Forgiveness, acceptance and flexibility. Three little BIG words I have spent countless hours instilling in six-year-olds over the past 15 years. I never would have imagined simple lessons taught in my first-grade classroom would become so meaningful during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I get to see my mom today! She’s picking me up!” Evan would shout as he entered the classroom. Evan would talk all day about mom and the fun things they have planned to do, only to realize at dismissal as time passes and each friend gets picked up; Evan’s mom is not coming.
Learning what it means to forgive is a process for six and seven-year-olds. In my classroom I explain it as a “choice” because this is relatable to my kids; first grade is full of choices. Table choice, lunch choice, line choice. So when my kids get hurt, sometimes repeatedly by those closest to them, I immediately acknowledge their feelings of hurt and anger, but then I move to empower them. I teach them to have perspective, to stand in others’ shoes and to understand that people make mistakes. Ultimately, I want them to realize choosing to forgive makes them actually feel better on the inside.
From the outside looking in, my classroom a diverse group representing multiple cultures and speaking many languages. However, look closely and deep-rooted stereotypical societal norms are present. For example, it isn’t surprising to hear six- and seven-year-olds making comments such as “pink is a girl color” or “boys can’t play with shopkins.” Same is true for family dynamics: “You can’t have two Moms or two Dads!” For this reason, intentional discussions around honoring individuals as well as others self-worth, identity, and uniqueness begin on day one.
Acceptance is taught through the South African philosophy of “’Ubuntu’- I am because we are….” We must celebrate our differences (skin color, language, religion, families, etc.) while recognizing our connectedness to others. Each year it happens at different times but when the kids “get it,” the feeling is an overwhelming sense of joy. Last year, when Sean felt safe and comfortable enough to say pink was his favorite color, Carlos responded “Doesn’t matter to me Sean! Who made that rule anyway?” and Emma excitedly observed, “Sean didn’t change. He is still Sean and he is still my friend!”
Cooperative learning is also a large part of the classroom. Working together happens daily in first grade and kids are expected to “just get along.” This can be difficult, especially for kids who are rigid and fear loss of control. Therefore, flexibility is explicitly taught and modeled. Paired with the reminder “When you’re open to what others have to say, you may discover new things along the way,” it begins to make sense.
As I navigate unchartered territory of what is COVID-19, I’ve found comfort in these three BIG little words and their relevancy to my own life, as both an educator and a mom. I am learning how to forgive myself for decisions I made or didn’t make (like declining the google classroom pd…if only I had known…) or not taking that extra minute to slow down to hear “just one more story” (so what if we were a few minutes late for lunch). Like Evan, I’m having to acknowledge the hurt feelings but then empowering myself to move on; feeling better on the inside.
As for acceptance, I’m learning to face this new reality that COVID-19 has created, regardless of how scary the unforeseen future is. I’m discovering it’s ok to feel overwhelmed, depressed, anxious and scared of the unknown. I’m recognizing the importance and necessity of giving myself grace to process all that is happening, before I can accept it. Slowing down to nurture relationships, without feeling guilty has become part of my new norm. Much like the “aha moment” with Sean, Emma and Carlos in the classroom, I’ve concluded that although circumstances look differently, my desire to teach and inspire kids has not. I’m still the same person with the same passion.
And if I wasn’t flexible before COVID-19, I sure am now. The pandemic has forced me to relinquish my need to control and adapt to whatever I am presented with and I’m “discovering new things along the way.” I’m teaching in an entirely different mode (remotely), asking for help when needed, leaning on others and becoming a stronger, flexible team member in the process.
COVID-19 hasn’t been easy. However, if we can remember to be forgiving of our past decisions, accepting of the “new normal”, and flexible in our approach moving forward, we’ll be ok. And as I see Evan’s Nana behind him on the screen, he looks at me with big brown eyes and says, “One of these days, when mom is better, she will come.” I know in my heart he will be ok too.