Everyday in kindergarten I tell my students: “There are no boy colors or girl colors. There are only colors and you are allowed to use whatever color you want.” We have a new student. Today he started to make fun of one of the other boys: “You got pink (laughs) that’s a girl color!” The whole table said in unison “They’re just colors. He can use whatever color he wants.” Schooled. A few minutes later, same child looked around, reached into the box and picked out a pink crayon, smiled and started coloring. Social progress is sometimes harder to measure than test scores, but equally as valuable.
Evidence that I have at least accomplished some small token of equity. Most days I feel like I don’t really have anything to offer them. What I mean is I have no idea what I am doing. And doing my best just doesn’t feel… well, very good.
On the worst days when I am sure that I am utterly failing them academically, when I am so tired and frustrated that I sit down and sigh, put my hands to my face and rub my eyes in front of them, when I yell so much my voice is hoarse and cracking by lunchtime, I wonder why I am here. I wonder who the hell thought I was qualified to help these children learn. anything. ever. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of early childhood education. I care more than I could ever explain, and I know exactly why ECE is critical to children’s future success in life.
The problem is that most of the time my knowledge gap feels greater than theirs, and I want to be good at this like yesterday. No, I want to be great at this. I want to be transformative, but most days I feel mediocre at best.
I spend my lunch organizing their binders and backpacks. I spend my planning time calling parents. I wake up way too early and go to sleep way too late. I barely see my own child. And I still have yet to find the light and joy that I led myself to believe would come easily to me. Teaching kindergarten is a lot like being a mother… just with 44 of my own children instead of one. Fortunately, I’ve yet to be judged by my son’s academic success (that comes later) so in some ways being a mother is actually less pressure.
The joy of mothering is sometimes big and shining, but it mostly exists in the tiny unseen moments like yesterday when I gave my son a hug and said I love you, as he left my classroom to begin his day. He told me “I know mama. I know you love me no matter what.” That. That is what gets me through the agonizingly rough times in mamaland, and trust me, there are plenty.
Love is often (always?) the only thing I can offer my students. I love them as if they were my own children. Love them from a fierce and quiet place that will not let go. That’s got to be worth something. It’s not a conscious decision. In fact, I feel as though my love for them is completely beyond my control. I have no choice in the matter. In the same way I fell in love with my son before he was born, I loved my students when they were just names on a list, bags of school supplies in my empty classroom.
In my room by the door, at adult eye-level, I have a quote from Audre Lorde which reads: “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.” The riot, I think, lives inside of me. I put that quote up to inspire me to teach, but everyday I see it and think that truthfully it refers to my learning process rather than theirs. On the opposite wall is the clock and in between a great lucha. I am fighting for my students, fighting with them, fighting my way upstream. No, really you do want to learn this. You can learn this. You must learn this. I must learn how to teach you this.
And my love for my students is the driving force. My love is like a one-woman riot. Underweight and bone-achingly tired, I kneel at the base of an enormous and unrelenting wall, my heart in my hand like a hammer against the coarse bricks. This is all I have to offer, everything that I am, and it seems like so little in the face of such adversity.
And when I start to think it will never be enough, that I can not go on, they bring me yellow flowers to put in my hair at recess, and the “worst” kid looks up at me while we are waiting for everyone to get quiet in line, stares innocently into my eyes and says: I love you. And I know he means it.