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Awareness, Practice, Mastery

It's the way we learn...

He was big for his age, with chubby cheeks and bright blue glasses. He summoned all his four-year-old courage and entered the classroom in a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He readily warmed to the Chinese teaching assistants but his lip trembled slightly at the sight of me, a tall, very strange-looking American woman babbling mysterious, incomprehensible phrases like ‘hi there’ and ‘please sit down’.

I’m sure it was a lot to take in. The other kids, all class-room regulars, were already comfortable in their routine, but this was his first time ever at an English-speaking day camp. He tried his best to hide his embarrassment at not yet knowing his ABC’s like the others, and sat stoically through the songs and circle time. Free-play recess devolved into something of a sheep-among-wolves scenario as the five-years-olds, all a quarter of a lifetime older, attempted to divest him of his toys and blocks until I gently intervened.

When young children learn English as a foreign language, the first step is awareness, to realize that words in other languages even exist. Next comes practice, putting those new words into use by playing games, for we learn best what we enjoy. Finally comes mastery, when the child takes those new words and claims them to use as his own. That’s how communication and connection blossom.

It was a difficult first day with some tears for my new student. I could tell he was worried that he wasn’t getting things right, despite my reassurances. But he hung in there, and by the end of the first week he was happily playing duck-duck-goose like a pro and attempting to sing the chorus of dinosaur songs. He learned to hold on to the coveted plastic cow in the farm-set during recess, determined not to give in to the unjust demands of his peers. He sighed with satisfaction when he successfully named the colors of the red, yellow and blue paper chains we were gluing.

I see myself in him, of course. How many times do I struggle to follow along and understand what’s going on around me, wondering if I’ve somehow got hold of life’s map upside down, fighting shame that I don’t know more than I do? My head acknowledges the fact that learning is a process and I am capable of understanding new and complex things, but my heart still trembles like his lip did that first day, worrying, am I really good enough? Truly smart enough? Can I do this? That’s why it resonates so strongly when I see him succeed. It makes me believe that I can, too.

Mastery of one particular word came on the day he sat next to a little girl who dissolved into tears. She was struggling to use scissors on a picture and had unintentionally decapitated a teddy bear. He walked over to me, tugged on my sleeve and pointed to the girl, his eyes brimming with compassion and understanding. In his best English, he tried to articulate the situation. “Sad”, he solemnly informed me, with a shake of his head. He wanted me to go and help her.

Awareness, practice, mastery. I learn so much from the children I work with. Like my student, when I open my eyes to the needs of others, I become aware of worlds outside my own, full of people who are shockingly like me. Sometimes it’s a rough place, and I need to hold fast to the things I know are right, and not allow my principles to be wrestled from me. It can take all my courage to reach out and practice connection in strange new places, with unfamiliar people. But when I show compassion, and don’t worry so much about whether I’m saying exactly the right thing in just the right way, I am better able to master my fears.

Sometimes, we just need a four-year-old to point the way.

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