ROSES ARE RED…
I started doing something about 20 years ago, and I need your help figuring out how to stop it.
Twenty years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to write a little Valentine’s Day poem for each of our 30 Friends School students. What a sweet, shortsighted idea that was. It appears that I didn’t have the foresight to know that Friends School would not always consist of only 30 students. I did not foresee the day when this sweet little idea would translate into the mass production of 132 little Valentine’s Day poems. I did not anticipate the day when I would suffer from severe sleep deprivation during the first half of each February because I would stay up half the night grinding out foolish rhymes for lovely children.
So, how to get out of this? Two years ago when I filled in as the school’s Acting Head, I saw it as a prime opportunity to escape. Kids would ask how the year was going for me and I would reply that things were fine, but that I was unusually busy and not at all sure that I could find time to write poems for everyone in February. It turns out that these young people are not always the empathetic creatures I believe them to be. Their solution to my dilemma: “Well, I guess you’ll just have to start earlier this year”. So, I spent Halloween night that year cutting out those darned little pink construction paper hearts between trips to the door to dispense treats. And, I wondered about the point of having an empty nest if it just kept getting filled up with kids anyway. The point is that appealing to their sense of compassion does not work.
Each year, I try to belittle the tradition. I explain the difference between good poetry and bad poetry in the hopes that our students will come to value the good stuff so deeply that mine will insult them. I’ve tried presenting the project as one originally begun for very young children. I express my appreciation for their tolerance of this silly practice and offer to stop it this year as an acknowledgement of their maturity and well-developed sense of taste and appropriateness. It’s at that moment that a fifth grader will tell me about the box he keeps in his room labeled ‘Teacher Mary Valentines’; a seventh grader will recite every stupid poem I’ve written to her since she was five; a sixth grader will describe the collection of old Valentines that adorn her bulletin board at home. This conversation invariably leaves me at a loss for words. How could this be important to them? They show every indication of being healthy, well-adjusted kids. They lead busy, interesting, fulfilling lives. Who knew?
I’ve tried the ecological approach. Although some students choose to collect the poems, it appears that just as many litter the parking lot with them. So, I like to point this out to the environmentalists. Can they calculate the number of trees I’ve sacrificed over the years? Is litter that rhymes somehow more acceptable than litter that doesn’t? Don’t they think that the pink dye is probably toxic? Children all over the world live in despicable conditions. Shouldn’t we try to live more simply? Do we really need all of the superficial trappings that mark this minor holiday? I have made no inroads. As young as they are, our students demonstrate a surprising understanding of what is and is not important…until it comes to Valentine poems, which they seem to be convinced that they need.
I have become so desperate that I’m thinking about trying bribery. That’s a bit out of character for me, but maybe it’s unrealistic to just suddenly stop writing Valentine poems. The cold turkey approach may just be too much for these young and inflexible creatures of habit. So, maybe I’ll start giving the kids a choice: do you want a poem or a dollar?
If you will help me stop these rhymes,
I will give you many dimes.
If you say ‘stop’, you’ll be a honey,
And I will give you lots of money.
I’m not too optimistic, though.
You’ll want the poem, not the dough.
Oh, what a beautiful morning it was! Well, actually our first day was gray and gloomy and frequently pouring, but it felt like a beautiful morning. How absolutely wonderful it was to have students streaming through the door again. I missed them, the rest of the staff missed them, and it felt like maybe even the building itself missed them. They have once again filled us up, and helped us to remember our purpose and the whole place feels like it’s breathing again.
Standing at the front door during the arrival time on the first day of school is something I look forward to all summer. It’s a fascinating half-hour. The kindergartners, such little people, are doing such a big thing, and their faces show it. They’re excited and scared and unsure of themselves. I am so tempted to pick them up and carry them to their classrooms, whispering to them along the way that this is really going to be OK, just in case they’re having some second thoughts. But, I’m encouraging independence around here, so I just welcome them, check to see if they remember where to go, and then watch them admiringly as they make their way to their classrooms on their own.
