Effie Kurilof reading to a child.

© 2004
by Effie Kuriloff
Former director and parent educator at Rocky Mountain Participation Nursery School, sponsored by City College of San Francisco

With Jeannette Eisen and Susana Eisen
Edited by Lindy Wolf, email Lindy
Parents at Rocky Mountain

There is an "explosion" at the snack table. Truro suddenly punches Gabriel, who has just offered mischievously, “YOU ARE THREE!” Gabriel, almost 6 years old, finally has Truro’s attention, which Gabriel craves. Truro, red-faced with outrage at such blasphemy, punches Gabriel again in the chest and shouts, “I am NOT, I’m FOUR!” Tears are unusual for Truro but now his eyes fill up and accompany his rage. Nicki, 5 years old, is taking this all in. The student vocational nurses, here for a week to observe children, look on. Two of the seven attempt an intervention and look to me for help. I am nearby when I hear the commotion, and I move to position my body on a chair between the two boys.

I look at the three of them. These three boys have lately challenged the adults here with their confrontations, conflicts, rejections, and jockeying to "be my friend.” Gabriel has “hooked” Truro with this tactic and repeats, “You are NOT FOUR, you’re THREE, I KNOW!”

Truro, even more furious now, responds with a lunge at Gabriel which I block with my right arm. He shouts, “You’re lying, you are a LIAR!”

I use my body instead of words to short-circuit the hitting (I think of myself as a dancer). Now I wonder what's behind the interaction. I use such situations as teachable moments. I reflect out loud to the nurses and others, “Do you see how angry Truro is, and do you see how Gabriel keeps this conflict going? I don’t understand it, but they keep this going for some reason. Each child has his own agenda, conscious or otherwise.” All along Nicki looks on, siding with Truro. I realize as I sit strategically between the boys that as the teacher, I am the "container," holding the space--making it safe for the expression of Truro's reactions and Gabriel’s teasing.

I look up at the bulletin board which has a list of our children’s names and birth dates. I read out loud, “Truro, April 4, 1995, Nicki, December 14, 1994, Gabriel, April 24, 1994." I ask Nick, Truro’s father, who has been standing near the door silently observing the event, for confirmation: “How old is Truro?” “He is four,” he responds confidently. Gabriel taunts again with sureness and emphasis on each word: “I know how old Truro is, he is THREE!"

I know that whatever it takes to keep the contact going, they will do. Contact is what is so crucial for them. Gabriel has been feeling vulnerable, often pushed aside by Nicki and Truro. As for Nicki, he has been securing an exclusive relationship with Truro. He asked me the other day to move his photograph on the shelf and place it next to Truro’s. I did so immediately. A few days before that Nicki asked me, “Could Truro and I have one cubby?” again cementing for himself this friendship. (It is noteworthy to me that his father, Ron, has a new fiancee and they plan to marry.) I reply, “That is something we will have to have a meeting about.”

I am impressed with the way he thought through two methods to be closer to his friend. I am aware how strong his desire is. I may not know his agenda. I am clear that his learning and growth process depend on my sensitivity to such requests. By honoring children’s ideas, I am helping them value their own ideas and in this way develop a healthy sense of themselves, so crucial for all learning to build upon.

A few days later at morning circle, Nicki asks again, “When can we have the meeting about the cubbies?” I decide to address it in the moment and call an all-school meeting. This is not only Nicki's business, it is the business of the entire school. I feel we are each others' business. In the discussion, other children voice their desire to switch cubbies as well: Evan with Gabriel, Soleil with Ella. Marilu, Soleil’s mother, says, “I’m against the change, I’m used to where all the cubbies are.” Gaby, Ella’s mother, says, “At the beginning of the year it took us a long time to arrange the cubbies.”

