TBT: Square Peg in a Round Hole

The discussion on my post about my youngest child’s recent Kindergarten homework reminded me of my daughter’s struggles that year.  So this week’s Throwback Thursday travels back eight years.

She’s nearly 14 years old now and in the eighth grade. But eight years ago, she was the bright-eyed, excited Kindergartener in our house. She had a great teacher. The teacher was highly requested, was very good with the kids, taught them a lot, and even received the district’s teacher of the year award that year. I loved almost everything about her.

What I didn’t love was a facet of what made her so good. She ran a tight ship, which allowed her to produce solid results. However, she didn’t have much room for out-of-the-box thinkers on that tight ship. And that’s where my problem lay. Because my kids aren’t good at fitting into other people’s expectations.

On the first day of school, the teacher greeted each child at the door and encouraged them to find their chair and sit down. At each place was a big glob of gray clay. She cheerfully encouraged each child to kneed their “magic play-doh” and see what would happen.

Jane looked around the room at the children who had arrived before her, all gleefully squishing their clay and laughing in delight as it began to change color. Some had red, some blue, some yellow, and so on. She glanced down at her clay and pondered it for a minute. Then, as if she had a sudden inspiration, she tore the ball of clay open to reveal the drops of food coloring inside.

With her face lit up and expecting praise at solving the puzzle, she ran over to the teacher, “Look! Look! I figured it out! See?! I figured it out! There’s this stuff inside. That’s what’s making them change colors!”

The teacher was more irritated at the possibility of the cool activity being ruined for the other kids than she was appreciative of my daughter’s skills of deduction. She gave a quick “That’s nice, Jane. Now go sit back down.” before turning her attention to the newcomers. This left a bad taste in my mouth but I chalked it up to new-mom-pride on my part, bothered that the teacher didn’t seem to find my child as impressive as I did.

Several months later, it was time for “brown” show-and-tell day. They had gone through a series of colors, shapes, and letters over the previous weeks, each one being the criteria for choosing a show-and-tell item. Jane had been growing increasingly frustrated with a boy in her class who always tried to figure out what everyone else had brought. She wanted her item to be a surprise.

So for brown show-and-tell, she came up with the perfect solution – many days or weeks ahead of time, actually. She was so excited when she told me how she was going to bring her hair for show-and-tell: “Because that way, he won’t be able to see what I have because it’s my hair!”

I was excited for her on brown show-and-tell day so as I tucked her into bed that night, I asked her what her teacher had thought of her brown show-and-tell item. Her face fell.

“She didn’t like it.”

“What do you mean she didn’t like it?”

“I didn’t get a ‘good choice’ Kissable.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you do something good, she gives you a ‘good choice’ Kissable.”

“And you didn’t get one?”

“No.”

“Did everyone else who brought something for show-and-tell get one?”

“Yes.”

I was flummoxed. The best I could come up with was that the teacher thought Jane had forgotten her show-and-tell item and had chosen her hair while sitting at the table, waiting her turn. I thought a letter to the teacher would surely clear things up.

In the letter, I explained that Jane said the teacher hadn’t liked her show-and-tell item. I explained that Jane had not forgotten, that she had been planning it for some time and was very excited about it. I told the teacher that she had done it so the boy couldn’t guess what she had and that we had been proud of her problem solving.

The return note surprised me. First, she showed an inability to understand that children can tell when adults don’t like something even if the adults don’t explicitly say they don’t like it. “I never told Jane I didn’t like her show-and-tell item,” she said. As if withholding the treat for participation did not say it clearly enough.

Continuing, she said, “I told the children that they were to bring an item from home. Her hair is not an item from home. If I start letting them use their hair or eyes or clothing, then pretty soon we won’t have anything to show and tell about.”

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I will concede that the teacher had considerably more experience with Kindergarteners and thus her concern was probably reasonably well founded. My problem was not that she didn’t appreciate Jane’s contribution (although taking the time to understand why she did it would have/should have caused her to appreciate it). No, my problem was how she handled the situation.

She didn’t need to shame Jane by denying her the same reward everyone else got. She didn’t need to hold her accountable for a very strict interpretation of “an item from home.” She could have achieved her objective of stopping the impending snowball of non-item show-and-tell presentations by simply saying this:

“That’s very creative, Jane, thank you. But when I said I wanted you guys to bring an item from home, I meant one that you don’t bring to school every day already. So let’s everyone keep that in mind next time. Here’s your Kissable. Joseph, you’re next.”

