This is a story about being stuck between here and there --a place that all of us find ourselves in on a regular day-to-day, moment-to-moment, basis. We have to make big and little decisions all day long. We may have to consider whether or not our decisions have a lasting impact while other decisions are fleeting and easily forgotten. We have made so many, that the process becomes predictable or proceeds without much reflection on that process.
For children, decision-making is sometimes really overwhelming. Often what we think are small or easily made decisions are too much for little ones. How wonderful is it for children to find themselves in a community of other children, who get that and will help each other out when they need it?
The children were sitting on the tatami mat, planning out their play. We had just finished reading Brave Margaret by Robert D. San Souci, the children were fascinated with this strong and resolute Margaret character. Without hesitation one of the girls declared, arm with closed fist raised triumphantly, "I will be Margaret," but then she paused, shoulders slumping, "But, I also want to be someone who dies and Margaret can't die." Despair!
Now, dear readers, no worry here about the "someone who dies." THIS IS PLAY.
Once we catalog this where it belongs...in children's play...a helpful adult may offer the idea that sure, in the book Margaret doesn't die, but maybe in this play arc, she would? And then that adult, oh you foolish adult, would be told of course that cannot happen and indeed, it truly cannot. Remember. Children's play can hold to multiple contradictions in the same play arc. Children can also hold, with steadfast focus, on multiple truths. In her play and in the book, Margaret doesn't die and she needs to be both Margaret AND someone who dies. Despair!
Well, this was too much anyway because every other person in the room also wanted to be Margaret now that you have mentioned it, thank you very much.
The children responded with something familiar, something that they knew works in most instances, "We can all be Margarets and you can die."
This is how community works once you have created the opportunity for it to grow. They immediately start to offer assistance, to offer solutions, and expand their options.
"B-b-b-ut," she went on, "Margaret can't die."
They looked at her perplexed, because they really felt that things were sorted. Multiple Margarets, remember? No worries. One of them could die, it's okay. They leaned forward, consoling her with gentle pats. She became more distressed. This was not a huge problem, but you could see that until the group resolved this Margaret problem they couldn't get up from the tatami mat to start playing.
I broke it down for them with language we use at our school, "She is stuck in between two ideas, let me show you." And I traced pretend circles floating above the tatami mat, naming each one, and then brought my hands together in the space between to show where she was stuck. I have created an actual diagram for you here...
"Oh," one of the other children nodded knowingly and then added, "This is my worst thing."
She looked at me and we both knew what she was talking about. This is something that her parents have shared with me from home, but I had only seen the tail end of one or two of these "worst things" as she arrived at school at which point the distress was soon resolved.
Because here is the thing, this is not a story about how hard it is to be Margaret-who-cannot-die, this is a story about the girl who KNEW being stuck between here and there was her "worst thing." She has worked through some great struggles to make decisions. Whether to stay or go, whether to wear that dress or this one, those socks, those shoes, whether to play this or that. She has this amazing memory for story and events -- all that information to catalog and recall. Then whammy(!) a decision has to be made, and however big or little, head goes back, spine goes rigid, and wail!!! How can someone with all that information DECIDE???
"It's my worst thing," she repeats leaning closer to our Margaret-person, shaking her head. She gets it. She offers no solution. Instead, she offers connection, she offers reassurance. This is the worst thing, being stuck in the middle. They both agree.
And that is all that was needed.
"I know! I will be a person who lives with you in the castle!"
And with that, they all finally left the mat and the play continued.