The other day, I went to visit a dragon. This is a very special dragon that lives not too far from the Free School, curled up in the recesses of the other-worldly concrete architecture of the State Museum [in Albany, NY], often sleeping at the top of the curved, five story staircase that moves from the huge patio that surrounds the building into the darkened eves. I took six four- and five-year-olds and we were on a quest - an adventure, we call it. You see, this dragon blesses this area with his smoke and sometimes his fire, being a dragon that cares with a passion about people's lives and people's hearts, wanting to breathe some of his passion into their dreams and their con-=cerns. And he appreciates respect, quiet, and visits from one person at a time. So, whenever we go to visit the dragon, whose smoke we have seen, whose friends we see on top of the Capitol Building and some of the churches and older buildings in Albany, we whisper, once we get to the top of the seventy-stepped staircase that leads to the patio.
We walk together calmly, listening for signs of the dragon's wakefulness - a low humming - and looking for the steam that often drifts out from under the eves of the building, a sure sign that the dragon is home and resting near the entrance to his cave. Then we stop and collect ourselves before we each decide if we want to take a message to the dragon that day.
Back at school, we had had a long discussion about each persons' worries, problems or concerns that they had on their minds that day. This grew out of two kids coming to school that day in a real funk about a situation at home. I always like to help anyone share these issues with other kids as it inevitably blossoms into an animated discussion about the times someone else has felt something similar, had to live through a similar situation or had to solve a similar problem. Kids are pretty open-hearted with each other during these sharings and come up with some great ideas - everything from, "Well, I go outside and shout really loud," to throwing pillows to sitting in someone's lap at school, to going to the feeling room (a mattress-lined room in the school).
Mostly, the listening and empathy that happens often lightens the burden for the child. There is something about these sharings that moves me a great deal - the quality of really caring, the total listening, the knowing that these things are the important juice of life, the really touching each other, in their own terms, that happens. There is a clarity and depth that I see as an adult that is beautiful - just the truth and the willingness to listen and to share the life space with another person - walk in another's moccasins. Sure, it is not always all there and this group connectedness is something that I "work on" all year and sometimes it jells and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes I am aware of asking who is the teacher here! They are teaching me about the naturalness of wanting relatedness and sometimes I am teaching them how to renew these bonds. At its best, it flows.
After a few moments of quiet, someone suggests that we visit the dragon. I ask each child what they would like to say to the dragon today. These are whispered concerns, often almost secrets that they are entrusting to me to help them write on a small piece of paper. Things like, "Help my grandma get better (from her broken hip), help me to not wet the bed at night, help my dad get a happier job, help me and my sister get along better, I hope you (the dragon) have a long life and help me with my scary dreams, help me not fight with my brother so much." I write each thought out for them to copy in their own handwriting and then we are off.
Each child has the opportunity to leave their note somewhere on the staircase that goes to the dragon's den. Sometimes it is at the foot of the staircase, sometimes it is halfway up. What happens is that the whole group of us sits a short way away while one person at a time goes up, often talking to the dragon as they go. I make sure each child understands that the rest of us are with them in spirit and thought, because by now they each hold this visit as awesome and a special, challenging time for them to share some of their deep thoughts, con-cerns or wishes with something bigger than themselves.
This is somewhat hard for me to put into words, but I just know that a bit of mythological, magical space is needed sometimes in anyone's life to open some doors in our hearts or minds. All I can say is that each time I go with a group of children to see the dragon, and I only go maybe two times a year, I see a new part of each child emerge. It may be courage and clarity of speech from a withdrawn or timid child, it may be true concern about others from a child who tends to be a loner; it may be, often is, deep insight into a personal or family problem - it is always amazing. And don't be misled, I take my note up to the stairs, too.
Something in this process with the younger children has helped me be a better teacher with most ages of children. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to teach the eleven-, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds here at the Free School. I again felt the need to find some common ground, some shared spaces for us to be in right from the beginning. I often try to get back what being a certain age felt like for me, and this particular age had lots of physical challenges for me. So much was changing!
Many mornings, I would just sit and talk with this group about whatever was going on for them and we would invariably launch into a discussion about what they liked or didn't like about being twelve, what they missed about being eight, how it was different, etc. I did a lot of active listening as well as sharing my memories of those years, to the chortles and guffaws and "you really did that?!" of the group. Then we would often get into a discussion about bodies. Bodies, how they work, why they work, what different parts are for, the feelings within - this is common to all of us and I find myself continually fascinated and brought back to these discussions with just about any age group. I mean, we've all got one, right?
I have learned over the years, especially from Mary Leue (the founder of The Free School) that being willing to talk about just about anything in a sensitive, respectful and open way is a core of any relationship with kids. If they sense that I am willing to share the knowledge and experience of just having been there (their age) before, as well as having been around longer to have learned a few new ways of being with life's twists and turns, without competing or moralizing, and with honest respect for their uniqueness and the reality that they are my teachers, too, we tend to have some pretty lively dis-cussions.
We usually would go from discussion to some kind of exploration - getting the microscope out to find out just what blood cells, cheek cells, hair, banana, onion look like, taking turns being blind and being guided around the neighborhood by another person in the class, standing on a four foot high platform and falling into the arms of the other kids - backwards and with our eyes closed- watching an interview with Magic Johnson and 15 kids, 4 of whom were HIV positive and talking about the feelings that arose as well as what each person really knew about AIDS.
I guess the core of all this is that I love to explore inner and outer spaces with kids and I let them know that I am willing to let them lead me sometimes into their curiosities, dark spaces, magic spaces - and they learn to trust me to take them places, too. Maybe it is all about trust - that is certainly where we all begin on this planet - maybe it is the only true beginning to any relationship.
I am writing this article because I want to share some of what I do to create a shared space with kids. It is in this place that we explore the edges of our worlds, both inner and outer, I have discovered. I never knew this was where I would be headed with teaching. I don't think I even knew that this is really the juice of teaching - to lead out from each other the questions, the insights, the profound queries that make this living continually fascinating, frustrating, challenging and invigorating. And I never understood how much teaching is about being in a relationship - with deep inner self concerns and with others - pulsing back and forth, open and closed, inner and outer, teacher and learner. I didn't realize that I would be trying on four year old moccasins, twelve year old moccasins as well as my worn ones from years ago - and discovering that I could walk a ways in them and get a fresh look at life each time.
Betsy Mercogliano is or has been at various times co-director, treasurer, cook and teacher in the Free School Betsy is also a direct-entry midwife and labor coach at our birth center, Matrix.