I visited Cohen’s classroom yesterday. And it made me happy.
19 tiny first graders, 19 pairs of dangling legs swinging from chairs, crew cuts messy from untamable cowlicks, little girls with big round glasses magnifying even rounder eyes. “Four plus four equals 8,” they chanted, “5 plus 5 equals ten…” A handful of parents stood on the sides of the room, balancing on the edges of counters stacked high with bins of markers and blocks and gluesticks, towering over the rows of tiny desks like giants.
The teacher told the students to create a “recipe for their Thanksgiving turkey.” I watched as Cohen’s pencil flew over the paper. “Get the turkey,” he wrote, “Get the stuffing..” He was quickly on the second page of the packet. “Cook it for 22 hours,” he giggled. I watched as a girl near him looked around the room with wide, fearful eyes. She started to blink quickly, and I saw her sadness. She pressed her arm to her head, holding her hand in their air. The teacher noticed from a table where she was working on math problems with other students. “What is it?” the teacher asked. “I don’t know what to write,” the girl trembled. “Come on over,” the teacher beckoned, “We’ll work on it together.”
A little bit later the girl was one of the first to volunteer her “recipe” in front of the class. “Put lemonade in the turkey” she giggled, “Add carrots. Add apples.” There was a chorus of applause before all the little hands shot up again, wanting to be noticed, wanting to participate, wanting to share.
I’m reading (and teaching) Siddhartha right now, and the author, Herman Hesse describes the Buddha as one who “radiates peace… and imitates nothing.” I tried to explain to my own high school students how some of us have the gift of spotting “imitators”, and how inspiring it is to get to interact with a person who truly imitates nothing except who they actually are. When I tried to explain this, I received some blank stares.
But you see this fearlessness (obliviousness?) in first graders, in their mismatched socks and their sweatpants that ride just a little too high. In the bold way they walk to the very front of the classroom, stand in front of 19 other pairs of eyes, and share stories they have written about turkeys. How they wave their hands wildly back and forth, back and forth to volunteer because they know they have something to share. That they have made something and that it is worthwhile to share that something with others.
Sure little kids also imitate all they time– that’s how they learn to talk, how they acquire knowledge, how they learn to interact with others. But what they lack as 6 year olds is the crippling ability to imitate destructive self-awareness. The self-awareness that makes us question our worth, the forethought that makes us sick with worry, the guilt the prevents us from bearing our stories, the uptightness that keeps us from waving our arms like fools, the hypersensitivity that makes us obsess over taming our own cowlicks.
I’m not sure why or how we lose that confidence, why our growing self-awareness is somehow accompanied– in a strange way– with a loss of Self. Perhaps along the way we pick up baggage– the anxiety that comes with comparison, the boredom that comes with routine, the fear that comes when we reveal a part of ourselves to someone and are judged or rejected. We grow up and we lose ourselves and sometimes it takes a lifetime to find ourselves again.
But I think it’s possible- to find ourselves again. To find the joy, the confidence, the creator and Creator we find naturally in little kids. I believe age old eyes can still hold wonder.
I’m not quite sure why I cried when that little girl walked to the front of the class to share her story. I only had the deepest sense that what I was watching was good. I can learn to be myself again, and my eyes will hold wonder too.
“….Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness,But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!…” -William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality