Once upon a time – long, long ago – I taught preschool. I absolutely loved it and sometimes think it was my favorite job. Those are the times I conveniently forget about the days when no one wanted anything to do with rest time (except the teachers, of course) or when pinkeye swept through my room like a tornado. Or the day the painting easels fell against one another like dominoes, splattering their contents around the room like a Jackson Pollock painting.
What I remember about that time was the freedom I felt to be ridiculously authentic, to be radically me. I sang out loud, and loudly, even though I cannot carry a tune to save my life. I skipped and danced and marched while making silly faces out in public. I didn’t make decisions based on whether or not I’d feel embarrassed or inadequate or strange. I had 18 little joy buckets that spurred me on with their giggles and their hugs. And when one of them was shy as a newcomer to the group, I loved seeing others pull them into the group and helping them find their space.
One of my goals as a teacher was always to help the kids find their voice. Which might seem strange because spending even a few minutes with a preschooler pretty much cements the fact that they have found their voice, since they almost never stop talking. But spend a few minutes in a room filled with children and it takes little time to see many of them already trying to fit in. The ones standing on the outside, taking cues from others on how to do things before joining the group. Afraid to make a mistake or stand out as different.
I tried to celebrate those differences, and create an atmosphere of trust where everyone could find at least small ways to honor their own creative tendencies while still keeping order with things like schedules and fair-play rules for how we would treat one another. Believing that one of the best ways to learn how to manage the tension between fitting in and finding one’s own way was to model those behaviors, I was constantly “using my words” to share my experience.
“I’m disappointed that we can’t stay outside longer too. I’m also thirsty and ready to go in and get some juice.” “I don’t know exactly how to put one of these together but I’m pretty sure we can figure this out together.”
Simple statements meant to convey an understanding of the difficulty, along with a next step in order to feel less stuck, less alone. Less than, period.
What I didn’t realize was that the kids were just as instrumental in helping me find my own voice as I hope I was in helping them find theirs. Practice something often enough, even in teaching others, and it becomes a habit ingrained into everyday living. Simple, right? But somewhere along the line, I forgot that. Or more likely, I stopped practicing and reverted back to standing on the outside, afraid to make a mistake or stand out as different.
I bought into the falsehood that to be ridiculously authentic and radically me was to stand out as arrogant, a show-off. Some of this is fueled by the fact that I am an introvert at heart. I’ll never be the one who jumps up on the stage to get people’s attention. But I still want to have people’s attention when I choose to share something meaningful. That gets harder to do, the older I get. The further away I get from days that include giggling, always-talking, rarely-resting joy buckets.
Coming full circle, I have to remember that the friends in my life who truly love me aren’t a whole lot different from those preschoolers.
They don’t need me to sing pitch perfect to invite and still (somehow) “appreciate” my voice. But I have to be willing to trust that and open up my mouth.