By Mike Pinto, IPLI Mentor and Principal at James Cole Elementary School
Each day as kindergarten lunch comes to an end, scan the floor of the cafeteria. There you will see the renegade napkins which have fallen from trays and the straw wrappers that have escaped to the floor. If your eyes scan just above the ground, you will see scattered around the room, a few sets of little feet swinging forward and back. Follow your scan a bit higher, and you will see a small sampling of students left behind to finish their sandwiches, drink the last ounces of their milk, or unpeel the candy from the Lunchables® brought from home. These are the slow eaters. These are the talkers. These are the students who are social, sometimes to a fault. These are the students who haven’t the worry of recess left behind, but instead, are happy to sit with their meal in front of them, and plod along through it.
When students start to head to recess, what are usually left behind are students that are just content with life in their own little way. If one makes it a practice to join one of these plodders as they finish up their meal, their efforts are met with rich reward.
You see, kindergarten students are a unique animal. They really are. They are just happy to be almost anywhere. The polish is still shiny on this thing we call school and everything – from the chicken nuggets on the tray to the fan blades overhead to the shoes on their feet, bring fascination. You see kindergarten is magic and any chance you get to brush up against its youthful powers, you must take.
So I try to sit, and through osmosis, take in some of the power of the five-year olds. When you sit amongst a group of them like I did the other day, it’s like plopping down in the middle of a barnyard of chickens wearing a suit made from shucked corn. Peck! Peck! Peck! They tap on you for attention with fevered excitement.
But when you get one alone, it’s oh so different. They talk. They talk in a way they don’t otherwise when surrounded by peers. They talk about life in their classroom. They may sprinkle in very random components of life that require skills similar to breaking the code on the Enigma Machine to find the meaningful message. They then usually do something marvelous – they open a door to who they truly are. You see, when you spend time with a child and you truly listen, you see and hear what you didn’t otherwise. In those moments – that are brief and oh so wonderful – you see their soul. They may share about their cat. They may share about their mom’s job. They may share that next year their brother is going to college. They may share that they are afraid of the dark and sleep with their stuffed rabbit named “Bunny.” But they share. Then they dip their last nugget into their mouth, or slurp the last gulp of their milk from the carton, and as quickly as the door is open, it closes. They say, “See you later!” and head toward the door. It happens that quickly.
As the kindergartener walks (let’s be honest – usually runs) to the door and the short moment of silence in the cafeteria is broken by the incoming rush of the
fourth and fifth graders headed through the line, the pace of life quickens again. As the cafeteria fills once more and the sounds of laughter and joys of being ten and eleven permeate the walls, for a brief second you feel a loss. Because you sense something has changed in maybe just the slightest of ways.
Happily, it really hasn’t. Because if you choose to stick around, you will see something else that is magical. As the cafeteria empties and your eyes scan upward from the stray napkins and escaped straw wrappers that dot the floor, you inevitably see bigger feet and a sampling of students left behind to finish their sandwiches, drink the last ounces of their milk, or wrestle the last morsel from their pudding cup. Like those before them, these are the slow eaters, the talkers, and those that aren’t swayed by the tick of the clock. And when you sit down next to one and just listen, something wonderful happens. While the details are more understandable and placed together than their younger peers, eventually, the magic returns – the child lets you peer into his/her soul.
You see, it’s really all about time and listening that a child needs – whether they are five, fifth grade, or fifteen. And if you listen long enough and listen with the attention needed, you will be given a glimpse into something wonderful – their true self. It’s only for a moment. It has to be that way; because if it was any longer, its wonderment would be lost. But it is there. The recipe is really quite simple: One part time and two parts listening. It never fails.