The eighth graders, on the other hand, stride through the door with great confidence, but also with an awareness that this is the last ‘first day’ they’ll spend at Friends School. They have mixed feelings, too. They love their top-of-the-heap position, but they know that this will be a year of last times for them. I encourage them in that awareness…the fact that things don’t last forever is still a fairly new discovery for some of them, and not a bad life lesson.
There were many hugs that first day. (In fact, I was even hugged by a few middle school boys who must have gotten carried away and probably spent the next hour thinking, “Oh no, what have I done?”) There were a few tears, too, but those came from the eyes of parents, not children. It was a big day for all of us, full of many emotions and high hopes. All in all, a delightful and inspiring way to start the year.
From all of us, thank you for sharing your decidedly wonderful children.
Admissions work is my favorite part of what I do around here, and I love it when prospective families visit the school. It’s interesting to hear them describe their child, and interesting to hear what they’d like that child’s school experience to be. I love hearing their questions and seeing what they focus on during their tour. People go about choosing a school in so many different ways and you can learn a lot about them by their process. Are they counting computers or library books? Do they look delighted or uncomfortable when a 5-year old wearing cat ears gallops up to them on all-fours and neighs? Does a misspelled word written during a Writing Workshop session make them cringe, or are they captivated by the creativity of the story surrounding it? Do they smile at the middle-schoolers’ hats, the fourth graders with wheels on their shoes, and first graders in the enormous animal slippers, or do they ask about our dress code and the lack of uniforms? Have they noticed that this small school has somehow collected the 134 most beautiful children on the face of the earth? I usually point that out to them pretty quickly, but they get extra points if they notice it first. (That’s artistic
license on my part. There’s not really a point system.)
We’re at the peak of admissions season right now and we’ve had a lot of visitors recently. Your children, in addition to being stunningly beautiful, are really wonderful when I walk into their classrooms with newcomers. They continue working if we arrive during a lesson, but if we come during a transition time, they will frequently stop by to say hello, explain a project, or
answer a visitor’s question. When that’s happening, I consider taking a coffee break. Our students are the experts on Friends School and I’ve learned to move out of the way when they expound on it. Visitors often remark on the friendliness and warmth of our students, and the ease with which they converse with adults. If they don’t, I usually point that out, too.
Because I want prospective families to get an authentic picture of our classrooms, I don’t expect teachers to design lessons for visitors to see. We’re nice to visitors, but we don’t bring out the good china. This means that they get a better sense of whether Friends School is what they want and whether it will be a good fit for their child. It also gives me a chance to predict whether they’re going to be happy with our everyday dishes.
Last week I had a very nice pair of parents visit who were looking at kindergarten options for their little girl. We spoke in my office for a bit and then went off on the tour, beginning in Teacher Dorothy’s room. The students have been studying deserts and they’d all made models of desert animals out of clay, painted them, and were just beginning to discuss the creation of their desert museum. One student interrupted Dorothy’s directions for some clarification --- “What’s a desert useum?” She told him she’d explain that to him in a minute, but was going to finish with the other children first. This was a curious little person, though, and he continued on, mumbling mostly to himself --- “But what IS a desert useum? I know we’re going to make one. We’re going to put our animals in it, but what’s a useum? I don’t even know what a usuem IS. How am I supposed to make a useum?” But, the visitors were impressed by the opportunity for our 5- and 6-year olds to become curators, and not too worried that vocabulary development remained in progress.
We also visited in Teacher Bailey’s room during a 6th grade science class. Not just any 6th grade science class. This group has been studying reproduction. They started with worms and frogs and fish and spiders and cats and who knows what else. This puts the eventual introduction of human reproduction into a sensible context (rather than the context of the approach of the first 9th grade dance which is when my school thought it made the most sense). I arrived with my visitors just after the introductory remarks on human reproduction and the distribution of the anatomy handout. The class was giggling uncontrollably about prostate glands. Everything became even funnier because I’d brought guests to witness them giggling uncontrollably about prostate glands. But, after an appropriate period of hilarity, Bailey steered the class back to serious business and they followed. My guests were impressed by the level of discussion among sixth graders, and by the fact that this material was being presented to boys and girls together, rather than in separate gender-defined groups. They got two points for their reaction, because I’m sure they can’t really believe that their angelic looking 4-year old daughter will ever be discussing prostate glands.
