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THISTLE

on 12/11/2019

Short story (part one)

Written by Anita Kovačević ; July 2015

INTRODUCTION

Well, hello, everybody! I am Miss Daisy. Truth be told, I have not been anybody’s Miss Daisy for years, because even we preschool teachers have to retire eventually, but – once a teacher, always a teacher. If that is what you are at heart. There are so many children in my heart that I could be their teacher, Miss Daisy, for several lives to come, if I happened to return in human form.

But this is not a story about me. This is the story about one of those countless great little beings in my heart, one of the most special ones, one who teaches you such humility towards life’s miracles that the first time he calls you ‘teacher’, it feels as if you’ve won the life achievement award.

But I am rushing this a bit. Let us take it slowly and safely, the way my special little friend liked to do everything.

THE FIRST MEETING

I first met Peter when I as preparing to be a kindergarten teacher. I was filled with the hope of changing the world, my head brimming with the wisdom I’d borrowed from other people’s books, convinced that all the parents I would be working with would be cordial, caring people confident in my abilities, and all the children like clay, their behaviour and intelligence easy to mould and direct with only a bit of creativity and a lot of love.

All I needed to do was prove myself to my mentor and the review board, but a few demonstration activities were a piece of cake for me. After all, I did pass all my other exams on time, because I didn’t need to work while I was studying, and I had read more books than we were obliged to. I had always wanted to be exactly that – a kindergarten teacher, although my father kept explaining to me there was no money in that profession! Passing the review board exam, with a few hints of an inspiring topic, was supposed to be a walk in the park for me!

Let me explain it all to you in layman’s term, because the most difficult things are best explained simply, and I am now able to do that. Back then, I was under so much pressure to use top-notch professional words, which mean absolutely nothing to children. The topic of my activity that day was food, with the aim of motivating children to think about grouping connected words. Blissfully easy! The group of four-year-olds I was supposed to work with had been under a chickenpox invasion, so, instead of the average 25 kids, I only had to do the activity with about 12 children.

My mentor assumed her corner position in the room and placed her open notebook in her lap, ready to make notes, as professionally serious as a royal scribe writing down legislative acts. Behind me there was a small mountain of my teaching materials, and in front of me, seated on the carpet, the children, admiring the glow in my inspired eyes. Even though, from today’s perspective, I believe they were admiring my gigantic strawberry-shaped hairpin; but back then, my ego needed their spark.

Everybody sat on the carpet, impatient and eager. Well, almost everybody. In the corner edge of the carpet, one boy was sitting alone, appearing to be somewhat bigger than the others. He was assembling building blocks in silence, slowly swaying to and fro, as if following the rhythm of some inaudible music.

‘What about you, honey? Won’t you be joining us?’

I invited him – my question was negatively phrased due to lack of experience, but I displayed a wide, warm smile. I was already half-way over to him, to bring him closer to us, when a tiny hand pulled on to my uniform.

‘Oh, Miss, it’s only Peter. He is always… so…’

‘Yes, yes, Peter is always acting out on the side…’

The noise of learned disapproval made me arch my eyebrows into a warning, because I hated both exclusion and acting out, but my mentor just coughed gently and gave me a wave to let it go.

‘Peter is… special, dear. Just let him be.’

So I let him be, with reluctance. I didn’t mind the child, but I couldn’t see why he should miss out on all the glorious activities I had prepared for that day, during many sleepless nights, all of them so perfectly well-timed and organised according to all the expert books on the topic? Why wouldn’t he sigh in wonder when he saw my refrigerator-shaped box, or decide with us what to put where? And why wouldn’t he too sing the carefully selected song or make appropriate art with us?

‘But, OK,’ I told myself. ‘Today we will simply pass this exam activity. We will not go about changing the world immediately!’

Peter was still swaying in his own little world, half turned away from us, and I began guiding the others into my own world.

The miraculous fridge-box was a huge success with those tiny minds and held their attention for a full quarter of an hour. I was secretly gloating, imagining the praise about my work written by my mentor in her notebook. The children reacted beautifully, with all their unpredictably predictable subquestions and ‘bloopers’. The activity went faster than I’d expected, so my mind kept browsing through its backup lesson plan ideas to efficiently continue the activity.

And then the carpet became ‘spiky’. That was the word murmured by a tiny future interior designer who was wearing a dress that day so she couldn’t be bothered to keep sitting on the carpet any longer. In case you didn’t know this, ‘spikiness’ is a highly contagious disease with children of a younger age. The consequences of this disease are fidgeting, loss of concentration and the frequent need for bathroom use. The more persistently I tried to keep implementing my lesson plan, the more the children demonstrated their discontent. They kept searching for the culprit for the spikiness with more and more noise and unrest, whereas, Peter kept humming something louder and louder in his little corner.

‘He’s mumbling again,’ thundered a rugged boy with messy hair towards Peter, pointing his finger at the boy he considered the obvious culprit for everything, and the muttering of his followers vibrated through the room.

