They say wisdom often comes out of the mouths of babes, and I discovered a treasure trove while substituting recently in a kindergarten classroom.
It’s always a pleasure to sub a few days in the same classroom. Just the process of learning 25 names before 9 AM five days a week is daunting (not to mention the high school gigs where you have to learn 5X25; that is, if they even tell you their right names, the rascals), so when given the chance to hang out with the same bunch of awesome little people for more than one day, I say, yes, please.
Because what might happen when you haven’t quite woken up and some fresh batch of faces storms the room, having been up for hours, is what happened another morning in another classroom, this one full of first graders:
A nameless little one asks to go to the nurse just minutes after arrival. His tooth was apparently loose, but not loose enough for the nurse to triage him, and he returns minutes later, heavily disappointed.
He begins to swing his backpack in a wide arc, evidently not concerned at the other unsuspecting mouthfuls of wobbly teeth trying to hang their snowpants on the coat hooks nearby.
“Hey, tooth guy!” I find myself shouting before I can think. It felt like an emergency.
Everyone stops – stunned – even tooth guy. Perhaps I am onto something.
But I do prefer to know who’s who early and often, as things roll much more smoothly for me when I can name the offender. “Hey you in the red shirt” doesn’t work so well when the child hasn’t even learned her colors yet.
So when I was called to sub in a kindergarten classroom three days in row, it was like hitting the lottery. By the end of the morning on day one, I knew all their names, and they knew mine; by the end of the afternoon on day three, I had numerous birthday party invitations and a couple dozen magic marker drawings to use as kindling, I mean, hang on my fridge.
I was also able to overhear some of the cutest human beings on the planet, raw and unfiltered, saying whatever came into their impressionable little heads.
This particular class and school will remain nameless to protect the, well, innocent, but I suspect similar verbal pearls are being harvested in kindergarten classes around the world every day.
Like this one:
Upon returning from one of his “specials” (out-of-class activities, such as art, music, P.E., STEM, or library), a young lad admitted to his neighbor “I tooted at gym class,” followed by a hearty dose of giggles, followed by more tooting.
You’ve got to respect the honesty. Because, truly, how many times has someone tooted around you, say, on an elevator or in the checkout line at the grocery store, and refused to fess up? A simple “Excuse me” would suffice. Kindergartners are remarkably unflappable, and have not yet learned to be embarrassed about – let’s face it – anything. Being around them is silly and freeing and crisp and real. Toot on, brother.
Girl Number One (crawling around the “rainbow rug” when she was supposed to be listening to calendar math) (don’t even get me started on calendar math): “Look, I’m a doggie!”
Girl Number Two (concentrating so hard on calendar math you could hear her brain crackle): “You’re a BAD doggie.”
Teacher (me, trying not to laugh): “Crisscrossapplesauce, everyone!”
Again, Girl Number One can hardly be blamed for entertaining herself when – I kid you not – calendar math consists of one child standing in front of the whole class and adding straws to envelope pockets to signify howmanydayswevebeeninschool and telling the number of times it’s been sunny this month and predicting the shape pattern on the days of the week and on and on and on and on. None of these exercises is bad in and of itself – I quite like all of them, truth be told – but when 23 children must be hostages to watching one child calculate and measure and sort and match, I’m thinking, #1) NASA is doomed, and #2) I’d be a bad doggie, too. (Sorry, calendar math. I couldn’t help myself.)
One afternoon, a little girl named after a princess in some animated cartoon – not even one I recognized, and my kids had an extensive collection of video fluff (don’t judge me) – was showing off her new backpack festooned with characters from a more familiar Disney film.
Her friend asked her, “When it‘s my birthday, (insert unfamiliar princess’s name), will you buy me a (insert familiar Disney film characters) backpack?”
To which unfamiliar princess girl quite reasonably replied, “Sure.”
There was no thought as to whether she could afford such an extravagant birthday present, given she wouldn’t be old enough to hold down a job for another decade, nor even if she would be invited to the party. In unfamiliar princess girl’s mind, these were givens. How refreshing to live one’s life so unencumbered by worry, doubt, fear, or lack. You want a backpack just like mine, I’ll make it happen. Case closed.
Later, princess girl came back from the bathroom with her wispy blond hair sopping wet and looking very much like a porcupine. “It was all crazy,” she said, as if that explained her dripping sweatshirt and the puddles trailing behind her. Okay, then. Because it looks SO much better now, girlfriend.
The kindergarten children were not alone, however, in their verbal surprises. Adults say ridiculous and unexpected things when in the presence of large numbers of tiny people in perpetual motion.
I overheard the wonderful woman who served as the teacher’s aid call out across the room, “Johnny, stop opening and closing the door and just go to the bathroom.” Little Johnny, peering out from behind the restroom door, pants around his ankles, tee-hee’d as he surveyed the room. He knew who was in charge. Meanwhile, his poor classmate did the pee-pee dance while desperately clinging to the outside doorknob, prompting the aid to add, “And Joey, wait on the red square! You know the rules!”
I’m pretty sure we had to dive into Joey’s “spare clothes” bag that day.
Later, after a spirited game of “Recycle the Paper Balls,” I overheard the P.E. teacher tell one of the kindergarteners as they swarmed to line up , “Jimmy, STOP TOUCHING YOUR PANTS.” What does that even mean? Perhaps it’s the cousin of, “Susie, stop touching the wall,” or, “Betty, stop touching your nose.” Of course, this last one is a euphemism, not that Betty would care. Nose-touching is a popular pastime of 5-year-olds, especially during the cold and flu season, and there’s no shame in doing it in full view of everyone.
Perhaps now would be the time to share my favorite kindergartener-taming question.
If the card-carrying members of the rules police – i.e., all kindergarten children on the planet, who trumpet fairness and parade it around the room like it’s the Stanley Cup, lowering it only to bash their peer over the head should they dare to ask to do that when Mrs. Turner is out sick – if they do not prevent young Benjamin from attempting something totally outrageous – like using an alternate stairway to get to lunch – this question will stop him cold every time.
Are you ready? I simply ask, “What would Mrs. Turner say?”
It’s brilliant, don’t you see? With all those card-carrying members of the rules police lurking about, Benjamin has to answer truthfully, and 10 times out of 10 he has asked to do something Mrs. Turner would most assuredly say no to, might even be something she has written in capital letters on a poster of rules hanging by the sink. In my short subbing career, this question has done more to promote world peace than Ghandi himself. Not even bothering to answer, the child huffs and stomps off, knowing he has been outsmarted by a keener mind than his own.
Wish I had discovered it sooner.
Once Jesus told His disciples, after they tried to prevent mothers from bringing their kids to Him to bless, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
After spending three wild, wonderful days in the company of kindergartners, I think I understand Jesus’s fierce love of His smallest sheep.
They are brave and vulnerable and honest and strong, little seeds bursting with the potentiality of life and love, commanding watchful, patient gardening lest they become weedy or weary or wilted. Furnish them with plenty of sun and plenty of Son and watch how they bloom.
“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus also taught his followers. “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Luke 6:45).
5-year olds have super-overflowing hearts, and the things their mouths speak keep us smiling whenever we are in their company.
As for me, the part about having to give an account for every empty word I have spoken challenges me to watch my own heart’s overflow.
When I find myself calling a small boy “tooth guy,” perhaps it’s time to get up a little earlier, double up on the coffee, pray.
Or blame it on the calendar math.