Then we moved on to Teacher Bobbie’s classroom. I’d already spent a good amount of time explaining the school’s Quaker values and our commitment to non-violence. So, I had an interesting moment when we entered to find half of the middle schoolers energetically practicing kicking and punching on the rug. Now, it was really a Life Skills class, and one component is that each student teaches one class on his/her own. As a topic, they choose something they know how to do, and then they teach, or demonstrate, that to the rest of the class. The last one I’d seen was on how to make pizza, so the flying fists and feet surprised me. But, it was a Tae Kwon Do class, being taught by an eighth grade student who’s been studying for years. I know that everyone tells me that martial arts aren’t really violent, and that they’re really exercises in control and discipline and goal-setting and hard work. You’ll understand, though, that the kicking and punching parts confuse me sometimes. But, my visitors were impressed by this opportunity for students to teach, by the chance to showcase their expertise, and by the attention and respect that was accorded to the young teacher-of-the-day by the other students. I guess I took all of that for granted and was overly-focused on the kicking…which really demonstrates control and discipline, you know.
Useums, the prostate, and Tae Kwon Do kicking? Well, I received their application a few days later and immediately gave them seven points.
It happens every December. I leave school one day, late in the afternoon, and notice that the sun is already flirting with the western edge of campus. The mountains that circle us are covered with their first dusting of white and I know that it will be dark by the time I get home at 5:00. The branches are bare and the air feels icy and breakable. The experience brings visions of what will sometimes feel like an endless winter that stands between me and April. It happens every December and it makes me melancholy.
I seem to be immune to winter’s charms. Try as I might to see its good side, it’s still little more than three interminable months of wind and cold to me. Friends have suggested that I should learn to do things that can be done only in the winter so that I’ll look forward to its arrival each year rather than dreading it. So, I’ve scheduled my first skiing lesson for the day hell freezes over, and I’ll begin my winter craft-making projects the week after that. I was meant to hibernate in the winter. I was meant to be a bear or a chipmunk for a few months of each year. You can’t cure species confusion by strapping skis to your feet or making wreaths out of old toothbrushes.
Something different happened on this year’s December day, though. This year, I didn’t just jump in the car and try to beat the darkness home. Instead, I turned and looked back through the windows of the school. The building was still full of children and light. We seem to try to pack just as much activity into these short days as we do the long ones. Some students were in violin class or cooking club or in the art room. Middle schoolers were coming and going from basketball practice and chess club. Parents trickled in and out at the end of their work days, picking up children from the After School Program. The school was a tiny hub of activity and light and warmth in the gathering darkness. As so often happens, the very sight of our students lifted my gloom.
I was reminded that important, essential work happens in the darkness. The darkness, both comforting and bleak, is not a void. Sometimes miracles don’t happen on stage; sometimes they need a dark and quiet place in which they can put all their pieces together before revealing themselves to us in their full glory. So, during this time of darkness, I will remind myself that seeds are germinating, the sun is slowly returning, granddaughters are learning to walk, and miracles are happening within small children.
Our pagan ancestors felt the magic of this time of the year, and we continue to mark these dark days of December with our celebrations of light. There’s something holy in the frigid stillness of our longest nights, something sacred in the sense of anticipation, wonder, and hope. It’s a time to gather our children closely, to take joy in the warmth of family and friends. We will rejoice at the solstice when the sun turns its face towards us again.
