For the four years after I graduated from college, I taught preschool full-time during the day in a suburb of Boston. I saw lots of amazing things, from a little boy writing his name for the first time to a group of girls choreographing and performing a circus for the rest of the class. This summer, I left my teaching position and moved to New York. It was a bittersweet decision, and one that got harder as it drew closer.
Just before I walked out the door on my last day at my job, I was handed an oversized construction-paper going away card containing messages from my students, like:
“Come back and play with me!”
“Go buy a unicorn!”
“I give you beat down!”
And even though I’d pushed through my last eight hour day as a preschool teacher without getting too choked up, the notes really got to me. The card my coworkers had signed for me was thoughtful and touching, but the one with transcribed messages from the kids touched a nerve for a different reason.
There’s no sense of propriety or convention with children. They haven’t learned cliché yet. Everything a kid says is exactly what he/ she is thinking. Sometimes those thoughts make literally no sense. Other times they’re startlingly sincere.
A 3-year-old never says “Keep in touch!” without meaning it. There’s no small talk. Everything’s urgent, even when it’s about the color of a fire truck or what the best flavor of ice cream is. To be fair, that second topic always gets me a little heated, too.
But I think that’s one of the reasons I liked being an early childhood educator. I enjoyed working at a place where there was so little pretense. The immediacy of the job keeps red tape to a minimum. When a kid gets a paper cut and for a second it seems like the whole world is about to come apart, your job is to hold it together. There’s no removal from the effects of your work. When you’re doing a good job, a room full of tiny people is peaceful and happy. When you’re not… they really, really aren’t.
And as I walked out the door for the last time, it occurred to me that whatever I end up doing next will probably deal exclusively with adults. That certainly has its benefits. Rarely does a grown adult put his pants on backwards and then throw a tantrum when you ask him to switch them around, as happened on a near-daily basis at this job. Never have I heard of a grown person pooping in the middle of the floor and being impossible to catch because the entire room is full of suspects. (That only happened once.)
But, on the other hand, the joy that we allow ourselves to feel as adults is nowhere close to what kids experience every day for the tiniest possible reasons. I have watched children celebrate as if they just won the Super Bowl for all of the following reasons…
-Being on a bus.
-Two boys finding out they are legally allowed to marry each other in Massachusetts.
-The Cat in the Hat coming back.
-Seeing an ant.
Obviously, human society would function at a much, much slower pace if these little events remained as big a deal for grownups as they are for children. But how often do you get to be around one of your peers when they are at their most enthusiastic and engaged? A few times a year, maximum. Weddings, promotions, buying a “Goonies” lunch box on eBay.
We’re guarded against joy. We have to keep up appearances. When we’re happy, we can’t jump up and down. When we’re sad, we can’t shut ourselves off from the world and cease to function. Those are all reasonable, productive restrictions on adult behavior. It would be madness to see everyone who is having a bad day bawling and squirming on the floor of a subway car.
I don’t want this to be a piece about how everything we need to know, we can learn from children. That is false logic. Kids don’t know math. They can’t drive. They’re terrible cooks.
But there are fewer and fewer jobs where you spend your day doing things that have to happen versus things that just “need to get done.” Firefighters. Doctors. That type of thing. I’ve probably never saved a life teaching preschool (unless you count pulling a lego out of a kid’s nose), but I feel like I got to spend my days at a rare level of practical and emotional engagement. And I’m really lucky. And I already miss it.