Just before school ended I agreed to attend our 6th grade field trip to the City Museum in St. Louis. It's the second time I've been on this trip and only missed last year due to last minute stuff, so I was looking forward to it again.
Six Graders, or Sixers as I call them, tend to do a lot of changing and growing in both the physical and emotional realm within the school year. They are the perfect storm of brewing curiosity, bubbling fun, and percolating pestering. What they think, they say. If there's a thought swirling around in their heads it is out of their mouths before they realize whether or not it was an appropriate comment to make. In my 2 decades of this work I can tell you that the speed bump that many of us have between our brains and our mouths is entirely absent in the body of a 6th grader.
6th Grade Skills
They're missing lots of skills by age 11 or 12 and that's okay. In fact, I work hard to convince parents that their precious little beginning-of-middle-school child is going to make mistakes and that the work they do at home mirrors the work we do at school which involves constantly and gently teaching them the ways of the world.
Towards the end of our field trip I sat outside in the patio area with their teachers while groups of children were off with their chaperones running and playing at the City Museum (it's a giant, DIY children's museum and playground for those who haven't been there where found objects make their way as part of the art). We only had about 15 minutes left before the busses would collect all 100 or so children plus chaperones to cart us back to school and I started watching four of our students as they played in the giant ball pit.
Ball pits, by their nature, are really disgusting petri dishes of germs. I've not been in one for many years but I DON'T THINK I HAVE TO EXPLAIN THAT. Still, the kids love them and this particular ball pit has much bigger rubber balls that what I'm used to seeing. This group of four was having fun because I could see it on their faces and hear it in their laughter. Occasionally, I'd look away and then check on them again.
This Isn't Fun Anymore
Then, I noticed it. They weren't having fun anymore. One boys face clearly betrayed him and he was biting his lip and turning red faced. Another girl was fixing her ponytail that had gotten knocked sideways and she was shouting something, inaudible to me, across the ball pit. On the other side were four kids from another school who were taunting my students (and a bit of that was most definitely happening from their end, too) and what had begun as a fun activity was no longer fun.
Instead of stepping in, I carefully monitored them to see if they could recover from this and make wise choices. For ten whole minutes I didn't take my eyes off of this group of 8 who were clearly having a "war" with giant balls at a place where things like this were supposed to be fun. There was a basketball hoop that kids could throw one of the balls into and a net at the top to see how high they could throw. All 8 of these children decided to aim for each other’s faces and hit the opposing side hard.
At any moment I could be forced to run to the side of the pit and yell at them to stop, but one of the girls from my school seemed to be getting it together so I waited it out. I'm neither a hovering parent nor a hovering educator. Clearly, they were working something out but the redness of their faces increased and they were sweating and all of them were angry. It wasn't fun anymore. Just as I stood up to move closer to where they played I heard one of the teachers start to gather all the students from our school and say it was time to go.
Now, I know how this works. You try to get out of the ball pit because you have to go and BAM! A ball gets rocket fired at the back of your head. Hey, I was a kid once. Instead of leaving my students to that fate I got next to the pit looking directly at the other kids and just said, "Hey, kids!" and waited to see who turned to me. All four of mine knew my voice so they turned toward me. "It's time to go. Say goodbye to your friends and let's head back to the bus." I let the word "friends" drip with extra sarcasm.
Just because I didn't want to give those other children a chance to fling one last ball I looked directly at them,"Hey, guys, would you let my students get out, please? I would really appreciate that." I forced each of them to look me in the eye and gave them my best CRAZY PRINCIPAL LADY stance and voice. It's a 20-year gift I've earned and I use it wisely and for good. They let my kids out without incident and I took all four of mine aside and said, "Look, I've been watching you for like 15 minutes and I have some advice I want to give you. You can use this for the rest of your life, but it's a lesson that, if you get it now, will serve you well. Are you ready?"
They were sweaty, puffing loudly from breathing hard, and still looked angry. One of the boys was looking past me at The Enemy still lurking in the giant ball pit. "Hey," I took him by the shoulder. "I need you to listen. I get that you're mad. In fact, you're completely ticked off. This started out fun for you and now it's not. But, please. I have something to tell you."
He worked on calming down and when all four turned their eyes to me I said, "When the giant ball pit ceases to be fun, get out."
"But! No! They..." all four started a protest. They wanted to tattle and tell me what I had vividly seen with my own eyes.
"You think I don't know what they were doing? I saw them. But I saw you, too. And when you got mad, you retaliated. That's not my point. Listen again: when the ball pit ceases to be fun, GET. OUT."
One girl cut her eyes toward the others and said, "I've heard Mrs. Wickham's lectures before. She's gonna keep saying it until we get it."
I smiled. "Yes. I'll say it again if you need me to. But, hear my words. They apply to life. When things cease to be fun, get out. Stop what you're doing. Don't stick around for the nasty parts."
"Nope. We got it,” the boy told me.
I thought about how simple it is, this mini-manifesto I uttered. How adults do things even when they're not fun anymore just because they are some perfunctory motion and I thought about the times when I've consciously decided that something wasn't worth doing: a relationship, a job, something to which I'd given my time. Sure, I know some adults who could use this same advice. Mostly, me.
What do you need to stop doing because it's no longer fun?