We will cocoon with our students these next few months, these months when the winds will blow fiercely across our fields, and the basketball court and sandbox will be covered for weeks by snow and ice. Teachers know these deep winter days to be among the most productive academic times of the year. Like those seeds beneath the earth, our students are growing and changing and magical things are happening within them. The day will come when it will all burst out like springtime cherry blossoms and take our breath away.
Some years ago, one of our teachers had a most wonderful winter solstice tradition. On the shortest day of the year, she would take her class outside and when weather conditions cooperated, they would light a flame from the sun of the shortest day of the year…a flame that would burn throughout the longest night that followed. It made me think of catching hope, of holding on to a spark even when things are at their most bleak. A reminder that the warmth, the hope, the promise are always there…sometimes hidden beneath the earth, beyond the stars, or deep within a child…but always there.
Whether you spend this winter with family, on the slopes, making wreaths, or all by yourself with a good book, I wish you happy holidays and the joy of anticipation.
Oh, what a wonderful start to the year we’ve had! There is something so magical about being here early in the morning on the first day of school. The building is clean and ready, every classroom is perfectly arranged and orderly, all of the adults are in place…and all we need to kick it all into gear is kids. You can almost hear the intake of breath as the first bus arrives, then the first parent car-pooler, and then the real magic begins. The building fills up again with the voices of children greeting friends and teachers. Their energy makes the air vibrate and suddenly lighten. We’re besieged with short people to begin tripping over again and with suddenly, surprisingly tall people who we need to look up at when we speak. We look at the large, unsure eyes of new kindergartners and our hearts melt as we say hello and try to silently transmit our confidence that all will be well. Children’s laughter fills the building once again, and it fills us, too, with light and hope and the absolute certainty of a wonderful year ahead. It’s a day that’s pretty hard to beat.
With the news of Larry’s impending departure, this year began in a less-than-typical manner. For those of you who have known only one head, it must be hard to imagine the place without Larry’s dynamic and energetic leadership. His contributions to the school have been enormous. Much of that is apparent to you in the increased strength of our academic program, and our excellent and devoted faculty. But, so much of a head’s work goes on behind the scenes. It is often not noticed by many, and sometimes appreciated by few, but without it the school would not be able to serve children, would not be in a position to improve, and eventually, would not function.
But, as distasteful as change can be, it does seem to be a constant and maybe good for us in the long run, although you’d often have a hard time convincing me of that. And as hard as it may be to lose a beloved head, the search for a successor can be an important time in the life of a school. This is the time we look at ourselves through new eyes. We consider who and what we need at this time in the school’s history, where our focus should be, and what’s next. We need to know what we need before we begin our search for the perfect match, and we’ll all be involved in that conversation in the coming months. Our new head will bring his or her own talents and vision and possibility, and, I would hope, a deep gratefulness for the inheritance of Larry’s hard work… and maybe a little of his musical talent, too. There is sadness in the departure, but excitement at what might lie ahead.
So, we begin the year with a new perspective, an unbridled optimism, and light hearts. It’s hard to feel any differently for very long when you’re surrounded by the 131 most beautiful children in the world.
I have a collection of notes I’ve received from children over the years. They help me remember school history, they make me laugh, and they do wonders for my self-esteem. There’s the little heart on which a 5-year old wrote, “You are the best prinsubl evr”. (It took me several days to realize that I was his only ‘prinsubl’ ever.) And, there was the note from the sixth grader that said, “No person could be better than you.” That remains a special favorite, even though it was followed immediately by a request to use iPods during class time. (It didn’t work.)
Written communication from children is very different, and often goes much deeper, than verbal communication. The very act of writing requires a different kind of thought and engages young brains in special ways. So, I encourage it. When children have a request, I often ask them to put it in writing, using my fading memory as my excuse. The products are often priceless, precious treasures that go into my collection.
Recently, I was in a meeting in my office. The door was closed, and since most people see that as a sign that I’m occupied, I was surprised to hear a knock…several little knocks, in fact, that sounded as though they came from several little hands. I have trouble ignoring little knocks, so I excused myself, opened the door, and was immediately handed a note:
Dear Teacher Mary,
We would like to borrow $150.
