A cluster of school children spill onto the bridle path from an entrance on the upper west side of Manhattan. They emanate pent-up energy and their voices crescendo as they discover the reservoir vista. I register some mild annoyance at their squealing, but it only takes me a moment to recalibrate and appreciate their excitement. They overtake me and I walk for a bit beside the noisy group, eavesdropping on their exuberance and their teacher’s failing attempts to curtail it.
“Stop walking that way. Walk like this. Pick up your feet!”
When their behavior doesn’t change, her voice takes on a cross note. “What did I tell you? Stop dragging your feet!”
She doesn’t get it. I can tell. The kids are marveling at how it feels to scuff their feet along the dusty dirt path. They are not doing it to be willful or naughty, to make a mess or to ruin their shoes. They are feeling their bodies in open space, connecting with the natural world.
I veer onto an adjoining path as the teacher begins to yell. She calls them by name and shouts for them to return to the flock, to not walk ahead of the class.
When I was a grad student interning at a therapeutic pre-K, my supervisor gave me some critical feedback.
“You have to find a more positive way to exert discipline,” she said. “You say ‘No’ way too often with the kids.”
I took her feedback to heart. In the ensuing weeks, I struggled to soften my tone and words. It didn’t work. All it did was make me painfully aware of how often the words “No! Stop! Don’t do that!” flew unbidden from my lips.
Then one day, something clicked. Three year-old Kyle, a whirly dervish of a boy, was upset. We’d climbed stairs to the nurse’s office twice to have his infected finger examined – only to find her absent both times. Kyle expressed his disappointment by throwing himself on the floor, arms and legs akimbo, and emitting a yowl. In that moment, I reached beyond my stilted repertoire and plopped down on the floor beside him.
“That is so not fair!” I exclaimed. “Two trips and still no nurse!”
Kyle looked at me with wide brown eyes. We sat for a moment or two before returning to class. It was an easy walk back.
When I look back on my learning curve, it seems that the agony of self-awareness was an unavoidable pathway to changing my old habits into more positive interactions. The learning curve continues even now, when I sometimes catch myself wielding a harsh tone or too strong an opinion with my adult students. Their faces show me all I need to know, that they feel hurt, invisible or shamed. Patience and empathy take a deep tilling of the soul to cultivate. But the harvest is undeniable. I will keep plowing until I get it right.