‘Peter always mumbles when we don’t listen to our teacher,’ a curly-haired blonde girl scolded the ringleader, in a half-whisper but very eloquently, a dark look flashing below her eyebrows.

Within seconds, the room was divided into two currents which threatened to destroy my methodical approach. Peter covered his ears with his little hands and kept humming louder. I panicked, and my mind got hooked on to one of the points in my lesson plan which I considered the safest anchor at that point.

‘Come now, everything is all right,’ I said as if I honestly believed it. ‘We shall do some drawing next!’

The children quietened down for a while, sitting down into their labelled chairs, and I felt proud to notice a nod from my mentor about the change of activity. Or maybe she had merely recognised my rookie mistake of switching to art too fast? I had justified the change in the lesson plan to myself, like a proper teacher, but I was well aware of the fact that I was skipping several activities which should have taken place before art. When nobody was looking, I allowed myself to bite my lip, and then quickly checked if all the children were properly seated. Everybody was waiting for the following activity in peace. Well, everyone but Peter. But at least he had stopped mumbling and humming.

I distributed drawing papers to all the children, even to Peter. I placed his paper on the floor, right next to him.

‘You can join us when you wish,’ I said, simply to say something, but when I returned to my desk, I noticed that he had picked up his paper.

The introduction into my art activity began – carefully concocted, a bit overly ambitious for four-year-olds, but I was driven by dreams, so I tried to coax them into another prepared activity, while they were pinned in their chairs. By the time we had used my posters to sort out fruit from vegetables, main courses from condiments, breakfast from lunch and supper, boiled food from raw, even the chairs had become quite ‘spiky’. Children can smell a fraud, and they never forgive you for being dull! An empty piece of paper with no crayons in your hand can feel pretty uncomfortable! It only took a couple of minutes before I was trying, in vain again, to be louder than the kids, whether the impatient little artists or the non-artistic types. Logically, what followed was another session of Peter’s humming.

Despair and fear made me simplify the art task, all with the excuse of adapting to children. Oh, what a naive action – making it easy for the children only to make it easy for myself, and only to achieve a bit fat zero! I let them draw their favourite food. I distributed coloured pencils to everybody, even Peter, and asked each child to tell me what they would draw. They all bragged loudly about their future food masterpieces, except for Peter who kept totally quiet. However, he took his coloured pencils, lay down on the carpet and placed the paper in front of him. I had planned to devote 15 minutes to my chosen song, having prepared a detailed choreography to it for the sake of their physical activity; I was now blasting the song as a mere audio background, trying not to make eye contact with my mentor. The only ones carefully listening to the song were the kids who would sit in the first row in first grade, right close to the teacher. The others were telling their stories, colouring, doodling, some on their papers and some on the desks. I was trying to gulp down a cocktail made from my ego, pride, education and inexperience, slightly spiced up with the bitter flavour of frustration. The calmest person in the entire situation was Peter. He had leaned over his paper with his entire torso, and kept drawing with fervour.

I tried not to think negatively about the outcome of my exam and I looked at the clock. There was no way I could prolongue the drawing any longer as tiny artists are people with instant and explosive inspiration, so their art activity itself only lasted for a brief period.  Panic was drowning me in the kaleidoscope of my lesson plan, in which beginning and end had blended into a mush. The children started bringing me finished art assignments for appraisal, and I collected them with a weak grin.

‘So what will you do now? What’s next? How will you slam dunk this exam, genius?’ My own ego mocked me.

Help came out of the blue, with an accompaniment of somewhat loud mumbling which reached me from the backdrop of this tiny bunch of outstretched hands and artwork.

‘Oh, Pete, stop it!’

‘Miss, Pete’s pushing me!’

‘Stop mumbling, Pete! Move!’

But Peter would not be swayed. He reached me and placed his artwork on top of the pile. He looked at me. Straight into me. The children went quiet waiting for my reaction, and Peter withdrew into the back of the room, into his own world on the edge of the carpet.

There was not one drawing on Peter’s paper. There were 12 of them. Peter had drawn every single meal his friends had loudly announced as their favourite. The drawings were beautiful, in clear colours and shapes and completely recognizable. The only thing that confused me were dots next to each drawing – he added something like a littly black cloud next to some, and sun next to the others. And then it hit me! It didn’t take me long – after all, I was a model student, even if the teacher this time was a boy, a very special little boy.

‘And now we are all going to sit in a circle to see the most impportant thing,’ I announced with a victorious feeling.

My eyes, open wide and enthusiastic, gathered the little artists on the carpet in the blink of an eye. I lifted their artworrk and asked.

‘Let me hear it now – which of your favourite meals are heathy food, and which not so much?’

The little wisemen were full of advice copied from the adults they knew. IN the end, we assembled all their drawings in two collages – healthy and not-so-healthy food. We even sang our song. It contained a lyric about healthy and unhealthy food. It was their favourite lyric to sing out. Even Peter.

I passed my exam, with the help of my little knight who appeared just when things had gotten ‘spiky’. My mentor told me it was the very last activity that saved the day. Of course it did – it was so special.


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