A couple of summers ago I had the great fortune to be able to help a friend of mine a few hours a week with her Montessori pre-school. As the eldest of six kids growing up, loving children and not having my own, this experience was a welcome break from my usual high-tech reality. What so amazed me was that each of these 20 or so 3 and 4 year olds was a vast and extraordinary universe in and of him and herself. All of humanity’s emotions, joys, despairs, and conflicts were played out every day in our little classroom.
My favorite student (and as much as teachers try otherwise, we all have our favorites) was a 4 year-old girl named Zoe. She sparkled with intelligence and enthusiasm and displayed unusual grace and maturity for her age. Everyone loved Zoe. So I was surprised one day when, during lunch, she asked to sit next to another student, Matthew (not his real name), and he ignored her, not letting her in. He continued to ignore her that day, even when Zoe asked him point blank, “Matthew, my feelings are hurt that you won’t play with me. What did I do wrong? Why won’t you play with me?”
Zoe came to me in tears over this rejection. Years of lost loves and lost friends flashed before me; I could feel her pain, and here it was, starting so young. I was reminded of some self-help book for women and how to cope with a break-up. “Zoe,” I said, “not everyone is going to like you everyday, no matter what you do. Sometimes you just have to hang back and not try so hard to play with that particular person. Sometimes if you do that, they will come to you on their own. And if they don’t, you just have to remember that ‘you have better things to do’. Find someone who does want to play with you and play with that person instead.”
The next day Zoe tried again to play with Matthew and again he ignored her. This time she smiled at him and said, “That’s okay. I have better things to do.” Eventually Matthew got over whatever it was that was going on with him and when I checked in a week later they were playing together as if nothing had ever happened.