Two ten-year-old girls came into the Kid’s Corner where I was volunteering today for the organization that helps Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, Poland. The girls scanned the toys quickly and headed for the doll bin.
I love to watch as a toy lures a child to play.
The girl with the long hair picked up a mermaid doll. She carried it over to me and said something in a quiet, sad voice.
Was she telling me that she had this same doll at home? Was she asking if she could play with the doll today?
I reached for my phone and turned on the translation program. I told her to say her words into the phone and the phone would change the words so I could understand them.
In a quiet voice she said, “I need to take this doll home because I don’t have enough time to play with it here.”
Now, I’ve been teaching a l-o-n-g time and can tell manipulation when I see it. I never mind when a child is trying to practice their power and control skills with me, but I’m not easy to fool.
“No. Sorry.” I said into my phone. “The doll must stay here.”
The girl frowned at me and dropped the doll on its head and moved over to the bin of teeny-tiny things. The other girl who may have been her sister followed.
Children carry their trauma with them wherever they go.
I was pretty sure the girl was going to fill her pockets with those teeny-tiny toys. I exhaled, played a song on the xylophone with another child and watched her out of the corner of my eye.
You can always tell when a child is about to steal by the quick turn of the head to see if you’re watching. Usually the child will keep looking in my direction while their hands take the item.
I saw the head turn and watched her watch me as she dropped two toys into her pocket.
There are four levels of scary in my voice.
Level ZERO: “I’m starting to get tired. I think I already talked about this. When I get tired I get grumpy.” (It’s sort of like the Incredible Hulk: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”) The children in my classroom hear this tone and 99% of the time and it is enough to change behavior quickly.
Level ONE: Stern voice. Not very scary.
Level TWO: Angry voice. A little scary.
Level THREE: I once made a senior in high school cry with this voice. His mother thanked me later, saying that a teacher finally got through to him. Over the next two months he changed his lying ways. This level is rarely used and always comes from the actor within; I’m not truly angry, just playing an angry person.
Since I don’t speak her language, I went right to Level ONE and adjusted my tone: “Take that out of your pocket. Those are my toys.”
She didn’t stick her tongue out at me, but you could tell she wanted to. She reached into her pocket and dramatically pulled the toys out and dropped them into the bin from high above.
“My toys.” I said, then marched away.
I sat with kids who were trying to figure out a game they had gotten out of the game bin. It’s like an old fashioned Wordle game, where you have to guess the secret code. I explained the game to the kids without my phone by pointing and using examples. The ten-year-old big sister and her 4-year-old little brother chose the first code.
I had to excuse myself from the game for a minute. I returned to the girls.
Level ONE voice with pointing. “Empty your pockets, now.”
The girl did. This time she was a little afraid, maybe from the pointing. I pointed to her other pocket. She turned it inside out to show me that there was nothing in there.
How sad. She has a history of thievery: someone else has made her turn her pockets inside out.
It’s likely that her sister filled her pockets, but I didn’t see it and didn’t feel comfortable accusing her of something I didn't see.
The girls stood in defiance and left the Corner. Their parents never signed them in; they was old enough to find their family in the shop.
Sigh. I thought about finding her mother and letting her know that her daughter needed some lessons in honesty, but didn’t want to leave the other children alone. And maybe her mother already knew. And maybe her mother had enough worries on her plate right now.
I returned to my Wordle game and though I don’t normally hold fussy babies, a mother asked for my help so she could shop faster. The baby’s nine-year-old sister was here to help out, too.
I held the whimpering baby and spoke in English. “Hi baby. I’m sure glad to meet you.”
He stopped crying. He watched me. His eyebrows went up. He smiled.
“Are my words so different?”
He relaxed into me.
I wondered if he could tell that I was on vacation and feeling happy and free.
Probably his family wasn’t feeling that way.
He sat on my lap and accepted the toys that I handed to him. After a few minutes he started nodding off.
Oh, there’s nothing like holding a sleeping baby.
Big sister typed something into her phone.
It translated to English. “Now I will let him sleep in his carriage.”
She lifted him out of my lap and placed him into his carriage where he fell into a fast sleep. Big sister sat next to the carriage and drew pictures.
Sleeping baby. Happy sister. Happy me.
Two little girls, maybe four-years-old, invited me to lunch at their kitchen restaurant.
I sat in front of an overturned bin and let them explain the menu while they filled my table with an assortment of plastic foods that had been added to the kitchen collection. No translation program needed for this game: it’s the same with every child, everywhere.
They chatted on and on about the foods that I was eating. I was mostly sure they weren’t serving me “Broiled Cat Tail” or some horror.
I slurped, I chewed loudly, I said yum as many times as I could.
The girls giggled and served me more food and more food.
I held my hands on my stomach and complained that I was full.
The brown-haired girl held up her fingers to show a little more. She was asking if I could eat just a little more.
Ok. Fine. I ate a little more, then left them to wash the imaginary food off the tiny plates.
I sat on a stool next to the coloring station. Watching children play is one of my favorite things to do. I always notice what toys kids choose, how they use the toys and how long they can play one game.
There are studies that show that the longer a child can play in his/her/their imaginary story, the higher the intelligence level.
A boy approached. He was maybe ten and spoke broken English with a British accent.
He asked how I was and let me know he was quite happy to be in the shop with his lovely mother. He needed new shoes and his mother found him a right-good pair.
This boy may be on the autism spectrum. He had a “woody” voice and was very particular about the words he chose.
I congratulated him on finding new shoes then asked him how he learned English so well.
“I love speaking to British people. Whenever they come to my city, I find them and talk to them for a long time. It’s quite cheery discussing life with British people.”
I decided right then that this was the highlight of my day: meeting a boy from the Ukraine who speaks in a British accent because he loved Brits. Later I thought I might have recorded his voice, just for my own cheery moments.
He said, “I had to leave all of my collections at home when I traveled here.”
“And my mother thought that maybe I could start a new collection while we’re staying here.”
“I thought I would start a collection of old train pieces.”
Seems random, but I told him that was a cool idea. Old train pieces.
He held up a battered piece of a wooden train track. The rest of the track had been thrown away because there weren’t enough pieces to make a track.
He asked me if I had any information about this one piece of track.
Nothing. Got nothing.
He said it was the kind of piece he would like to collect.
I smiled. Hello power and control.
I was surprised this piece of track wasn’t thrown away with the other pieces. “Would you like to take this piece from the old train set home with you, to start your collection?
His eyes lit up. “Oh, could I? Really?”
Yes. You can.
“But I don’t have any money.”
“It is a gift. You can have it.”
I showed him the block bin and told him that if he found any more pieces of the set in that bin, he could have them too.
He would methodically search the bin and find one more piece of track, but first I watched as he found his mother in the store and spoke very fast to her. She looked at him and listened. She didn’t seem as excited about his new collection as he was, but she let him keep the pieces.
And she never gave me that side-eye that some parents do when their children dig though the toy bins in the shop to take things home.
Nobody wants junk.
Well, expect this boy.
He showed me an old Fisher Price phone that was from 1961.
“Did you know you have a very old phone here in the play area?”
Yes. And that phone must stay here for the children to play with.
“But, of course.”
Thanks for reading.
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