Circle Time

You know you are a bad mother when your son’s second-grade teacher asks, “Now, whose mother are you?”, and it is two months into the school year.

When my son Ethan was in kindergarten, I volunteered every week in the classroom. Sorting paper and artwork, helping kids with projects or reading aloud were a few of the more glamorous tasks while often I simply made photocopies for the teachers. Whatever the work, it was reassuring to me to watch my son and his classmates and teachers interact, developing friendships or resolving conflicts.

The year he went into second grade my work became overwhelming and so I gave up classroom volunteering completely. After his teacher’s comment, working mother guilt ate away at me, and I decided to volunteer for Ethan’s class holiday party.

I arrived early that Friday afternoon in the classroom, latte in hand to fortify myself. Class was still in session, and the volunteers could not set up anything until the kids finished “Circle Time” and went out to recess.

Maybe the good moms in class knew what Circle Time was, but I didn’t. When I first walked in the classroom door, the kids were seated in a circle on the floor and looked as serious as if they were Barack Obama’s cabinet members discussing momentous changes to America’s health care system. Curious about what these seven-year-olds were discussing so intently, I grabbed a seat with another volunteer at the back of the room.

“Anyone else want to say thank you?” said Ethan’s teacher, a tanned and pretty woman who wears outfits like she just breezed in from a beach vacation in Santa Barbara, rather than overseeing 20 active children all day. “Okay, if we are done with thank you’s then let’s start with apologies. Anyone want to apologize to someone?”

The teacher then handed a small hand puppet of a frog to the first child to her left. The boy took it and put it on his hand for a moment, then passed it to the next child, a small girl who was equally mute on any apologies.

A blond smartly-dressed boy confidently took possession of the frog puppet and spoke up, “I want to apologize to Anthony.” He turned to another boy in the circle and looked him in the eye, unusually direct for a seven-year-old child. “Anthony, I am sorry that I said I am so much better at school than you are. I am a lot better at school, but I guess I shouldn’t have said that in front of everyone.”

I choked on my latte. That was his apology? I wonder what life was like at that little boy’s house. Is that the way arguments went between his parents? Anthony seems unfazed by this back-handed apology.

As my son took the puppet next, I held my breath. What wrong-doings had he committed in the school yard? No luck. Like most boys of any age, he had no interest in sharing feelings and couldn’t wait to pass the frog along to the next kid.
The puppet moved around the circle until it reached another boy. He was the kind of little boy you find in Marin County – self-assured, articulate, and speaks fluent Mandarin as a second language.

“I apologize to Martin. Martin, it wasn’t right that you cheated at handball today at recess. Everyone knows that you cheated, but still it wasn’t right for me to call you a jerk.”

Somehow I don’t think this is the direction the teacher wanted from the apologies, however she didn‘t show it and calmly proceeded like a veteran family therapist. She held Martin back at this point, who continued to protest his honesty at handball play, telling him that the format of “Circle Time” didn’t allow him to respond and if he wanted the three of them could discuss the issue at recess. Who knew that there was arbitration in second grade?

I side with Martin on this issue. Even Robert’s Rules of Conduct allow some rebuttal. In this format, these kids were allowed to take potshots at each other without discussion or intercession. It was the kid’s version of a boardroom power play, saving your issues and conflicts until you have the right audience.

The teacher’s attempt at teaching empathy and responsibility to children is noble, but as a recent New York Times article asked, “Can you teach empathy to children?” Is it innate or can we as parents or teachers demonstrate it?

Ask me two years and I would have responded yes without hesitation. Now, after witnessing Circle Time, I wonder.

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