Friday, October 23, 2009

Teachers and Learners

Tonight officially marks the start of the Halloween season in our town.

Ever since people decided ten or fifteen years ago that traditional trick or treating was "too dangerous" for children, it seems that every group known to mankind (at least in our area) has begun to sponsor its own festival. Fall festivals, pumpkin festivals, Halloween festivals, Howl-o ween festivals (that's for dogs and their owners), even something called "Trunk or Treat" held in church parking lots (you go car trunk to car trunk to trick or treat)--there's something for everyone, on every night, from now until November 1st. After a very stressful week I had decided to surprise my daughter with a visit to the local YMCA's festival tonight.

Her costume wasn't complete but neither of us cared. We hopped in the car and got there right at the start of the action. Being ten, she's one of the older kids who goes to these types of things, but it doesn't seem to bother her at all. I love Halloween and was looking forward to spending some time with her.

She wore a four-dollar black cape to the festival and made her way around to the various games and activities. Some she played once, others she skipped. Some she went back to over and over again. She collected her candy prizes and trinkets, placing them in the jack o' lantern bag supplied by the Y. She grinned as she tossed the football through the hoops and tried repeatedly to hit the dart board with the dart until she made it. But her favorite game was the ring toss.

The ring toss was set up with individual bottles of Powerade. The first time she played it, she missed every time. The lady working the game took pity on her and gave her a bottle of the drink anyway. By the time my kiddo made it back over there, the volunteers had wised up to the fact that if they gave a bottle to every child who came through every time, there would be no bottles left pretty quickly. So the rules had changed--you had to ring a bottle to win it.

She tried a second time and missed. After playing a few more games, we decided it was almost time to leave and that she had time to try one more game. Of course, back to the ring toss we went. This time she got it on the first try. Delighted, she chose an orange bottle. I told her it was time to go. She turned to me, excited, and said, "Please? One more time?" There was only one child in front of her. So I told her to go ahead.

The child in front of her was maybe four years old. He tried three times to toss the ring over the bottle neck and missed every time. The volunteer told him he could try again after my daughter, but he shook his head no and a slow pout came over his face. His mother tried to tell him he had to get back in line, but again he refused. The mother then asked the volunteer to give him another turn. Not knowing what else to do, the volunteer handed the child the rings--all six of them, despite three being the standard limit.

My mother and teacher bloods were boiling. One of the life lessons I have always tried to teach my children is that we don't always get what we want. We also don't always get what's fair. In addition, respect for everyone is important. This means you wait your turn, and you move on after it. I truly believe children need these limits and must be taught them to function effectively in society. Those are key core values I hold. And here was this kid--and his mother!--hogging up turn after turn while my daughter stood waiting patiently. Finally, after multiple extra attempts, the child had no more rings. He still had not won a bottle but at least moved out of my child's way.

Excited, she approached the ring toss game and nailed the bottle on the first toss. She giggled and jumped up and down before tossing the second ring, then the third. The third ring caught itself around the neck of another bottle. "Look Mom!" she cried. "I won two!" The volunteer handed her one bottle and my child happily skipped around the line away from me.

That's when I lost her for a moment. I am not a big crowd person, and for a second I found myself feeling annoyed. Where had she gone to? She knew I had said no more games. She knew it was time to go. And suddenly, I saw the black cape flutter around her, arm outstretched, bottle in hand.

She was handing it to the child who had missed his tosses.

In that moment, my first reaction was puzzlement and frustration. Why would you reward someone for taking extra turns? For taking YOUR turn? For wasting your time and being selfish? I watched her skip back over to me, watched the child's smile and that of his mother's. My ten year old said, "Okay, we can go now. I already won a couple and he hadn't. He needed it."

He needed it.

In those moments when you realize your children have internalized a lesson you want them to know, and they've internalized it better than you have, you're humbled. I thought about what my daughter said, thought about what she did, and realized that I have taught her well. But even more, she is teaching me.

What do I really need? Do I need an extra bottle of whatever? Do I need one more? Can I give it to someone who needs it more than I do? In my life I try to be charitable and kind. But clearly, this child has a gift of generosity of heart, of soul. I like to think I have impacted upon that but I also believe some of it is her spirit. It's who she is. It's the empathy and compassion she possesses, separate from me or her father. And my job is not only to teach her. It's to learn from her as well.

I hope I never forget that.

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