When my daughter Grace was in the second grade, she staged a small, gentle revolution against a powerful person. Now 14 ½ and in eighth grade, she wrote the following memoir for an English assignment:
The Small Rebellion
By Grace Springer-Goldberg
In second grade, I was not much of a deep thinker or a fighter for the people’s rights. But I was definitely aware of what was going on around me socially. Mostly, I was that hyper kid, more interested in running around like a maniac and giggling to the point of spontaneous combustion than in second grade drama.
As a second grader, it was your responsibility to know what games or kinds of play were approved by Her Majesty. For example, playing tag with the boys was not approved. But playing house, as long as the Queen was the mom, was. It was also important to cater to all the Queen’s needs and obey her requests and orders. I was not a part of the Queen’s entourage, but when she directly asked me for something, I would comply unenthusiastically.
One day, Her Highness told me to bring her hot lunch from inside the classroom, since we were on the playground. Just as I was about to get up, I thought about a talk I had had with my mom the previous day. “Why is she the Queen?” I had asked.
“She is only Queen because you are her servants,” my mother had replied. “When you all stop acting like servants, she won’t be the Queen anymore.”
I looked the sovereign in her eye. “No,” I said.
“What?” said the regent of second grade.
“I am not getting your lunch. You can get it yourself.”
Her ladies-in-waiting froze, and a look of shock petrified the empress’s face. What would become of me? Would I be exiled to play tag with the boys forever? Or worse, become a lonesome hermit of the sandbox? Instead, she turned to her second-in-command, the only one she knew was truly loyal to the Queen. “Get me my hot lunch,” she ordered, and the girl ran to do her bidding. I walked away, knowing I would never return.
Even though I was busy playing with the boys and being a hermit of the sandbox, I noticed something. Her servants were rebelling, even if in small ways. “No, Your Greatness, actually, I want to eat my pear. You can’t have it.” These actions became more noticeable. Pretty soon, the Queen realized her dynasty was crumbling, and she stopped giving commands. The second grade slowly became a Republic of equals who welcomed back the hermit of the sandbox and their erstwhile Queen.
And that is what democracy looks like.
When Grace came home every day complaining about the little girl in her class who had become the Queen, I worried. Most of my memories of elementary school involve being bullied and excluded, and I had chosen Waldorf education for my children partly in the hope that a school that professed to take the social development of children as seriously as their academic growth would tolerate no bullying or exclusion. Grace’s teacher certainly did not permit any bullying in her class, but the dynamic among the girls was subtle.
The Queen was a stunningly beautiful little girl, with large, light eyes and long, dark hair. She was also a well-behaved, soft-spoken child who was never overtly cruel or rude. But she understood power better than any other child in the class, and had figured out, probably by accident, that her social desirability as #1 Most Requested Playdate could be leveraged into getting her own way with other girls all the time. I don’t blame her for taking full advantage of it. What young child, helpless, for the most part, in a world governed by adults and older siblings, doesn’t long for everyone to have to do what she says for a change? The temptation must have been too great to resist. The young Queen gradually created a court of her closest friends, surrounded by a larger circle of other girls who longed to please her, to get close to her, to be accepted, perhaps, into that enchanted inner ring. They would do anything she asked.
Grace told me at the time that no one else seemed to object to the arrangement. The Queen’s was a benevolent dictatorship, most of them seemed to feel. But it drove my child crazy. She wanted to know why, if someone had to be Queen, they couldn’t take turns so that she could get to be Queen sometimes. She wondered why, if it had to be someone, why it had to be this particular girl. “What’s so special about her?” she asked me. “She’s nice, but she’s not better than anyone else.” She wondered why they needed to have a Queen at all. The boys seemed to get along just fine without a king.
When she asked me why this girl was the Queen, it took everything I had learned as a parent to remember that my children are having their childhood, not mine. My first instinct was to explain all about bullying and power, to urge her to identify the source of oppression and fight against it. But that was the advice my younger self had needed, not my daughter, and giving it to her would make no more sense than forcing her to play a sport or an instrument I’d always wished I had learned. I thought about how much abstraction she could handle (none), and how deeply she was capable of analyzing a social situation (barely at all), and then I really listened to her question: Why is this girl the Queen? Not the President, not the boss, the Queen.
Her vocabulary was straight out of the language all Waldorf children share–the language of fairy tales. Fairy tales are of paramount importance in the early-childhood Waldorf curriculum. Nursery and kindergarten teachers tell (never read) all kinds of fairy tales to the children, mostly from Grimm’s, but tales from other traditions, as well. Kindergarten teachers also perform hypnotically beautiful puppet shows for their classes, and the children frequently recreate these puppet shows in their own play. Fairy tales are the language arts curriculum for the first grade: the children illustrate the tales in their Main Lesson books as they learn to read and write. Teachers also sometimes create stories to address a class’s particular challenges.
By describing her problem in terms of fairy tale characters, Grace was telling me everything I needed to know to help her. She didn’t need a Marxist analysis; she needed a solution that made sense in the terms in which she was already thinking. She imagined herself into the role of a servant who no longer wished to serve, who had never agreed to serve in the first place, and with her example, the other girls were able to do the same.
I love this story from Grace’s childhood and from the history of her class, which graduates this spring after eight years together with the same teacher and many of the same kids. I love her courage to disrupt the power system, even as a little girl, and the entertaining way she writes about the incident now. I love how fairy tales lived in the children deeply enough for real-world application. I love what the incident taught me about mothering my children in their reality, rather than mine.
But most of all, I love how it ends. The Queen was not sent to the scullery or the stables to be punished and to repent of her high-handed ways. She was not overthrown by another, more ruthless tyrant who would have been that much harder to defeat. She was reintegrated into a society of loving equals, who were happy to have her back as their friend.