That night, I had one of my better parenting moments when I comforted her. I told her about how all my friends, some of whom were teachers, simply loved her show-and-tell item and her reason behind it. I told her I thought it showed tremendous creativity. “But that’s not what Mrs. Smith was looking for. And now that we know what she’s looking for, we’ll be able to meet her expectations next time, won’t we? I love you sweetheart. Good night.”

What I didn’t do, and now wish I had, was contact the teacher again. Then again, I had already explained the motivations of my child’s choice. All that was left was to tell her how she could have done her job better and that seems like a dangerous area to enter into. Maybe it’s best that I let it go.

But sometimes, looking back, I wonder how much the push to conform has changed my children. Are they as creative as they would have been if people hadn’t kept trying to force them into a shape that didn’t fit?

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8 thoughts on “TBT: Square Peg in a Round Hole

    • She was actually a very good teacher. I have a hard time reconciling these experiences that I mention here with the rest of her being. She was fairly strict and expected the kids to behave. That’s a good thing. She was also loving and encouraging in most cases. Most kids blossomed very well under her guidance.

      But I don’t think she was quite equipped to handle someone like my daughter, who had been tested to skip Kindergarten and only failed to do so because she had arrogantly thought she knew what she was doing so didn’t pay attention to the instructions on one small part of the test. She would finish her work early and then get in trouble for talking. She was expected to sit quietly if she finished early and she just couldn’t.

      When it comes down to it, I think the woman was a solid teacher who just lacked imagination. Jane’s first grade teacher recognized what she had on her hands early on. She’d involve Jane in helping the other kids understand the work when she finished early. She started giving her separate spelling words because she knew the regular words didn’t challenge her.

        • LOL… Funny you should say that. Hal brought home a paper with a “check +” on it which means (I assume) that he got it “right”. Problem was… it wasn’t. It had a counting block on it above the number 1. And then there was a 2, 3, 4, and 5. He was to draw the right number of counting blocks above each one. Well… he had 3 blocks above the 2, 4 blocks above the 3, and so on. One more on each of them than should be. We asked him about it. He pointed out that he had drawn 2 lines on the 2 and 3 lines on the 3 etc… (Imagine drawing a big rectangle and then drawing 2 lines in it – that’d leave you with 3 blocks). Anyway, the way he talked made it sound like that’s how the teacher told him to do it. My concern was that he couldn’t seem to comprehend that he had 3 blocks above the 2. He kept saying “but I drew 2 lines!” I think it’s perhaps tricky to navigate between teaching skills and allowing for creativity, originality, and personal interpretation. If he had been able to articulate “I see what you are saying about the blocks but I was going by lines”, that’d be one thing (and something, quite frankly, that I *would not* expect). As is, we don’t actually *know* whether he gets the concept or not…

          • Right. There does come that problem with creative children. I think maybe a bit of overthinking may come into it where they lose the basic concept. My daughter does that sometimes and it is worrisome and exhausting to explain the concept. Then she’ll get a test on it and she will have done well. Something clicks.

  1. This is well timed reading for me. D’s current teacher is magic. He is also an out of the box thinker, but she is patient with that and helps him both be who he is and fit a little within the lines. I am so grateful to see it, but I hope learning the one doesn’t come at cost to the other. Regardless of what comes, I am glad he is back in this environment and out of the one run by D’s own Mrs. smith equivalent.

    • I remember you talking about your struggles with his schooling. I’m glad to hear it’s ironed out. As I mentioned in my response to Marissa, Jane’s first grade teacher was a perfect match for her, so it all smoothed out ok. I’ve actually been lucky in that both of my older two got that teacher for both first grade and then fifth grade science. Hal won’t be able to have her for first grade though, which makes me sad.

      • Awesome! One of my sisters was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher for both fourth grade and fifth grade. My other siblings only got him once; I, as the eldest, not at all. Hr was one of very few people in our lives who built Mom up, exclaiming frequently that he had never seen such kindness from kids. Now that he has gone on to teaching future teachers, he speaks of my mom and us as examples of ehst you can become no matter where you begin. I am so glad he is shaping future teachers, even if it takes him out of the classroom.

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