A Three-Year Old Is Not Half a Six-Year Old

This blog post’s title is a quote from a TED Talk given by Sir Ken Robinson, an author and speaker on education. I first came across his videos as a Leadership Consultant for my fraternity, Delta Chi—before I seriously thought I’d ever be a real teacher. I remember loving what Robinson had to say in the handful of videos of his that I found, but the title quote is one that has stayed foremost in my mind. There’s something profoundly empathetic about the gist of this quip that has only grown in relevance to me as time has gone on.

When I started doing this blog I was about to start working at Falk School, and I thought it would be nice to talk about coming back to a place where I had once been a student. The affairs of the larger world quickly swept in on my plans and I’ve written about much heavier subjects more often than not—but I never forget about the kids. It’s hard to do, seeing as most of the people I talk to everyday still speak to me through braces and baby teeth. I spend forty hours (at least) each week with people who are just about half my age. It’s easy to look at middle school children and quickly form biases: they’re disorganized, their bodies are in an awkward phase, their concept of personal space is much narrower than adults, hygiene is a vast mystery to many of them, they’re loud, they’re…you get the picture. They’re easy to reduce to a few simple tropes.

Does that make them half the person that I am?

At the end of the last school year I attended a conference where the facilitator had us write down eight different identity markers about ourselves: gender, sexual orientation, race, class, nationality, home-language, religion, and mental/physical ability. One by one, she asked us to cross off the one that, in that moment, held the least weight for us—but, each time she gave us less and less time to choose between the remaining identities. The takeaway at the end was that we think of ourselves as interesting, complex people with several equally important, interconnected components, and it’s hard to eliminate something about ourselves that seems so essential. Yet when we encounter others in public we are very good at reducing them down to one identity very quickly, and usually not in a favorable way. It made me think of how easy this is to do with children.

I’m not here to say that kids are perfect. I’m not here to say that people who can’t stand any of the several irritating things kids do are cold people. But I am here to say that I never grew up thinking I would end up teaching anyone younger than 18, and now I spend all my time with 11-13 year-olds. My reduction of them into just one thing has diminished rapidly. In our society there’s so much ease with which we categorize youth (see: everything ever said about Millenials) and I’m beginning to think this has more to do with adult’s issues and less with the adolescents’. Because the title of this blog has everything to do with children’s capabilities—that these capabilities are more nuanced than the flippant numerology of age suggests.

I’ve been impressed by working with kids who care passionately about world issues, even though they don’t have all the tools or language to articulate themselves perfectly all the time. I have watched 5th graders be crushed to tears by political news. I have counseled children of color as they navigate the winding cliffsides of overt and structural racism (try as we might, there’s few good blueprints for this). I’ve had my heart broadened working with kids with a set of (dis)abilities very different from my own set. Some kids carry traumas I will never experience. Some kids have advantages I’ll never lay hands on. Some kids are much less privileged than me. Some of my students will go on to do things far beyond any ambition or capability I have now or will have in the future—some of them already do this everyday in my school: in the art room, on the piano, above a calculator and graph paper, behind a large, worn book, between a pair of beakers. No matter the difference, I work everyday to remember that they are fully themselves, not a fraction of anything that I am.

Of course, kids are kids, and we distinguish them from adults for several very good reasons. But what I’m here to say is that kids aren’t just pawns for our own adult agendas, or a politician’s plea, or a movement’s vision of the future. They’re full people who have way less of two things the rest of us have: time and experience. This is the constant refrain of the middle schoolers who bemoan my language arts assignments, telling me “I have nothing interesting to say about myself, Mr. B; I’m only 12!” or my social studies students who say “How am I supposed to know whether Socrates was unfairly punished? I’ve never had to make that kind of decision.” The irony of this is how often they come back to me later on, after sitting with a prompt for a few hours or days, and offer up thoughtful answers and approaches to the questions I hand them.

Any good teacher will tell you that you learn as much (sometimes more) from your students as they do from you. I’m learning to make space in the corners of my heart for all their shortcomings, keeping in mind they’re trying. Last year my school began an advisory program, giving the middle school teachers a more structured mentorship role for a set of students. Since then, I’ve learned to make space in my heart for the knuckleheads and sweethearts alike—even tough children have dreams, and even easygoing children aren’t without challenges. This kind of relationship to students is sort of the piece I always wanted out of any teaching: the opportunity to have a direct and personal impact on a student’s learning and growth as a person. Sometimes this looks strange in practice: chasing the same kid out of the library every other day to rejoin classmates, or having a horde of students come up around my desk first thing in the morning to chat, gossip, and be far too loud for anything that has to happen at 8 AM. More often than not it takes the shape of a younger voice saying “Mr. Barnett, I need help.” In that moment, I’ve learned that “help” isn’t the signature of smallness, but the outstretched hand of one person needing another person. What greater equality is there in the world than needing one another?

It’s not always sunshine and rainbows, and not every kid is an angel, and not every day is perfect, and there are boundaries between which sympathy can tip easily into naivety. I don’t want to paint a rosier picture of working with kids than what is real (well, perhaps it’s too late for me to claim that…). But I do want to say that every kid—3, 5, 9, or 13—is a full person (not half of anyone), with a complex life. Just like me. Just like you. And we’ll be a better society the more we honor all the categories and identities they belong to, the more we listen and answer their call.