I was helping out in my five-year-old daughter’s kindergarten class for the first time. When I showed up her class was in the gymnasium, a large carpeted room with a stage and a few basketball hoops that was clearly once a dining hall for the elderly. The building used to be a rest home, and it still held that heavy smell of poop and bad breath. It takes a good 15 or 20 min for me to get used to it.
Miss Smith, Norah’s teacher, a woman in her late 40’s with curly brown hair and a cowgirl look, was handing graham crackers to the class when I was arrived, and she looked at me with a mix of relief and frustration. I was 20 minutes late. From what I understood, her usual classroom assistant had to leave early, and that was why I was asked to come help. And honestly, I was excited. I’d wanted to help out in Norah’s class for some time. Not because I like kids or anything. I don’t like other people’s kids. I didn’t really want to have kids, but now that I have them, they are my world. But for some reason these feelings of compassion have not translated to other people’s children. I still hate them.
I was excited because there is this huge part of my daughter’s life that I didn’t know much about. At school, she had multiple friends that I’d never met, only heard about. I’d also heard that she was very shy at school, which is the exact opposite of the loud, cute, and obnoxious person she was at home. And for some reason this worried me. I wanted her to be a strong person. The kind of girl willing to speak up and speak out. I suppose I wanted to turn her into a feminist.
The moment I reached Miss Smith, she handed me a box of crackers and said, “There are 18 children. I will be back in 15 minutes. Make sure they don’t run off.” As she walked away she cried, “Children. Tell Norah’s daddy the rules.”
I looked down and there was a brown haired little boy with a boogery noise tugging at my pant leg.
“My name is Baker,” He said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Baker. What are the rules?”
He smiled and said, “My name is Baker.”
No shit, I thought.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
He repeated it two more times “My name is Baker…” Then he said. “You can’t run, or scream, or hit, or throw the big balls into the basketball hoop, or say mean names, or eat the things you find on the floor, or pull stuff from the garbage can, or kick other kids butts…”
He went on, listing rules that were a mix of reality, his imagination, and strange things he’d clearly been caught doing. Eventually I handed him an extra graham cracker so he’d shut up. He walked off, and when I looked at my pants, I noticed a streak of boogers.
Norah was alone at a table in the corner of the room eating a graham cracker. She smiled at me when I saw her. Her face was a mix of joy and confusion. Her mother usually did this sort of thing. This was a charter school, and Norah was in her school uniform: brown pants and a blue polo shirt, her short brown hair pulled back.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Because I wanted to see what you did during the day at school.”
“So you came to watch me?”
“Yes. Is that creepy?”
“Can we dance?” She asked.
“Sure,” I said.
Norah and I often dance around the house. It is a mix of the waltz with moments where I swing her around. And as we danced, kids flocked around us. Other girls cut in, and Norah looked at them with anger. And Baker told us a few times that we were breaking the rules. And as we danced, I thought about how this was the same thing we did at home. It all felt very natural. And although I came to help out in Norah’s class to find out something new, I slowly began to understand that I was doing more of the same old thing, only it involved other children.
Miss Smith came back; we lined the children up at the drinking fountain, they each drank, and then we went into the classroom for arts and crafts time.
We glued together paper habitats for frogs. And as we did, I kept my distance from Norah. I watched her from one side of the room, or the other. I helped out the other kids in the class. I put names with faces. I helped Olivia cut out her frog, the girl who gave the class lice. I helped James glue his lily pad, the kid who used to sit by Norah, but kept kicking her, so he had to be moved. The whole time, I watched Norah. And indeed, she was quiet. The other kids in her class were very chatty, but not Norah. She just kept her head down and did her work. There was a part of me that was happy about that. I want her to be engaged in her schoolwork, but I started to realize, really realize, for the first time, that my daughter was very shy. At home, she never shuts up. She is assertive. She stands up for what she wants, but at school, surrounded by her peers, she doesn’t say a word. I didn’t know what to make of that. I couldn’t decide if it was a good thing, or a bad thing. I started to worry that the kids she went to school with either didn’t like her, thought she was strange, or didn’t know she existed.
So I asked some of her classmates what they thought of her. I asked Sarah, a large nosed girl who acted like she really wanted me to be her father. “Norah is nice.” She said with a shrug. “She let’s me borrow her crayons sometimes.” I asked Frank, a boy with blond curly hair smashed on one side from sleep. “I like Norah. She helped me get my ball one time.” I asked three more kids, and each one had a similar story of Norah helping them. With each story, I realized that I was raising a very nice girl who was willing to help out her classmates.
By the end of class, I felt really good about the little girl I was raising. She wasn’t outspoken, but she was kind. She was sweet. And that was an awesome thing to realize.
I walked Norah out to our van, and as we did, I said, “Your friends at school really like you. It sounds like you are nice to everyone.”
I crouched, looked her in the eyes, and said, “It makes me happy to know that you are nice to the people around you.”
Norah smiled and shrugged. Then she said, “Can we dance when we get home?”
“Yes,” I said. “We can.”
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.