This illustrates how every issue that comes up has so many ramifications, and I like to air the complexity of what goes on in the school. For the child, "falling in love" with a friend and wanting to share the same cubby is important. For the mother, fearful of yet another chore after she had figured it all out at the beginning of the year, making this change doesn't seem important enough. I'm aware that nothing ever seems to be settled. It's all in process. And that's what I like about the work, that everything is changing and becoming the next thing.
My job is to cradle the children's needs, the parents' needs, and my needs simultaneously. To sit with all of it and value all of it. It's important to me to not solve their problem, to avoid "fixing" it. By creating a forum for expression of desire, indeed, for possible confrontations, problems seem to evaporate. People are heard and listened to, and we all yearn for that. Oftentimes parents and teachers fear emotional confrontations if they do not have a ready solution in their own mind. I enjoy going into the unknown, and I have faith that the process addresses the real needs of everyone: to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be cared about, to be visible, to be heard.

I'm not even sure how the switching cubbies situation was resolved. What was important was that the children's love, their caring, was honored. The process is as interesting to me as the end results.
I continue to sit with the three boys and the nurses. I must be sure that the children are in control. I muse out loud, “I wonder what this is about, this happens so often, this conflict between the three of you.” Gabriel says, “I know, they don't let me play with them, they just want to play with each other.” Impulsively I lift Nicki off the table and onto my lap; he has a "feeling good" smile on his face. He is the trophy, after all. “Who do you want to play with?” I ask each one. Truro says, “I want to play with Nicki,” Gabriel says, “I want to play with Nicki.” I say, “This is like the brown chair when each of you want it at the same time. Remember when two people want the brown chair, I usually put it up on a shelf until you figure it out? Nicki, today you are like the brown chair. How about if I put you on the shelf until it's resolved?” We all smile.

Nicki continues resting on my lap; he seems to enjoy it. The rest of us stay with the situation we have created. Our conversation, our reflection, has taken the charge out of it. Out of the blue Truro comes up with a quarter and says, “I’ll throw the coin. If it’s heads, I will play with Nicki, and if it's tails, Gabriel will play with Nicki.” He seems very confident with his suggestion for resolution. The coin is flipped, no one objects. . . .
The triangle for the moment has disappeared. A few days later, at the snack table again, I overhear an excited conversation between Nicki and Truro about marriage.

Nicki: “I want to be gay so I can marry Truro.”
Truro: “A boy has to marry a girl and a girl has to marry a boy.”

Between bites a song emerges from Truro:
”First comes marriage . . .
then comes love . . .
then comes a promise . . .
then comes the child . . .
then comes the maid . . .
then comes poop. . . . “

I remember a similar chant from when I was a child. They continue playing with the lyrics as they munch their cheese sandwiches:
”Ron and Nicki on a tree . . .
P-R-I----I-N-G. . . .
First comes love . . .
then comes marriage . . .
then comes Ronnie with a baby carriage. . . ."
Such are the ways children process and master the world they live in. I so enjoy witnessing, listening in.
I am clear that children can find the "medicine" they need. I have faith that they know who and what will satisfy their yearnings. Often parents and teachers try to control children's choices--for relationships, materials, and activities. It's our job to provide a safe environment for both children and adults to express who they are.
And what about Gabriel? He is feeling his pain of exclusion and struggling to cope. The adults are close by to be used for leaning on, for his tears. A few days later I observed him knocking down block buildings, not his own. I held him in that moment and inquired, "Who destroys your buildings? Who hurts you?" He relaxed into my lap and offered an immediate reply, "My brother beats me up all the time." "Oh," I thoughtfully responded. "Does anybody stop him?"
"Should we have a meeting and invite your mom, your dad, and your brother?" He was visibly relieved, "Yeah." I realize that children’s stories may not always be factual. However, just asking the questions already mitigates the issue and shows the child that I’m interested in his life.
I know that through such intervention this issue is on its way to resolution in his mind as well as in mine. I have neither ignored nor judged it. We opened it up. So often we feel confused and ignorant of how to be present with so-called negative emotions. How to move from separation and stuckness to reconnection and balance. The goal is to embrace it all--to make a practice of taking care of each situation as it arises and say, "Thank you for coming up now, I can look you in the face and use this opportunity so I don't replicate it in my next interaction." We have many invitations to deal with our own reactions, impulses, fears, and vulnerabilities. We learn to move, dance with them. Soon we become fearless warriors and come to enjoy the unknown. We expect to encounter difficulties and confusions. We even expect to be clueless sometimes and admit, "I don't know, this is the first time I've been a parent of a 5-year-old." We are ever in the process of becoming more and more of who we are RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.


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