Little People

9 03 2016

One day last year, during my job training, a favorite topic of conversation became “What was the weirdest job you had before Backroads?”.

The answers included: rowing a gondola in the canals of the touristy Venice-replica in Long Beach; guiding nerdy Indian elementary schoolers on team-building activities in China; swabbing the decks on a Farallon Islands shark research boat; and, my favorite, distracting the octopus at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences while his tank was being cleaned. Take a sec to enjoy it. This girl’s job was distracting the octopus.

So you’ll understand how with this type of environment, I don’t think I have the wildest resume out there. But nonetheless, I never thought I’d spend the off-season of Backroads working as a French-immersion preschool teacher. For the moment, I have left the guests behind, and have entered instead into the mysterious lives of little people.

Or have I? For I would state – and I know this makes me sound like an ass, but I would state that dealing with preschoolers is less similar to dealing with people than it is to dealing with pets. Think about it. Sometimes you call their name 6 times in a row to get their attention, and they stare into space the first 5 times with their tongue out then turn to you the sixth time as attentive as can be. What did you say differently? You may never know. In the same vein, whether they like you or not seems to be decided viscerally, based on smell or face shape or something. If they like you, they’re all over you. If they don’t, they’ll stare at you ’till you make a sudden movement, then run.

To understand what it’s like to teach immersion French to preschoolers, you first have to realize that preschoolers can’t talk. Not really. They talk, but they say things that don’t make any sense. Even the ones who are very verbal are still not quite all the way there. Oftentimes, these confused budding bilinguals simply open their mouths and say something that they obviously believe is either French or English, but in fact is neither.

Sometimes I repeat, just to see if I hear method to the madness in my own echo. “Javu baruddi?” I repeat, a mix of concern and skepticism stretching my face into a grimace.

“Barudi! Javu ba!” the student will repeat in a plaintive cry, simply begging me to understand. And those are the moments when I really feel like I’m dealing with a desperate pet. Because I can tell they need something, but it’s like… sorry, pal. I’m gettin nothing.

So this job involves not so much teaching French as teaching eating with a spoon, sitting, colors, proper use of scissors, and slide etiquette, via a combination of French and pantomime. Outside of schoolwork, I can report that other popular pastimes among the toddler population include:

-Writhing like the girl from the Exorcist during naptime

-Putting an arm over their eyes, elbow-first, when somebody is asking them to do something and they don’t want to

-Not eating lunch.

-Saying “Moi fais pipi! Moi fais pipi!”

By far, “moi fais pi-pi” is the most commonly uttered phrase within the walls of the preschool. By the students, at least. The most commonly uttered phrase by us teachers is “Oh là là,” which, in case you didn’t know, isn’t actually a sexy acclamation, but more a translation of “Oh my!”. “Oh là là” is pretty much the only way you can react to anything preschoolers do. Someone trips and falls? Oh, là. Drew a nice picture? Oh là là! Got tangled up trying to tie their shoes? Oh, là là. Food everywhere from not eating with a spoon? Oh lala lala.

The French education style is different from the American one, which is one of the defining factors of how the preschool is run. “We explain to all of the parents that we use French discipline here,” my boss explained on my first day. “Remember, they are all OK with that.” That doesn’t mean some horrible corporal punishment; but it is different than the way I would be inclined to treat toddlers. It means showing them when you’re angry or disappointed with them – no Jedi mind-tricks of sweetness – and expecting certain adult-like behavior of them, like sitting properly at the table with their legs forward. I can’t help but feel sometimes, when I remind them of this for the umpteenth time, that it’s a fruitless exercise. But then I think of how different young French people are from young Americans. And I realize there are many different ways to raise children, with unfathomable results.

Another thing I’ve noticed (though I don’t have any American preschool experience to compare it to) is that the French preschool teachers don’t mind being overheard. They comment to each other freely about how difficult the kids are today, and they don’t hold back on small quips when talking to the kids – “Sophie, eat with your spoon, oh là là, remember the last time you spread food everywhere it was like a bomb went off.” While we all were celebrating my birthday, my boss was telling me to enjoy my youth – she’d change some things, if she could go back. “Oh, yeah,” snorted another teacher, “I’d change the father of my children.”

I was taken aback, and realized there were two ways to interpret this. On the one hand, failing to hide this dark snark surely helps instill that typical Gallic cynicism which the French complain about constantly. If the teachers think the kids aren’t absorbing their energy, they’re wrong. But on the other hand, maybe they don’t care. Unlike in an American school, the teachers don’t censor and infantilize everything that surrounds the kids. Of course they’re not cussing and talking about sex – French kids must be polite, after all! – but they are allowing themselves to talk like adults in a certain way that I wouldn’t. And I have to wonder if that attitude is already helping to build some of the things that Americans so admire in the French: a sharp and critical psyche; a subtle understanding of irony, social cues and secrets.

