Friday, February 10, 2023

More or Less


TGIF. Those are four initials most retired people don’t need to say. But after two weeks of teaching every day at several schools (and one more week to go), they mean something to me again. That little sense of exhale after hard work and the pleasure of an unscheduled weekend ahead free of children’s eccentricities. I do appreciate it and am honoring the occasion by treating myself to a dinner out with my wife at the new Burmese restaurant in the neighborhood.


But truth be told, I had a fine, fine day, the kind that gives more energy back than you put out. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I taught the kindergarten kids Malvina Reynolds’ song Love Is Something if You Give It Away. I’m always looking for enticing ways to enter any material, so I called up one of the kids who had sang the previous song (Skinnamarink)so well and told the kids:


“Some people think that if you do something especially good, you should get rewarded. This student sang so beautifully, with a big smile and great spirit, so let’s see what I have to give her. (Here I reach into my pocket and pull out a penny. I give her the penny and continue:)


“Now, I had a penny and I gave it to her. Now do I have more or less money? That’s right— less than I had before. Now if she is thinking, ‘You know, Doug, I don’t need to be paid for doing something that’s so enjoyable. Singing is its own reward.’ and she gives me back the penny, does she now have more or less? Right, less. How about me? Correct, more.”


That’s the way things work in this world. If you give away what you have, you end up having less. But there are something things that when you give away, you end up having more. Do you have any guesses what that is?”


It is both charming and hilarious to watch them thinking this through, inventing scenarios like their savings being equal to mine, so when we give the penny back and forth, we end up having the same. “But still not more,” I remind them.


But in one class, one child came up with “kindness.:” And another “friendship.” Brilliant! And it was a short step from there to the “real” answer— love. And off we go, singing the song. 


As I’ve indicated in some of these recent posts, I had a few kids testing my capacity to love by their behavior. One of them was in my last class and after three days of watching him defy all the procedures and rules out on the yard and watching him do two dubious things in the 30 seconds they were lined up in the hall, I spoke out loud to him in front of his teacher that this would be our last class together and I would love to report back what a great job he did by the end of the class. And made it clear to both him and some other rowdy students that I was going to teach them one of the favorite games that my students at my other school LOVED to play, but they would have to earn the right to play it by following the same directions as the rest of the kids. I advised them to talk to themselves in their mind and choose whether they wanted to have fun by doing things well or by doing things silly and wrong. And if the latter, why, they simply wouldn’t get to play the game.


Any teacher— or parent— will understand that being clear about the rules, procedures, expectations and consequences is an important part of helping shape children’s behavior. But that alone doesn’t take you all the way. There has to be a breakthrough in which the kid is convinced that the choice of doing things well is a better choice because they’re feeling the pleasure of it. That a teacher smiling at you and giving you a thumbs up is a better feeling than the stern look and the raised voice.


Early on in the class, the student in question raised his hand and said, “I want my old teacher back!” (Remember I was subbing for her). And I answered, “Well, the good news is that she’s coming back on Monday and I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear you missed her. But meanwhile, here’s your last class with me and I’d be so happy to remember you as the great student I know you can be. Let’s go!”


So when I gave them the task of making the shape of the first letter of their first name with their whole body on the floor, he did a great job and I immediately complemented him. His little smile was a welcome contrast to the blank look he gave me when I gently, but clearly, had re-directed his earlier behavior on the yard. Things were looking promising.


And it got better from there. In fact, he had a great class, including working well with a partner and at the end, I gave him a message to tell his teacher: “Doug said I did a great job!” Later, on the yard, I was discussing this with another teacher and she told me, “You know, he didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived at school this past September.”Important information! Perhaps some of his blank looks when I talked to him on the yard had a little to do with that. And it made me admire him more, this kid I slightly dreaded working with in my last class. So yes, Malvina had it right. “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”


And so is energy and so is music. And as I went from singing to 5 year-olds to singing to some forty 85 and 95-year-olds at the Jewish Home, in company with Javier the clarinet player, and Natalie, a trained singer, the love and music and energy came back to me exponentially. So instead of the exhausted TGIF, there was the wholly energized “I could keep going but I’ll be happy to have a little break” version.


Happy Friday, my friends!

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