Teacher Tom: All That Mattered


There was no reason for me to be close, so I kept my distance. There was no reason for me to be a part of their game, so I remained invisible.

It probably began days, if not weeks, before I understood it was a game, but it came to my attention in the form of a girl filling a plastic witch’s cauldron with things she had scavenged from around the playground.

A friend said some words to her. Maybe he asked, “Can I play with you?” but it was more likely something along the lines of “What are you doing?” which is typically a better playground question if the goal is to be invited in. So then they were filling the cauldron together, discussing each item, coming to agreements over what went into the mix and what was cast aside.

A decision was made to add water to the cauldron. By now it was heavy with the debris they had purposely, even meticulously collected. But it wasn’t too heavy so it only took one of them to carry it over to the cast iron hand pump. While the girl held the cauldron, her friend began filling a smaller bucket, which they then poured over their collection. As they worked together, another child joined them. After a discussion that may or may not have included the phrase, “I’ve got an idea,” they agreed they would forego the unnecessary step of the bucket and slide the cauldron itself under the flow of water.

Agreement, however it is arrived at, stands at the center of our preschool, as it does in life itself. Conflict, all conflict, emerges from the inability to agree. These children were not playing a game; they were living.

The children took turns pumping until the cauldron was full, or at least as full as they collectively agreed it needed to be. Now it was too heavy for a single carrier, so they circled around the cauldron and lifted it together. Walking with it was a complicated matter: they had to agree about where they were going, at what speed, and who would have to walk backwards to sideways. Maybe it was still too heavy. They staggered a bit under its weight before another friend joined them, dashing in to slide his arms under cauldron. It was still too heavy, but when another playmate tried to squeeze her body in amongst them, it became clear that they could lift it, but not effectively carry the heavy thing, even when they all worked together.

They agreed they would need to put it down, which they did, carefully, not spilling more than a drop or two.

As they discussed their next steps, someone said, clearly enough for me to hear it, “I’ve got an idea! Let’s use the wagon!” This was met with approval, with the exception of one girl, the girl who had tried to squeeze in. She objected. “I’m using it.” I had previously noted her idly pulling the wagon, alone, watching the cauldron situation from afar. She had abandoned it briefly to help.

“Please!” the other children begged. “We just need it for a second.” The girl stood with her back to the group, apparently considering what to do. It wasn’t long before she relented, “Okay, but I want it back when you’re done.” Another agreement.

Now the challenge was how to get the wagon to where the cauldron sat on the ground. It sat on the other side of the row of tree stumps that line the upper level of the sand pit. One child attempted to lift it, but when the others didn’t join his effort, he gave it up in favor of what the group decided was a better idea, which was to pull it around to the side with the slope. It appeared to be the work of a single child, so the others stood around watching as he wheeled the wagon the long way around. He struggled, however, when it came to the steep part of the slope, so other children, spontaneously, pushed from behind.

Then, the wagon in place, a small miracle happened. The girl who had started it all, easily lifted the heavy cauldron all on her own, placing into the bed of the wagon. As it turns out, it could have been carried by a single child, but they had collectively agreed that together was better, even if that made things more complicated, perhaps even more difficult. The agreement, not the project, was clearly the important thing.

The project, this project of life itself, continued to play out for some time as the wagon, propelled over difficult terrain made its way in stops and starts around the space, eventually winding up back where the whole thing had started. The cauldron hadn’t, after all, mattered. The debris and water it held didn’t matter. Whether it was a witch’s brew or a soup didn’t matter. Indeed, even where they were going with it didn’t matter. All that mattered, all that ever matters really, in the end, are the agreements we make with one another.

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