Stephan flung open the door in his usual grand entrance style. The huge grin on his face couldn’t have been any wider. Each day he came ready to rock his preschool day. It wasn’t until I looked down at his feet that I noticed something different. On one foot Stephan was wearing an almost knee high brown leather cowboy boot, while the other foot was wedged into a slightly too small flip flop that forced his chubby toes to dangle precariously over the edge.
“Stephan dressed himself this morning,” his mother said timidly. Her eyes met mine and I could tell she was hoping I wouldn’t label her a “bad mom.” I could only imagine what might have transpired at home for her to reach the point where his choice of footwear was not a battle she chose to fight.
“Well, dressing oneself is certainly an important thing to practice”, I replied.
I figured an impromptu lesson on acceptance would be needed at preschool today. Surely one of Stephan’s friends would notice his mismatched shoes and call him out. “Hey, why don’t your shoes match?” “You look stupid with those things on your feet? “Are you a baby or something?”
I imagined I would start my lesson by asking, “Who knows what acceptance means?” I’d let a few kids share their ideas and then tell them I want to read a story about a little mouse named Chrysanthemum. “Chrysanthemum” by Kevin Henkes, tells the story of a sweet little mouse who loves her long name until her classmates tease her about it.
After reading the book I would ask, “How do you think Chrysanthemum felt when her friends made fun of her?” “Would you like it if someone made fun of you?” I would end with the positive statement that at our preschool we are kind to everyone. It would be a great lesson indeed. It would be a lesson they would remember so well they would pass it onto their children someday. This lesson would surely change lives.
All I needed was for someone to make fun of Stephan’s feet.
Stephan had his usual active day at school. He built huge ramps and parking garages for cars and trucks. He read his favorite dinosaur book and used his hands to roll soft, green playdough into slithering snakes. While outside he chased his friends and climbed the ladder to the top of the fort. When his flip flop fell off while swinging, a friend simply slipped it back on his foot without even asking why he was wearing a boot on the other foot.
It turned out my well planned lesson was not needed. For although I waited, there was never a question, an odd look or taunting laughs directed at Stephan. Instead of my teaching them, they taught me.
Over and over again preschoolers have shown me what acceptance looks like. Like when Bryce proudly showed off his purple painted fingernails his grandmother had painted the night before. Or when Bella dressed as a pirate in February, long after Halloween had come and gone. The countless times Maggie brought her faded, threadbare blanket for show and tell because she loved it so much. When Jeremy dressed in a shimmery pink gown and sparkly tiara and proclaimed himself Queen Violet. When Kimiko , who spoke only Japanese, joined preschool not once did kids say they couldn’t understand her. Instead they found ways to communicate and build friendships with smiles and laughter.
I wonder how the world would be different if we never unlearned what preschoolers already know. They know that smiles matter. Being a friend matters. Being kind matters. They also know that what doesn’t matter, not even one little bit, is what clothes we wear, what name we call ourselves, what language we speak, what color we are and certainly not what we wear on our feet.