I just wanted them to smile.
They gave me blank stares. In my first month of teaching almost all of my students would stare at me blankly all day long, mechanically following directions. They were not engaged. I tried to believe Lala and Tia when they told me it was normal and it wasn’t my fault. These kids were the youngest students in the school and were not “awake” yet, as they put it. We were taking malnourished, poverty stricken kids, who had grown up without the mental stimulation we were use to and throwing them in a structured school setting. They said it would take time. And they were right.
They needed to learn how to play.
Yes, I had to teach most of my kids how to play. The concept of playing was not normal to them. They were not surrounded by mentally stimulating toys growing up. I assumed that given the opportunity to be around such toys, the kids would go crazy. I was sadly disappointed when they played like they learned; mechanically. They were no imaginations being used. Instead they used each toy the way it was designed to be used, and smiles were absent on their faces. I was sorely let down. No more so than when I realized they did not know how to pretend. The kids would not make vrooom sounds as they slowly drug their toy cars across the table. Dress up clothes were shoved in a bag as a way to horde. Coodie toy parts were separated and guarded rather than played with and monsters imagined.
But slowly it is changing.
It seemed as though some scales are falling off their eyes and things are finally being seen in brilliant colors. This week, for the first time ever, my kids played dress up. We have had a dress up center all year, but they could not grasp the idea of dress up. They would hoard the outfits in sacks rather than put them on. But not this week. Something clicked in them. They actually wore the dress and strutted around. They put on the purses and grabbed a baby doll. One baby doll. Not as many as they could get their hands on. Just one. And pretended to be Mama’s and Papa’s. They grabbed musical instruments and had a jamboree. The music to my ears was their laughter as they chatted back and forth, pretending.
Then I heard the greatest thing.
VROOOOM! Peterson had picked up a lego toy car and was zooming it, not on the table in the withdrawn way he had been, but rather zoomed that car on the walls and floor and on other kids arms. I could not help but be overwhelmed. My kids were learning how to play. They were engaged with the toys and each other. No longer were they rivals where they had to get as much as they could and protect it. Now they could play together. Imagine together. Dream together.
And I got to see it happen. Slowly unfolding everyday in my tiny classroom with my tiny children in the tiny village of Jubilee.