March 5, 2010



I received the following message from the faceless internet: Are you the wolf nadoolman who went to p.s. 189 in manhattan?.I know you can't possibly remember me. My name is sonja and I sat behind you in mrs. Lowe's class. [First grade.] We were taking a test and you didn't have a no. 2 pencil. I had an extra one and you asked me what I wanted for it. I was fascinated with the word encyclopedia so the next day you brought me in volume 1 of your encyclopedia! I had it for years and have often told people this story!  Of course I remembered her.

My father, by all accounts, was naughty. He grew up in a relatively rural area, and his family didn’t have much. Among the stories he told--or, rather, confessed to--was the one in which he led and coaxed a nearby goat away from the neighbor’s field and into the school building, up the stairs, and onto the roof of the school. It turns out that goats are not that easy to move once their acrophobia makes them so terrified that they resist moving altogether. His mother, as he put it, let him have it. There were about 15 or so people in his high school graduating class.

He was a good student and a smart man. But he never talked about his grades or the tests he aced or failed (I have no idea which). He never spoke about the book report he didn’t hand in on time, never told stories about the textbook he had to skim because he didn’t get the reading done before the test.

He spoke about the goat. And the windows he broke: some accidentally, some not so accidentally.

These are the stories he told, and the ones he and his schoolmates laughed about at their 30th, 40th, and yes 50th reunions. Oh, did I mention there was a 60th reunion? By then, of course, some classmates had passed away. For his entire life, he continued to socialize with these friends and his friends from his military service.
What do you remember from elementary school? OK, maybe it wasn’t an entirely rosy picture. There was the bully, the humiliating bathroom accident in kindergarten, the time the teacher made you read aloud in class and you weren’t good at reading aloud. I will grant that you might still remember those events, which left some scars. But you probably don’t remember the map of the united States that took so much work, the pages and pages of vocabulary words and arithmetic problems. The paragraph you had to write about George Washington.

What about middle school? Do you remember the homework assignments, the final exams, the problem you got only partial credit for though you deserved full credit for and how unfair it felt? High school?

Homework is important. It’s how we learn. It’s how unfamiliar material becomes familiar, gets to sound right in our heads, becomes comfortable knowledge. We may use every day what we learned in those pages of arithmetic problems. But it’s not what we remember.

It’s the friends.

Friends are our pathfinders to the world outside of our families. Though we don’t plan to be, we are their pathfinders, too. To outsiders, especially in the school years, it looks like our friendships are very superficial relationships. Whether in cooperative sandbox play like digging a tunnel from both sides at one time or a swordfight using rolled newspaper as weapons, or co-hosting a tea party for dolls and stuffed bears, these are important social experiences. Some important learning skills are obvious. Learning to listen to the other person, to incorporate their ideas into our plan, and compromising are just a few aspects of social play that can be key factors for success or failure in adulthood.

Sometimes parents mistakenly equate social play with sports or other ultrastructured group activities. They aren’t the same. While physical activity is important, and organized sports or theater can be essential for some kids, I think learning to play with others is a lesson itself, not obviously reinforced automatically in the context of competition and trophies. I wonder about the influence of professional sports, in which players are teammates only as long as their contract term. Star players want to help their team win, but only if they get the exposure and opportunity to enhance the next round of negotiations, during which their team loyalty is explicitly for sale. Is it so different, by the way, for star ballet dancers or actresses?

It’s the friends. Are you still in touch with friends from these school years? Maybe from preschool? Even if you’re not in touch with them, I bet you remember them.

We all remember these early friendships, and the ones we may have lost along the way. Why is that? The answer, I believe, is hidden in the way we keep and categorize our friends. Most of us keep our friends in organized containers. There’s the friends from glee club, friends from our mom’s group. Maybe the soldiers we trained with--and they might be in a different group from those we served with. The friends from church and friends from karate. The friends from tie-dye class and the friends from detention. The friends our parents seemed to like more than us and the friends they used to forbid us to see.

Friendships are not generic. Empathic parents see beyond the playdate and try to understand the importance of friends in the lives of their children.

The lives of infants are constrained by their physical needs. Food, shelter, and the need to induce sleep deprivation and emotional lability in those who love them. As they become more capable of exploring the world, they manage their curiosity through good-natured spelunking in the cabinet where you keep your cleaning products, and originate science experiments involving figuring out how to open grandma’s pills.
How do they get to see the world outside our family constraints? How did you? As we get to school age and older, our friends, from each of the compartments in which we keep them, show us what they know. They show us the places they discovered and the insights they have had. They show us paths we didn’t know were there.

Friends are important for your children, especially once they get to school age. Mess with this at your own risk!

The photograph is from my collection and is by Helen Levitt, 1942.

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