I volunteer in Kenzo's kindergarten classroom one afternoon a week, 'cause, you know, I'm a good parent like that. Also, who wouldn't, if they had time? I mean, it's just Ms. L and twenty-two kindergarteners, and both the state and the school district have charged Ms. L with teaching all of them to read, write, add, subtract, and sit quietly in their seats by the end of the school year. No small task. I'm happy to help.
So let's begin with the facts:
Fact: Ms. L is faced with a daunting task;
Fact: Many kindergarteners are not developmentally ready to do any of the things she is supposed to teach them to do;
Fact: Loud noises give Ms. L headaches.
Considering the facts, it is no surprise that much of Ms. L's time and energy is spent exhorting her kindergarten class to be quiet, sit still and do their work. It makes me little sad, but I guess I can't blame her. She's just trying to do her job and not get a headache.
At least she has come up with some fun ways to tell her class to be quiet and focus. She calls, “Simon says freeze!” and then leads the children through a series of Simon Says commands before putting them back to work. She sings, “Bump-ba-da-bump-bump!” and the children drop everything and respond, “bump-bump!” Or she claps her hands once!--(kids do the same)--twice!--(kids do the same)--three times!--(kids do the same). Then she tells them that they're being too loud, and they need to be quiet and get back to work, for the love of Pete.
So where am I going with this? Well, let me tell you. (Imagine flashback waves and harp interlude here.)
I am in the classroom one day and Ms. L introduces another fun way to get the children's attention. “We're going to have a code,” she stage-whispers, “That means we'll have a secret word with a secret meaning. I'm going to use it when I want you to be quiet, okay? The code is going to be, “Bon jour!” That means “hello” in French. I'm going to say, “Bon jour!” and you'll say it back to me: “Bon jour!” And then we'll all know that it's time to be quiet.”
She practices with them a couple of times, and then continues, “Or I might say another word that means hello in another language, like “Konnichiwa!” That's “hello” in Japanese. Ready, everyone? “Konnichiwa!”
“Konnichiwa!” the class replies gamely. Kenzo turns to me and grins. He knows that word. I wink at him and smile appreciatively at Ms. L, but she had already moved on to “Jambo!” (African!) and “Hola!” (Spanish!) Fabian, whose mother is Guatemalan, whispers something to his neighbor.
Ms. L is slowing down. “Hmm. Do I know how to say hello in any other languages? Let me think...”
I glance around the classroom at the children. Whose language will she choose? Nellie Yang, Maya Delgo, and Brianna Chan gaze expectantly at Ms. L, while Hung Nguyen and Anoushka Nijhawan fiddle with their crayons. Natalya Volfe, never taking her eyes off of Ms. L, slowly wraps her fingers around a block that Sandeep Agrawal has just put down. Sandeep is too interested in the next code word to notice.
I follow the children's gaze back to Ms. L, who is looking at...the ceiling.
That's when I know.
She isn't stalling. She isn't waiting for a child to offer a code word.
Ms. L is actually trying to think of how to say “hello” in another language. All by herself. In a room full of other languages.
“Let me think...”
“Ask Natalya,” I want to say, “Natalya's parents are from Kazakhstan. Ask Maya how to say hello in Hebrew. Ask Sandeep how to say hello in Punjabi.”
“Nope! I guess I don't have any other code words for you today. Oh, well. Let's practice one more time: Bon jour!”
“Bon jour!” the class sings back.
“Very good, class! And I like how you're being such good, quiet listeners—that's excellent. Okay, now, you can go back to what you were doing. Very good job, everyone.”
Wha--really? That's it? That's it?
Seven more languages to choose from, and...I still don't get it. She sees these children every day. She has met every parent. She has to know the languages are here. How can she not? How can she not see who she has in her classroom?