Teacher Dorothy & Teacher Abby’s Class
This was unusual. I have shared money with students on occasion, but it’s normally been limited to a dollar or two if someone was in a pinch on Pizza Friday. Now, Teachers Dorothy and Abby have a kindergarten and first grade class. These were 5- and 6-year olds asking me to loan them a sizeable amount of money. I love them, but did I trust them as partners on my first foray into venture capitalism? I needed more information, so I observed that $150 was a lot of money and I asked why they needed it.
“We want to go bowling.”
At times, I have found children this age so irresistible that I’ve thought they could talk me into anything. That turns out not to be true. I was not particularly moved to grab my wallet when I heard the reason for the request. Not being a bowler myself, I was not convinced of the educational value of the activity, and my immediate reaction was that $150 seemed like an exorbitant amount to pay to do…that. (It turns out that it’s a rather costly proposition because it requires special unattractive shoes. I don’t know why.)
So, I thought that perhaps all was not as it seemed, and asked for time to deliberate. I needed to investigate further with Teacher Dorothy and I tracked her down at the end of the day.
Dorothy told me that it had all started with the expressed desire of one first grader to go on a field trip to a bowling alley with his class. The idea was well-received by his classmates, and quickly became not just a teachable moment for Dorothy, but a series of many teachable days. She was not going to make this easy. She asked the class how they would get there, and how they would pay for it. Their answer…fund raising!
The class decided that they would sell snacks to other students. In order to accomplish that, they would:
So, all they needed to get started was an interested investor, one who was willing to take a risk on the entrepreneurship of 5-year-olds…and they were quite astute in identifying a likely prospect.
From this simple wish came lessons in math, nutrition, environmental issues, public transportation, advertising, sequencing, team-building, and working together as a community to achieve a common goal…all before we even get to the unattractive shoes and the lessons in how one bowls. As I watched how much these young children were learning, all focused around this seemingly simple project, I thought about how glad I am that our incredibly creative teachers aren’t so busy teaching to the next standardized test that they have no time for this. Our students were learning to do so much more than memorize answers ---they were learning how to make connections, how to get from here to there (both literally and figuratively), how to combine their efforts as a group, and a lot of concrete, practical skills, too. They even got to some human vs. nature issues when their bowling trip was postponed due to a snow day just before Spring Break.
So, later this week, we’ll see this class off on their long-awaited adventure, knowing that they will see the event as so much more than just another field trip. Without a doubt, no child will be left behind, and every one of them will depart with an absolutely stellar credit rating.
“ARE YOU OLD?”
In our increasingly frequent conversations about retirement, my husband and I discuss the usual things like where to live, what to do with our time, how to learn to live frugally, and whether we raised our son well enough so that he will help to support aging parents who don’t live frugally enough. After we’re done with the basics, the conversation always turns to another of my retirement essentials --- how will I design my life so that I’m never without a steady supply of 5 year olds?
It was my son’s fifth year that made me fall hopelessly in love with 5 year olds. It feels sacrilegious to say it, but I really didn’t enjoy being the mother of an infant. I know that all sorts of remarkable developmental milestones are achieved in those first years, but I found the time period to be mostly tedious. It felt like the basic maintenance part of motherhood and I found it to be boring and unrewarding. This was not helped by the fact that I had a baby who didn’t seem to enjoy this stage much himself, and who smiled only at his father for months on end.
What changed everything was language development. I know that tiny babies communicate in their own primitive little ways, but I needed words… real, recognizable words. I wanted the give and take of conversation with my child. I was
intensely curious about what he was thinking and wanted him to be able to communicate his thoughts to me in ways other than screaming, grimacing, grunting, and smiling at his father. His first words were cause for celebration; his first question was cause for unimaginable delight; his first sentence sparked a cautious suspicion that
motherhood was about to become fun. And, it did.
