Wearing Darth Vader Underpants Every Day

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I looked up to see a familiar face. For a moment, however, I couldn't place it, but then recognized my friend who I'd not seen since he was five-years-old.

"I recognize you!" I blurted before his name came back to me. He was standing with his mom, pressed into her legs shyly, a posture I didn't recall from a couple years ago when we had seen one another almost every day. But, of course, he would feel that way. For a preschooler, two years is a very long time, nearly a quarter of his life, long enough to have completely forgotten his old preschool teacher.

Yet he hadn't forgotten me. He was here because he had told his mother he wanted to visit me. When she asked if it was okay, I'd said to feel free to drop by any time. It was the pre-Covid world and I always had an open door policy for alumni.

His mother nudged him to respond, "Hi, Teacher Tom."

I'd met Duncan as a two-year-old who was enthralled with his older sister, often coming to class wearing her old clothes, sharing stories about what Bella had done or said, drawing pictures and making paintings to take home to her as gifts. As he got older, he turned his attention to "great apes," which he taught me included chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. He wore our classroom gorilla costume almost every day, which included an anatomically correct backside that he would shake to make the rest of us laugh. During the three years that he and I were together he took himself along a wandering path of self-directed learning that carried him from Bella to the great apes, then, in a progression that made sense to him, on to dinosaurs, arachnids, outer space, Star Wars . . .

He intuitively signaled his changing interests by changing costumes, using dress-up as a way to embody his current driving passion. And through it all was woven an abiding interest in connecting with the other children, often bringing them along for portions of his journey.

In other words, he was a kid who always made the most of our days together.

I used my standard line that I use on visiting alumni, "Hey, I used to know a kid who looked a lot like you, but he was a smaller."

"It's me, Teacher Tom -- Duncan."

He was taking an afternoon off from first grade to be here. As much as I wanted to spend more time with him, I had other responsibilities so I left he and his mother to nostalgically go through the arrival routine of signing in, hanging up his jacket, stashing his backpack, and washing his hands. We later reconnected up by the cast iron water pump, which his mother had mentioned as something he particularly remembered. By then he had warmed up.

"This pump seems a lot smaller," he said. "Everything seems smaller. My school is huge."

"Yeah, well you got a lot bigger," I answered, "so you need a bigger school. Is your teacher bigger too?"

He thought about it for a second, not hearing it as a joke, then answered, "She's not bigger . . . but she's meaner."

"Oh, come on! She can't be that mean."

He conceded, "Well, she's not mean, but she made a rule -- no costumes except on Halloween."

"That's too bad."

"And she always wants us to tell her math facts."

"Wow, you know math facts? That's pretty cool."

"It's not cool, Teacher Tom. It's stupid."

"I hate doing stupid stuff."

"Me too, but did you know that I'm the smartest kid in my class?"

"I didn't know that."

"I know all the math facts. None of the other kids know all the math facts."

"That must make you feel good."

"It doesn't," he answered while lazily pumping water as the younger kids scrambled to dig channels in the sand into which it was flowing. The kids are always hoping for someone to pump the water for them and Duncan was obliging. "It makes me feel bored, but Bella told me that school is always boring. She's in fourth grade now."

"I'll bet Bella knows even more math facts."

He nodded earnestly, "She even knows more math facts than me. And she gets really good grades, like As and Bs. I also get As and Bs."

"And that's good?"

"Miss Herring says it's good," he answered brightly before glumly adding, "but I can do better."

I thought of the fully engaged boy from a couple years ago. "Good" and "better" and "smartest" and "bored" were not words anyone could ever attach to his learning. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last, that I've seen how this system we call school had taught yet another of my young friends to focus on competing, ranking, rating, and jumping through hoops rather than simply engaging the world through their own curiosity.  

I knew that this was why he had remembered preschool, however, and why he had wanted to return. I also knew that this was why his mother had pulled him out of school for a visit. As he reengaged with his self-selected project of being the big kid pumping water for the little kids, I stepped back to stand with his mother.

I asked her about the family and specifically about Duncan. She told me he was miserable at school. I sympathized, then repeated some of what he had said about math facts and grades. She replied, "Oh, he's doing fine. The school work is easy for him. It's this," she said, waving at arm at the playground, "that we're missing. I want that boy back . . . Look at him!"

He was down on his knees in the mud, taking charge of building a proper dam as the little kids swarmed around this big boy, everyone playing the trail and error game, the research technique that underpins most play.

"I won't be able to take him back to school now," she laughed. "They won't let him in the classroom covered in mud. I packed a couple of towels in the car just in case."

We stood together watching Duncan in his element for a long, silent moment, before she added, "But it's still in there, you know? All that time with you is still in there. I know that's why he needed to come back. Thanks for having us."

We send them off into the world, us play-based educators, knowing that while life itself is ultimately self-directed, schooling stands starkly apart as a place of pleasing adults, competition with your peers, and learning to game the system. It is a kind of battle they will be compelled to fight, one that pits their natural instincts and curiosity against tests, homework, and grades. We can only hope that we've fortified them for it. What gives me hope for Duncan and the other children I've taught is that "it's still in there." And because we're a cooperative school, it's still in their parents as well. 

Later, I found Duncan standing in front of our classroom costume rack looking disappointed. "I'm too big," he shrugged, "None of them fit me."

"Yeah, you always liked our costumes. Too bad you can't wear any at school."

"Actually, I do."

"But I thought you said your teacher has a rule."

"She does, but she doesn't know that I wear Darth Vader underpants every day!" We laughed together subversively.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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