Friday, April 13, 2012

You can't do this.

Today, being a cold and rainy day in which I had already tried to develop rain-related hives, we decided to stay inside. After our always-amazing music class with Miss Jesse, we went for a walk about the building (which is a rehabilitation hospital) for a change of scenery and to pass some time before lunch. So the children organized themselves (with minimal cajoling) into our standard "field trip" formation: Everyone hold hands with a partner! And away we went, two-by-two, to see what we could see (I will one day write about my thoughts on being forced to hold someone's hand when you don't want to, but for now. we'll let it rest). We walked and quietly chattered about the things that we saw.

Our pace was relaxed; we had nowhere in particular to go, and I, The Leader, had The Littlest Preschooler for my partner, meaning we generally followed his contemplative, drifting tempo. We went up an elevator, wandered through an atrium and, by chance, encountered the father of one of our former/future classmates (a child who had left us to stay home for a year with his new baby sister, but will return next month to drop off his sister in the toddler room and come be one of our Big Kids. Older siblings apparently get some version of maternity leave if they're below school-age when the squalling attention-stealer arrives).

We noticed and commented on several of the paintings that adorn the walls in the hallways, and graciously accepted the compliments and somewhat-condescending observations of the people that we passed (Oh they're so cute, just look at them...) and because we really were doing a marvellous job of sticking together, being respectful of this borrowed space and of each other, when we came to the ramp leading down the hall from the elevators towards our classroom, I bestowed upon my young friends the privilege of partaking in one of our favourite rituals: Running down the ramp. This is not to be confused with The Ramp, which has a double switchback and comes out on the second floor. This is just a sloped hallway. Not particularly steep, but steep enough to be both fun and challenging for the younger children, and just plain fun for the rest.

Our Running down the ramp ritual looks like this:
1. A teacher stands at the bottom of the ramp and calls each child by name, one at a time, while the other teacher(s) remain with the waiting children at the top.
2. As each child's name is called, he or she runs, grinning wildly, down the slope, revelling in the barely-controlled descent, using gravity as an accelerating force instead of fighting it as usual. Their flights end when they reach the teacher who has called them down, either because they've judged correctly the maneuvers they need in order to stop at the last instant, or because the teacher has physically caught them or stepped into their careening paths.
3. The children who have reached the bottom press themselves tightly against the wall to avoid being crashed into, and cheer their friends on, until, one-by-one, every child has had a chance to come zooming down. The teachers at the top come down to join us, we re-form and we continue on our merry way.

So there we were, the first four of nine children already pressed against the side wall near the bottom of the slope, and the fifth one on his way down, when the pediatric PT receptionist came by and said "You can't do this. We can't have this here."

"Really?" I replied brilliantly.

"No. It's not safe. Someone might fall."

The children were all silent. The one who had been in mid-flight sort of drifted quietly to my side.

"Oh. That's really too bad. This is one of our favourite things to do."

"The gym is just around the corner" she suggested.

"Yes, and it's fantastic when we can actually get in there." (our scheduled gym time has been drastically reduced this year, and we sometimes only get half the gym, which we frequently forfeit to the toddlers because half the gym is not enough for up-to-sixteen preschoolers learning how to control their large body movements without hurting or terrifying the up-to-twelve toddlers trying to share the same space.) "We learn how to handle ourselves on slopes by experiencing them."

She proceeded to tell me that she "was supposed to tell" us and that "we've had it happen before" and that if someone trips and gets hurt, "it's a liability issue for the hospital."

The children paid closer attention to this conversation than they have ever paid to anything before, collectively, in the year-and-a-half that I've known them. Speaking my mind was not an option. Instead, I kept my face and my tone calm and pleasant. I said "Oh, okay. What a shame. Thank you for letting us know." The receptionist continued on her way up the ramp to wherever-it-was she was headed. Nine preschoolers, one field placement student, and one newly-hired staff stared uncertainly at me.

"That's too bad." I was mostly buying myself the time to think.

"We aren't allowed to run down the ramp anymore." Some of the children squirmed a little, but no one said anything.

"What a shame that they don't trust us to know what our bodies can do. It's too bad they don't know how capable our children are." I expressed genuine sorrow with just a hint of frustration here.

"And half of us have already run down, but the other half are still up at the top." When in doubt, restate the facts.

"The lady told us we can't run down. Hey Julie (fake name, of course), I wonder if it would be fun to scoot down on your bum like a slide." Everyone smiled, and some said "yeah!" and I suggested different ways to come down the ramp for each of the four children who had been "stranded" at the top. I really think they saw it as being stranded. So, we had someone scoot partway down on her bottom, decide it was too much work, try slithering like a snake, only to find her shirt was too grippy, and come the rest of the way down on her hands and knees like a kitten. Someone came down the ramp crawling furiously, like a puppy. Someone came down hopping like a frog, which was probably less safe than just running, but no one said we couldn't hop. The last child, who was processing both his bitter disappointment at not getting to run down the ramp AND the conflict he had just witnessed (he's a child who is frequently in conflict with the authority figures in his life), didn't want to come down the ramp at all, but finally decided he would roll like a log. And roll he did, carefully, adjusting his course as he approached a wall, squirming out of the way when someone needed to walk past... And then we went back to our classroom and ate lunch.

I think it was important for the children to witness this conversation. It was important for them to see two adults enter into an apparently unresolvable conflict, have "their" adult respond assertively, graciously admit defeat instead of creating a bad situation, and manage to make the best of it in the end. I know I didn't handle it perfectly, but I think I did pretty well, all things considered. Sometimes, things just work out.

They talked about it a few times throughout the day. In their retelling of the tale, it wasn't Melissa who accepted this edict from "The Lady" and found a way to have fun in spite of it all. No one said "Melissa did this" or "You said that". The children included themselves in the tale, accepting my unspoken intention to speak on their behalf. They retold it as a "we" story.

"We told her we love running on the ramp and she still said no."
"We said we can be safe but she didn't believe us."
My favourite comment form the children was "She said we might fall down, but we fall down all the time!" after which, the child who uttered the statement flopped to the floor and proclaimed "See? That didn't hurt!"

One boy asked me, over lunch, why we weren't allowed to run down the ramp anymore, and I reminded him that "they" were scared that our mommies and daddies might get mad at them for having a ramp there if we fell down on it and hurt ourselves.

"But we don't fall!" he protested.

"That doesn't even make sense," offered one of the oldest children, "Our moms and dads don't get mad at the floor when we fall down. That's just crazy."

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