Lessons from First Graders

Last week, the book selected for reading to first graders (the volunteer work I do) was The Rainbow Fish. Although I have known of the Rainbow Fish for years, this was the first time I had actually read it. While we were waiting for the kids to arrive, I flipped through the book and took an instant dislike to it.

This is not my kind of book. Something about the combination of the illustrations, the font, and the shiny cover make it feel cheaply produced, almost self-published. And the message can be summed up as, “Sharing is Good.” What a stupid message. Yes, sharing is good. But there’s no depth in that message. The only thing of interest in the book is the scary octopus that shows up half way through, deus ex machina, to provoke selfless behavior by that antagonist, the rainbow fish.

But into every life must come a Rainbow Fish, so I read it and I read it well. When the book had ended, we asked the kids what they thought the book was about. “Sharing,” they chorused. Some of them smugly – they had read the book before, they knew what the right answer was and wanted praise. Some of them tritely, the sooner they gave the right answer, the faster the discussion would end and they could go on to crafts. Some of them just sulked, in a world which holds superheroes, bastions of complexity who still do good, a fish that preaches about sharing is boring.

I looked at the two six-year olds in the group that had refused to speak that morning, refused to introduce themselves. One had even refused to decorate his name tag. How could this book about sharing reach these two painfully shy boys?

And then it hit me: the book isn’t about sharing your possessions. The book is about taking risks to make friends. It’s about exposing yourself, making yourself vulnerable by giving away the parts of you that mean the most to you, that make you who you are. The parts that you would least like to give away, so that others can carry those parts into the world. It does you no good to swim about independently, holding tightly to who you are, too tightly to even respond when others speak to you. You have to take pieces of yourself off and give them freely to others, no matter how it scares you and how exposed it makes you feel. You have to talk to people you have just met. You have to risk telling them something about yourself, even though they might think it means that you’re not perfect or they might laugh at you. You have to risk that what you share with them will be rejected. That they won’t want your shiny scales. Or that they will accept your shiny scales, show them off, and everyone will admire them for their shiny scales, not recognizing that those scales came from you first – especially because you have given your scales away and now you are just a dull little fish, with very little sparkle. You have to take risk that, in the end, it will be worth it.

What a scary thought.

What an important message.

So much more complex than, “sharing is good.”

And way, as I quickly learned, beyond the capabilities of first graders on a sunny Saturday morning. Especially as unformed as it had come to me in that moment.

“Would you rather have no eyes or be a bicycle?” One of them responded, coloring her picture of the octopus from the story, lots of dark purple. They all drew the octopus – it lived in a dark cave on the far side of the coral away from the rainbow fish’s usual domain. Only its eyes glowed from the shadows. It gave the rainbow fish a scary answer, told him to do what he wanted least to do – then disappeared in a dark cloud of ink. The octopus had depth. The only people who drew the Rainbow Fish were the other volunteers.

I thought for a moment. “I’d rather be a bicycle. If I had no eyes then I couldn’t read. If I were a bicycle, I could ride around and see the world.”

My answer made no sense logically, since a bicycle has no eyes. But, as a reader of books, I find it challenging to even consider the idea of not having eyes. Blindness is a deep fear for me.

The child responded quickly, “But if you were a bicycle, you couldn’t open doors.”

“I could rear back on my back wheel, and slam my front wheel against the door lever to open it.”

“But you couldn’t open a round doorknob – your wheel would slip.”

Well, she was right. The logic of first graders.

And so much more complex than, “Sharing is Good.”

At the end of our two hours, by the time they lined up to go, one of the shy boys had opened up, so much so that I think now that perhaps he was not shy, just sleepy, not quite awake enough for questions at 10 a.m. The other shy boy was the only other person in the room that he already knew, his friend. When your only friend is silent and removed in a new situation, you take your cues from him. Safety in numbers.

Last year, I read to second graders and this year I requested first graders again. First graders – especially in October – are like high school freshmen. School is a dangerous, risky place for them – a place where they don’t quite know what to do yet and, although there is a higher risk of tears over little things, they are generally open to direction. Second graders – sophomores – know everything. Old hands, they push back at you, testing the limits, especially as the year drags on. The boys are obsessed with the word Poop, which they say as often as possible, often in answer to questions about that week’s book. The girls are already starting to want to please you and either suck up, play allies, or protect themselves with a barrier of not-gonna-try, unexpectedly erupting into tears because of something another girl said to them, something that threatened them in a way that cannot even explain to you in words.

I’ll take first graders every time.

Even if it means reading Rainbow Fish again next year.

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