Let me say, if being gay hadn’t already made me challenge my previously-assumed desire to have kids, working at a preschool sure as hell would. I don’t mean that as a diss of toddlers. But the idea that these parents have to teach these kids everything – from potty training and use of cutlery to study skills, sharing, and the difference between right and wrong – is utterly harrowing to me. At school, we just have to usher the stampede of kids onward through the hoops, making sure they don’t trample each other and hoping they learn something in the process. Can’t sleep during naptime? We just “shhh” until the hour is up. Made a pi-pi in your pants? Grab their change of clothes, bundle up the old ones and send them home in a plastic bag. We watch as they slowly progress; while the parents’ 24/7, pee-soaked, insomniac nightmare of constant life coaching chugs forward behind the scenes.

My parents and I have been hooked on a TV show called “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. The wonderful writing on the show parades an endless line of complex villains, all of whom you realize, in some climactic moment, just has something broken inside of them – some slight flaw which made them think incorrectly that murdering someone was the best way forward. Not to make this get super dark, but honestly I feel like the murderers just didn’t quite get the education they needed in preschool.

That’s what I mean by a harrowing task, teaching these kids everything about everything. Try to help a bunch of 2-to-5’s go through their day like a normal society, and you’ll realize just how horrifyingly complex our society really is. It doesn’t just make you daunted by the idea of raising a child; it gives you existential dread. Everything we take for granted has to be constantly retaught to each generation – by the people who were the victims of the last botched teaching attempt. You get the feeling that the whole thing is about as stable as a teetering pile of pancakes being moved from plate to plate by a spatula inserted at the bottom.

But what’s more, most of us don’t understand our society completely either. At work, I look down from above with face-palming comprehension as a whole drama plays out: someone grabs someone else’s toy; the original owner says “Mine!”; the thief says “Want!”; the original owner starts to cry; and the thief stares in downcast horror at his friend’s tears, wondering how it came to this. For me, it’s so obvious. But what about when I reunite with an ex-lover whom I’d like to be friends with, but up until this particular meeting we’ve been unable to avoid a flirty vibe – how to avoid disaster then? What about when you live with your parents and they’re doing something that annoys you, and you have to confront the issue politely as an adult roommate, despite the fact that they still see you as their baby, and with the additional challenge of staying sensitive to the fact that they work long days and can’t handle stress or criticism? What about when you’re drifting apart from your best friend, and he says he can’t make it to your birthday? What about when you like one set of grandparents more than the other? What about when you need to say “sorry” to a client or boss sincerely, but without groveling so low that you sell yourself short? I can’t help but think there’s an answer to each one of these situations – one that, if we knew it, would be as simple and obvious as not saying “mine” and snatching people’s stuff. But I can report that 24 years isn’t enough to have cracked any of the above conundrums. I am still on the same journey of socialization as the preschool students. And tomorrow they might learn how to share, but damn, they’ve still got a loooooong way to go.

The raw facts of humanity are on display in preschool. I think neither John Locke nor Thomas Hobbes was correct – Locke with his belief that humans are naturally good, and evil is learned; Hobbes with his crotchety opinion that humans are naturally selfish and wicked, and must cede their freedom to a social contract to live in peace. If anarchy is anything like preschool – and I think it would be – it would be a mix of fiercely random tribal alliances, governed by that uniquely human blend of calculation tempered by the the whims of love. And the whole thing would be shot through equally with acts of monstrous selfishness, and of gorgeous altruism.

I guess what I’ve realized is, insanity is constantly at bay behind human culture… so what is there to do but try and solve the riddle for ourselves, then stop worrying? Sometimes I sneeze and make phlegm fly everywhere, or spill bright red spaghetti sauce on a shirt that is meant to be worn on formal occasions. And at those moments, I think, Oh, God. I’m just like one of the kids right now. If there was a titanic preschool teacher watching over me, he or she would survey the scene with a groan, and say “Ohhhh la la la la la la….” while cleaning me up. But there isn’t. So I just grab a Kleenex, wipe my nose, and remember that when push comes to shove, those kids are going to do just fine.

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One response

9 03 2016
Ali

Having worked in a preschool, I understand completely. It’s the monumental task of trying to teach social order to people who barely understand how to use a toilet, let alone the detriments of utter anarchy. However, by comparison, every other job is as easy as using the toilet once potty trained. Plus, preschooler hugs are pretty great on the rare occasion they’re not covered with their own fluids.

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