t understand that “satisfied” was something good and fulfilling; he interpreted it as “sad-is-fied”: Why would anyone want to be sad? When someone asked him, “Are you satisfied?” he took it to mean Are you sad? and replied, “No, I’m fine.”
-Atmosphere is everything. We will never know what kids are thinking if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or if our body language, expression, and tone send the message that we’re unapproachable. Reliving the memory, I can now attach names to my five-year-old feelings: Confusion, apprehension, fear, inadequacy. Remember, calling The Roll is my most vivid kindergarten recollection.
-Beware of what really causes harm. The sale of small pet turtles is illegal now because of salmonella. Multiple children sharing wigs or hats (IMAGINE!) is not permitted anymore because of lice (thankfully, we didn’t get them). Those changes were made for the safety of children, yet the turtles and the head coverings were a big part of the joy in our long-ago classroom. Of course we don’t want to breed disease and infestation; that would be unthinkable. But what about breeding — just as unintentionally — confusion, apprehension, fear, or the subliminal message that a child’s own thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, experiences are not important? How damaging is that to young psyches? Should it be any less unthinkable?
-Time to imagine. The moments of play, of make-believe, kept the atmosphere in my kindergarten classroom from becoming one of complete compliance by encouraging some healthy free-spiritedness. While academic expectations have changed dramatically for primary grades over the years, play, encouraging imagination, is still vital. I’ve never seen another wooden rocking boat and have forgotten what we actually called it. When my classmates and I were in it, we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be. We sailed out on a sea of our own making; we weren’t even in the classroom anymore.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
Extremely deep philosophy, there, when you think about it.
I’ve heard it said of late that children don’t have imaginations anymore, that they’re all into video games and devices, that they can’t entertain themselves.
Maybe. Maybe not.
What I do know to be true about children —then, now, and for all time — is that they are always trying to make sense of the world around them, because it’s all still new to them. Children are virtually covered with invisible antennae, receiving and interpreting volumes of sensory experiences, some of which they’re not able to fully process, just yet. The world’s a busy place; there’s so much to learn, far beyond the confines of the school day. Infinite seas of thought to sail, so many adventures to have.
Remember being that age, Teacher, Grown-Up? Remember the uncertainty?
It pays to slow down a bit now and then, for you are the seasoned Guide. Readjust the sails as needed, for the children, for yourself. Row gently down that stream, for your living cargo is priceless and reading every one of your signals, all along the way.
And may no one ever need to call The Roll on you.