By Suraj Sait
In December, 21 high schoolers from Mr. Rath’s Period 6 AP Environmental Science class floored it up Avenger, took a left on Middle and another on South County, and then banged a right on Frenchtown as they cruised to a halt in front of Frenchtown Elementary School. A familiar spot for some, these students weren’t there for a class, but to teach a class of kindergartners.
I was one of those high schoolers. Happy to have last period off on a Wednesday, I was more than grateful to Mr. Rath for organizing this trip. As a senior, these short reprieves are nearly as treasured as snow days.
As we walked through the front doors, I could hear the murmurs of my classmates. “I couldn’t believe this place was once big for me,” one said. “How did I ever fit on those benches?” wondered another, as we passed the lunchroom. Even I, who had never gone to Frenchtown, couldn’t imagine myself ever thinking my own elementary school was big. It felt like we were giants, intruding on the domain of dwarves.
Finally, Mr. Rath came to a stop in front of the kindergarten classrooms, where we met Mrs. Fay. She explained to us that we would be using common materials, such as clay, cardboard, and popsicle sticks, to help these kindergartners create a shelter that could withstand both a blow dryer and the pouring of water. Through this effort to simulate the elements, these kindergartners would learn how to create a durable structure.
After Mrs. Fay finished explaining the assignment, we split up into different classrooms. Walking through the door was like walking into a disproportionate world. Sitting in a chair was a miserable affair; I had to watch myself, because there was a chance I might miss the seat on my way down. I could see that my classmates were having the same struggles. We just didn’t belong here anymore.
Despite that, the kindergartners still tried to make us feel at home. With a smile, and usually a giggle, they introduced themselves to us. Some even told us their favorite color, or what they had for lunch that day. It was adorable how excited they were to see us. Our visit would clearly be the highlight of their day.
But when we began working with the kids, I wasn’t sure how involved I had to be. See, before we embarked on our journey, Mr. Rath told us an anecdote about his 4-year old granddaughter. He described how she didn’t know that the roof kept out the rain, that it was responsible for protecting her house from the elements. The entire class was shocked – we couldn’t believe that young children had never thought about that, something we naturally assumed. But we must have been that way, too, when we were younger.
With that in mind, we cautiously explained the concept of waterproofing to those kindergartners. We didn’t know what they knew, or what they didn’t, so we took care to explain everything step-by-step. They caught on remarkably quickly, and actually didn’t end up needing any of our instruction.
I’ll admit: I was surprised by that. Most of my previous interactions with kindergartners often required meticulously instructing them in whatever task they were doing. Whether it be playing a board game or tossing a frisbee, I had to both literally, and figuratively, hold their hands throughout the task. But in building these structures, the only guidance these kindergartners required was with cutting a piece of tape, or gathering some extra popsicle sticks. No more help than a grown adult might need.
These kindergartners also impressed me with their kindness. When a little boy asked for an extra piece of tape (or seven!), he did it with a “please.” And when I gave it to him, he took the time to say “thank you” in return. The same occurred with a little girl, who practically beamed at me when I handed her another popsicle stick. In a time where many are too busy to be kind, these children were always polite, always responding with a smile.
At the end of our 30-minute visit, I looked around the table. I saw bundles of popsicle sticks propped up against one another, bound by flimsy pieces of tape. I observed Play-Doh, strapped to pieces of cardboard in an attempt to create a solid shelter. I wasn’t sure how sturdy any of those structures would be, but they emanated ingenuity.
As we left Frenchtown, and the kids waved their goodbyes, I could tell that many of my classmates wanted to continue working with them. And I did too. Being high schoolers, most of us don’t hang out a lot with kindergartners. Sure, some of us might be babysitters or camp counselors, but how often do we interact with kindergartners in a classroom setting? How often do we teach kindergartners something new? It was quite the learning experience – us seniors, at the end of our tenure in the East Greenwich education system, and those kindergartners, just beginning. Wednesday afternoon gave us a chance to explore that dichotomy.
Reflecting upon our session, I also realized that these children could inspire us to have faith in the next generation. Many adults regard us young people negatively, believing that we don’t go outside enough, don’t talk face-to-face enough, and are addicted to our screens. And in some ways they are right. But that does not mean we have lost the curiosity and whimsy we possessed as kindergartners. We just express it differently. Maybe we aren’t building impervious structures, but we are writing papers, creating apps, and making movies – all original and creative activities in their own right.
Ultimately, I believe that children possess an inherent goodness. It should be our responsibility, as teachers, parents, and students, to nurture this goodness. We must have faith in our young – without both their kindness and creativity, the future looks bleak.
Suraj Sait is a senior at East Greenwich High School.