Resistance is Futile

Sam Doe posted a note on Facebook.

I’m often asked how I get by, teaching kindergarten. “You must get bored!” they tell me. Or it’s “the kids must be horrible!” —  which they are, of course, but people could still ask me instead of telling me. What gets me through it all is the 34 minutes after lunch that the kids and I have grown to live for: recess. Most see kindergarteners as one-dimensional brats. Watch them for long enough, though, and you’ll see their culture take shape. You’ll learn as I have that they’re wonderfully multi-faceted little terrors.

Take, for example, the events of last November. Right around election time, the kids held their own “election.” It was kind of adorable, to tell you the truth, until I realized who was running. I don’t think any of the kids were surprised when Lily went for it. She’s always been the studious, ambitious one — so much so that half of her classmates always accuse her of cheating (not that I’ve ever caught her). Things really took a turn for the unexpected when Tommy, the class bully, started threatening to take even more of the kids’ lunch money than usual. Everyone started yelling and running around when they took the vote, but somehow or another, Tommy won and declared himself The Boss.

After that, all the kids were wrapped up in their own grievances. Some were mad that Tommy had won. Others were mad at the people who had supported Lily. All the kids who were big enough to defend themselves from Tommy just wanted everyone to shut up about it all.

In many ways, business went on just as usual. Tommy went around, taking lunch money, cutting in line when I wasn’t looking, and generally being terrible. The only difference was that the other preschoolers were more afraid of him because, as Tommy is so fond of saying, he was “The Boss!” A few kids, both weak and strong, started following him around and pretending to be his “advisors,” but they didn’t give him much advice. Usually they joined in on the bullying, demanding tribute for Tommy. They threatened their former friends by telling them about all the bad things that would happen if they didn’t fork over money or candy.

The most interesting thing that happened was when the kids that didn’t like Tommy decided that they should try to take away his title. The problem was that most of the strong kids didn’t mind Tommy; he usually didn’t pick fights with kids he can’t beat up. Since nobody could come up with a good enough reason to get rid of Tommy except for “he’s mean,” and no ideas on how to do so other than “let’s be mad about it together,” so Tommy continued as The Boss.

Some of the kids who hated Tommy, though, really cared. I think a few of them had a little meeting in the corner of the playground to organize themselves. It was almost painfully cute; they got a hold of a flag, and read through the pledge of allegiance. Soon one of the kids dubbed the little group “the United,” just like the United States.

The United kids got to work with blinding speed. Within a day, they were all gathered in a circle in the corner of the playground with nametags and juice boxes (which they aren’t supposed to have during recess, I don’t know how they got outside), chanting about how bad of a “Boss” they thought Tommy was.

Something I noticed soon after was that a lot of the United kids were some of the stronger ones in the class. Tommy would badger them every now and then; if he was having a good day, he’d get their lunch money without getting hurt. But for the most part, they were the safe ones. It became apparent that United didn’t have many weak kids. I asked a couple of the weaker kids why they weren’t in United. One didn’t like the way it was organized, and had started his own “party” with two other boys.

For the most part, the United kids were the only group that met with any consistency. It became routine: the United kids would go to the same corner of the playground together, adorned with their crayon name tags and juice boxes, and shout the same things accusing Tommy of being mean. Tommy would walk by the other side of the playground, look at them, shrug, and find an easier target: a weaker kid outside of United, or from one of the smaller groups. Tommy’s friends would all laugh at the United ruckus every day. At the end of recess, the United kids would all take off their nametags and throw away their juice and act like nothing had even happened.

Of course, all this comes down to me: how do I deal with this as the teacher? It’s not rhetorical. I don’t have a freaking clue. My Teach for America certification trained me to deal with the alphabet and naptime, not political instability. To some extent, I don’t want to mess with kindergarten traditions that preceded my time. I can only assume that because it’s lasted so long, it must be consistent if not totally stable. On top of that, if I got involved, I have no idea what I would do! While the United kids might be a collective of five-year-olds (and a pain in the ass if I’m being honest), it’s not like I have the time or energy to actually do something about this.

After all, they’re just kids fighting on a playground, and I forget all about this when I go home for the day.