State College Friends School
“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.