This post originally appeared in The Sudbury Valley School Journal, volume 27, no. 5, May 1998.
A young girl of nine or ten asked me to teach her math. I gave her some problems which she enjoyed doing. Next day she came to me with many sheets of paper covered with similar problems which she made for herself and then solved. She is obviously doing math with great motivation and so when she asked me to help her again I responded by setting time for her immediately.
We walked into an empty room, flipped the "Do not disturb" sign and just when I sat down she told me that before she could work with me she HAD to go help her friend C. find something in the coat-room. She was gone before I could react. So I sat there waiting for her not knowing for how long. At first I felt patient and indulgent. But, as time went by I was starting to feel angry with H. for wasting my time, for ditching me and being inconsiderate towards me. I decided to stay put and wait and see what would happen.
Indeed, when H. returned, looking pleased that she helped her friend find what she had lost in a different place than they first thought it would be, she looked totally innocent of any unkindness towards me. I understood that in H.'s mind it was clear that to help her friend was much more important than to learn math and she took it for granted that I, being a nice person, would think the same. It occurred to me that if all of us could have our priorities so clear, our relationships with others would be so much better. It seems to me that most of us are less wise than this child of nine is. We seem to defer each other's emotional needs in favor of our work, duties, monetary considerations and such. I am glad that H. made me wait for her math lesson and that instead she taught me a more important lesson which I hope will stay with me.
Later that day the very same H. lost her jacket. She came to me and asked me if I had seen it (now that she sees how much math I know she thinks I know everything). Of course I didn't, but remembering how she helped C. I offered to help her. She was in distress and refused to look for it. She said that her mom was waiting in the parking lot and she didn't want to make her wait. But she was upset about losing her jacket. I told her to go and ask her mom if she had time to wait and if not I assured her that her jacket would be in the Lost and Found the next day. Again I was privy to this wonderful girl's habit of weighing choices between material things and people's needs and deciding to opt for others' feelings. It flashed through my mind that I have in the past not been sensitive to a child's distress at losing things and have scolded them at a time when I should have been comforting. Anyone observing H.'s dilemma would have seen this clearly but I must have missed such situations many times, too many times. We adults are quick to assume children need our guidance when in truth they need our support and understanding, as all people do.