When Ms. L said konnichiwa, I took that as a nod to Kenzo, and Kenzo had positively glowed. And he's only half-Japanese. Fabian, too, had noticed hola. I thought that she'd chosen those words for our sakes. Now I revisit that moment and I am not so sure. She had made eye contact with none of us—had literally overlooked us. I had felt it. How had Kenzo and Fabian felt? How had the others felt?
Most likely they wouldn't be able to articulate what they felt. But I'm sure they were paying attention. I saw them waiting for her to see them. They must have known that she'd forgotten about them, somehow.
At least it was equal opportunity invisibility.
Should I have spoken up? She's the captain and I'm just a deckhand, here to supervise the cut-and-paste activity and make sure the boys don't shoot pretend guns at each other during recess. It's not my place to interrupt her show. But partly because of my own silence, seven (twelve, actually. I didn't list them all.) children in the room remained silent and unseen.
Well, not literally. It's hard not to notice Natalya the drama queen and Hung the fidgeter. Or Nellie, who goes around telling anyone who will listen that she can read Harry Potter. So Ms. L forgot that some kids speak another language. So it didn't occur to her to hold them up to the light a little, to share some authority with them and make them experts. Why does it matter?
It matters because we all need to feel seen and valued. It matters because teachers work with human beings, those delicate, sensitive, temperamental things who need to be understood each in their own right, in their own light. Teachers have learning objectives to meet, information to dispense, skills and attitudes to develop—but they must acknowledge the souls in their classrooms, as well as the brains. Feeling seen and valued can carry a student through a lot of difficulties, academic and otherwise. Feeling seen and valued is a huge motivator. It can nurture a student's emotional investment in the group, or the class, or even the subject matter.
Think of what Ms. L lost. She lost an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Natalya, who usually gets attention by whining. She lost an opportunity to make a positive connection with Hung, who hates coming in from recess so much that he hides when he hears the bell ring—and no wonder. Hung is one of those kids who vibrates when he's sitting still. He is constantly in trouble for making noise and fidgeting. In short, Ms. L lost an opportunity to show her students that she values them for more than their worksheets and their ability to sit still.
I don't want to paint a negative picture of Ms. L. She's not a racist. She's not a bad teacher. She works hard and she cares about her students. She's under a lot of pressure to cover a lot of curriculum. She juggles three or four classroom activities at once, keeps a lid on the noise, and makes sure that all that content gets taught. She notices and acknowledges her students when they work hard and when they jump up. That's a lot. And this was one moment of one day in her classroom, where most kids are pretty happy.
Still. The wealth of languages and cultures in her classroom is clearly not on her radar. I don't know how this can be, but there it is. Maybe as a white woman teaching in an Anglo-American school culture (not the students, but the teachers), she just doesn't think about it--in which case, isn't the school partially responsible? Maybe she is so wrapped up in her own worldview that she can't see the reality of who is in her classroom—don't we all do the same thing in our own lives sometimes? Or maybe she's so focused on the logistics of running the show and getting through the curriculum that the complexities of the little humans in her class just fade into the background. Who knows.
But in a class where where eighteen out of twenty-two children have parents who speak English as a second language and/or are members of racial or ethnic um, minorities, I just can't understand how she could have made this particular mistake. It's weird to me. No judgment, of course.
I'll admit, this is a First World problem, at least at this school, aside from the fact that even wealthy human children are still human children. (Yes, they are. Believe it.) These kids will not fall through the cracks and end up in jail because their kindergarten teacher failed to notice that they spoke other languages. It's highly doubtful that, had she asked for help with the code words, she would taken the first step to saving a kid from dropping out of school and dealing drugs on a street corner. But these children still have a right to be seen and known for what they bring to the classroom--to the world--as individuals. And I have a feeling that not-seeing students is the status quo in many, if not most, classrooms in America where the stakes are higher and the students in even greater need of being seen.
Oh, dear, I'm starting to go global with my little classroom incident. I did not mean to do that when I started, so I'm going to stop here.
Hmm. Me for Secretary of Education. Whaddaya say?