Aden is in third grade. She attends a public Montessori school fewer than two miles from our home. In Montessori education you keep the same teacher for three years and the classrooms are mixed age, so Aden has had the same teacher since first grade. Montessori isn’t generally big on homework unless the individual child needs it or there is a special project due. Aden usually has a little homework aimed at strengthening certain reading or math skills, and every day either her dad or I am supposed to read her school diary and correct any spelling or grammar problems.
(This is not Aden doing homework, this is her trying to dig fossils out of a fossil-digging block her grandparents gave her, but it’s the same place she does do her homework, and it’s the closest thing I have to her looking studious.)
Aden’s school diary cracks me up. Her cursive is good, her spelling is improving. The content is usually bland because she’s just trying to get it done. The first line is nearly always “I did my D.O.L.” which I think in Montessori-ese is ‘Daily Oral Language’ but I don’t know what that means, and if it’s not part of lunch or recess or gym it’s unlikely Aden will ever tell me. Sometimes Aden gets bored with conventional writing and turns it into a code. There will be a key off to the side with colored blobs to represent words such and “I” and “the” and then the diary entry looks like a row of Christmas lights strung together with verbs and nouns. It’s harder to proofread, but very pretty. Aden writes about group lessons or special classes, once in awhile about fun things she does with other students, but nothing particularly interesting. No, the good stuff is all in the margins.
In the margins Aden draws. She’s a good artist with an eye for colors and patterns I’ve come to trust. I used to get in trouble for drawing in the margins of my work when I was a kid, but individual expression is encouraged in Montessori school, so as long as she finishes the writing part of the assignment she can add as many drawings as she likes. In first and most of second grade it was all narwhals. We saw a narwhal tusk in the unicorn tapestry room at the Cloisters on a visit to New York a couple of years ago, and Aden was really taken with it. I don’t think there was another child anywhere who cranked out as many narwhal drawings in that span of time. But the narwhals have faded from the margins this year and been replaced by drawings of little girls battling dragons with swords and other fantastical scenes.
If she doesn’t get around to showing us her diary to sign, sometimes she attempts forgery. She’s getting better at that, too, but she still hasn’t figured out I never sign anything outside of personal notes with ‘Kory,’ so the teacher usually circles the suspect signature as a sign that it’s not going to fly. I was pretty good at forging my parents’ signatures when I was younger. The first time Aden signs my name in a way that passes muster I will be strangely proud.
Aden is a procrastinator, which is a trait that has my DNA all over it so I try to sympathize when she drags her feet, but it can make getting her to finish her homework frustrating at times. However, she had homework this week that was very interesting and she did it right away. Her dad mentioned it, because at violin lessons he’d run into another child from Aden’s class who was working on the same thing and having a little trouble. I asked Aden about it over dinner, and the way she described it was she had a drawing of a person, and she was supposed to name five qulities you could notice about that person that would make you think he or she would make a good friend, three external and two internal. Of course when I asked her what she listed it was two whole hours later so she didn’t remember, but she invited me to read the finished assignment when I had the chance.
As far as homework goes, I found it fascinating. I thought about it for a moment and admitted to Aden that I don’t know what I would write if the same assignment were given to me. In theory we shouldn’t judge people by what we see on the surface, but in reality we do it all the time. We have to. We don’t have time to do in depth interviews with everyone we come in contact with in an average day just to decide where to sit or stand on the bus or at the bank. If I’m walking alone at night and I’m nervous I am less likely to cross the street to avoid a man in a suit than someone in grubbier clothes because I can’t imagine a mugger in a suit. (I can, but it’s silly looking.)
But to choose a friend? What external cues would I find important? I suppose if someone were carrying objects I could relate to, like an instrument case or a really nice block plane, that would be a person I’d be more likely to start a conversation with. Someone handing out cupcakes is someone I want to be near. I’d be intimidated by a person dressed really well since that’s beyond me. I would probably avoid anyone staggering around with a bloody knife or holding protest signs I disagreed with. I do tend to talk with other people with small children because I suppose I feel a kinship there. How much would I discriminate based race or gender? I would hope not much. One of the few things I find disgraceful about Milwaukee is how segregated it is, and when I first moved here I remember striking up a conversation with a man fishing in a river near my apartment and he looked startled. He was an older African-American man and I was genuinely interested in his experience fishing in the city, but he smiled at me and said, “You aren’t from here, are you?” He told me white people from Milwaukee never thought to say ‘hello’ to him. I hope living here hasn’t changed me in that way. I don’t think so, but we are often poor judges of ourselves so I’m not sure.
Jewelry? T-shirt slogans? Shoes? Matching gloves? Two tickets to that thing I love? I really don’t know what I would put down. For the internal qualities, I would go with humor and kindness. That’s easy. If you are a caring person and you can make me laugh you might not be able to get rid of me.
When I asked Aden again what she wrote down she thought really hard and said for external qualities she included a nice smile, and maybe a cute animal on his or her T-shirt. She said she would not want to be friends with a bully, and maybe someone like that would have blood on his or her clothes. For internal qualities she said someone who is nice and made you feel included.
I think that’s what she said. It’s hard for me to remember at this point because we’re gearing up for snow-mageddon-aclypse-a-rama or whatever ultra hypey language the news is putting onto this storm. As long as we don’t have to go anywhere in it, it’s just sledding and hot cocoa weather to us. I hope everyone else out there in the path of the snow stays warm and safe.