My three-year-old nephew met me at the door to his house and shouted, “Auntie Bronnie, I have no clothes on!” It was hot, and he was happy to be unencumbered by clothing. He’s going through a frightened phase where he needs reassurance about almost everything but at his core, he is a loved, confident little boy and it reassured me to see how comfortable he was literally in his own skin.
We put clothes on him to go out to dinner and in the process, every time he got a little insecure, he’d verbalize it. “Auntie Bronnie, you haven’t visited me in a long time.” “I know, it’s been a while. I love you and I miss you too.” “Auntie Bronnie, can I sit by you at dinner?” “Yes, Thomas, remember, you already asked me? Six times? What was my answer?” “That you’d sit next to me!” Big smile. “Can Auntie Bronnie stay at our house tonight?” “No, I’m going to go back to my own house, but you can come see me soon. Would you like that?”
Each question earned a patient answer from me or one of his parents. Even though I knew that fearful phase was tough on his parents, they were patient and kind and explained things to him, often repeatedly. I can tell that he’s going to be all right.
In the eight years that I worked at an extremely under-resourced school in Oakland, I worked with a lot of kids who were never all right. Kids who didn’t get calm, loving answers to their questions over and over (and over). I’ve worked with kids who were hit if they asked the same questions too often, or who were “only” berated or called stupid. These kids, unsurprisingly, sometimes seemed more like they were wearing armor than clothing. They didn’t have private front yards where they could run around naked and without worry. They lacked the chance to be a carefree child that my nephew had. They didn’t learn that the world was a safe place.
That’s why I was so happy about the stuffed animals.
I taught third grade in Oakland for many years, the part of Oakland that everybody knows, the part that gives Oakland its bad reputation. As third graders, my students had already seen people on drugs, selling drugs, arrested, shot, and stabbed. They had lost parents to drugs, murder, and incarceration. Sometimes just the stress of living in such an environment prevented their parents from caring for them well. Many of the students were hard and jaded, and I loved them.
We never had enough supplies at my school, so I scanned Craigslist and Freecycle, and hit up anyone and everyone for donations. Freecycle is an online resource for people who want to find a new home for their old things and avoid landfills. This can be extraordinarily helpful for teachers, and I was constantly searching for supplies there. One day, there was a posting on my local Freecycle offering two garbage bags of like-new stuffed animals to a good home. I didn’t think my cynical, world-weary third-graders would actually go for something as “childish” as stuffed animals, but I picked them up, thinking I could give them to a kindergarten class.
I was so wrong.
Still expecting few takers, I laid out all the stuffed animals on the carpet where we read stories, and invited each kid to pick a number to determine the order in which they would choose their animal. To my shock, these kids were excited. They didn’t even fight about the order because they were so happy at the prospect of picking out their own stuffed animal.
There were all sorts of stuffed animals. Big fluffy teddy bears and lions; little fish, turtles, and cats, even giraffes. For the first time, the students didn’t argue with each other. Once or twice, a child saw a stuffed animal being chosen and said, “Oh, I wanted that one… but I like this one even better!” All the children ended up with their proclaimed favorite. They all named their animals and put them on top of their desks for the rest of the day.
The love for the stuffed animals endured for quite a while. Some kids took theirs home and slept with them and told me all about how much they loved and took care of them. Some kids left theirs at school to stay in their desk for company during the school day. Some gave me the honor of taking care of their stuffed animal an hour or two. Some took them out to recess. If the kids were nervous about tests, the stuffed animal sat on the desk with them.
It was amazing. These eight-year-olds were tough. They were growing up so fast and under such difficult circumstances that it felt like a miracle to see the little child in them; to see them acting like my nephew. These were kids who hid from gang shootings and threatened to shoot people who bothered them. After the stuffed animals, these same children were kids as they were meant to be, loving and caring for a treasured toy. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
So, thank you to the Freecycler with the Hefty bags of stuffed animals. It was an honor to see these children able to practice compassion, responsibility, and companionship, and to be able, for a little while, to shed some of their heavy armor.
Bronwyn Harris is a veteran teacher from the Oakland Unified School District and the author of the upcoming book Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. More information about the book can be found at bronwynharrisauthor.com