I love the verbal ability of 5 year olds. They can vividly describe their beliefs, theories, and experiences. They can ask probing questions regarding events and circumstances that puzzle them. They can express their deepest feelings in ways that can break your heart. Although older children can outperform the 5 year old in verbal agility, it’s the 5-year-old perspective on life that continues to draw me to them. For kindergartners, pretty much anything is possible. Magic is a common occurrence for them, and often at the very core of their explanation of the world. While we can certainly see the early development of real logic and rationality in 5 year olds, there’s still a lot of room for highly divergent views and very flexible thinking. They can alternate quickly between being very lucid young people and being little creatures who make me believe in interplanetary travel. You never quite know what to expect and that may be what intrigues me most of all.
At the start of each school year, I spend a lot of time in the K/1 classrooms as I get to know our new students. One morning, I sat with a group of children as they had snack. I noticed a kindergartner staring at my white hair for an unusually long time. Finally, he asked, “Are you old?” There were first graders at the table, so I knew I wouldn’t have to answer for myself. Sure enough, one of the 6 year old experts responded, “She’s not very old, not really old, just a little old. We don’t have to help her to walk or anything.” The kindergartner digested this, and then asked, “Well, who is she exactly?” Two first graders helped me on this one. “She’s one of the people in charge of the whole place!” “Yeah, she has an office.”
Teacher Eileen’s class was learning about animals of Pennsylvania when I dropped in last week. When I sat down, a 5 year old approached me, took my face between her hands, and announced, “I am an omnivore.” As the lesson moved on, Eileen asked the students to look through the classroom library and find books that would contain information on animals that live in Pennsylvania’s forests. The students enjoyed the search and I was impressed with their resourcefulness. Occasionally, a child would check with me to see if the book they’d found was appropriate. If it was a book about alligators or rhinoceroses, I was able to get them back on track pretty quickly by reminding them of the Pennsylvania forest context. One little guy brought me a copy of The Little Red Hen and asked if hens lived in the woods. I opened the book, hoping he’d pick up some clues from the illustrations. Unfortunately, this particular little red hen and her cohort live in houses, wear aprons, and bake bread. So, I asked if he’d ever been in the woods and if he’d ever seen hens there. He replied, “Well, no I didn’t see any, but that’s because I’m short.” I asked for a little more information. He responded, “There are probably wild hens who live in the forest, but they live all the way up at the top of the trees and you don’t ever see them if you’re short.” So there.
Last Friday, Friends School had a visit from Miss Pennsylvania. She is the former babysitter for a school family and hoped for a visit with the children while she was in town. While here, she spoke to our 5th-8th graders and did an interesting question and answer session with them. Before departing, Miss PA stopped in Teacher Susie’s class. Although these children pay absolutely no attention when I enter their classroom, they did notice Miss Pennsylvania, but it seems to have been due primarily to her crown. They stopped, they stared, they wondered. Finally, a small voice was heard: “Why are you wearing a crown? Is it your birthday?” (Although I really like the question, what I like even more is that they would think that wearing a crown would be a normal thing to do on one’s birthday.)
On school picture day last week, I was helping the photographer by moving classes back and forth to the library where he was working. He took a group picture of each class, and I was impressed by his gentle manner as he arranged the group shots and instructed the kids about where to stand, kneel, or sit. Teacher Eileen’s class had been quite cooperative in following the directions and they were lined up just beautifully when the entire front row of children suddenly began to bark. It was quite astonishing because I’d seen no obvious cue or signal that might have caused them to do this. They just started to bark in concert for no apparent reason. I said, “We’d like this to be a picture of children. So, please be children right now.” There was one final ‘woof’, and then they all posed, smiled, and said ‘cheese’. I have absolutely no idea what happened, but wouldn’t entirely discount the magical explanation they would undoubtedly give me if I asked.
Thanks so much, school parents, for sending us 5 year olds. I hope you know how much they’re treasured.
Beloved assistant head of school and child whisperer, Mary retired in 2015. She is missed every day at Friends School.
State College Friends School