Memories and the making of us through others

Classroom activities in early education say a lot about society and its values of the human.

One of my fond memories of kindergarten in Saigon is “fishing” from a pool of soft toys. I remember standing on the edge of what must have been a blown-up pool filled with parcels wrapped in decorative papers. I then had to fish a parcel from the pool. Every child had a fishing rod and every child fished a parcel. The parcels were mostly school stationery like pencils, reading books, colouring pencils and books. Occasionally there were teddy bears or dolls.

Many years later, I realised that this activity was more than just fun. The idea is that all children were equally deserving of rewards. It is less about the rewards themselves but that we could all participate in the fishing. Only a few children could fish at a time but eventually all children fished. The eyes lighted up and I remembered the excitement of unwrapping the parcels.  My teacher told us that fishing is about making effort rather than having things handed to us.

I also remember learning to write Vietnamese that year. I learnt how to use language by describing someone in my family. I was told that the first person I should write about is my mother. The journey of describing my mother started in kindergarten with basic description of “My mother has black long black hair. She is kind.” It became more sophisticated the following year when I was taught describing people should include not just physical attributes but the person’s role. My writing moved from the task-orientation of writing to role-orientation of Vietnamese mothers: “My mother is the pillar in my family. She dedicates her life to her husband and her family. She looks after my grandmother with the care and duty of a loving daughter.”

I left Vietnam after first grade, so I never continued the lessons of describing mothers. Years later, when I looked over some writings of a Vietnamese student I sponsored, I was curious to find a piece on mothers. She explained to me that describing mothers is a typical way of teaching students how to use language. The more the description considers cultural and moral aspects of people in society, the more worthy the writing is. The sophistication of the writer is not in how they see themselves but in how they see others. This is her introduction to an essay in 6th grade entitled “My Mother” – the same title of all other students’ essays in the same grade.

My mother’s long black hair flows like the river, dark but filled with light that is brighter than the moon, deep but shallow enough so I know I will never drown. My mother’s eyes remind me of the ocean, so deep that I get caught in the waves yet I know there is no abyss.”

Her illumination of mother to nature is about knowing her place in society, the role of humans, and recognition of an interconnection between human and nature as one. Expression of knowledge is about honouring her mother and her significance in her life. Some may argue that this is moral education. My student said it was actually how she saw her mother.

This focus on writing about others seems so different to my own children’s experiences in early childhood education in Australia. My children all had to create a Me-Box, often every year from kindergarten to third grade. A Me-Box contains anything that my sons put in the box that is important to them.

After several Me-Boxes that had almost the same things ranging from slime jelly, superheroes figurines, stickers, to first day at kindergarten photos, or chocolate bar wrappers, I thought this activity lacked creativity. I even suggested that my sons could just save Me-Boxes from previous year and put in a few more things. May be this was the idea, an accumulation of things overtime rather than a point in time.

I also thought that the Me-Box was all about elevating the human and significance of the self. Perhaps I was secretly wishing for my sons to be given a task where they could write something remarkable about me.

The Me-Box may be an act of memory in itself. It’s not the box and its contents, but a memory that could only be produced once the child has had that experience of making the box. A memory could only have a significance of the memory when looked back in later years. A memory that will only make sense to the child in adulthood, or for those that might look at the box in search of a certain memory. A memory is really a question with possibilities of answers about who we are and want to be.

In that way, the Me-Box in Australia has the same function as describing mothers or fishing toys in Vietnam. The contents of the box and the descriptive words are the socio-materials that provide us insights into who we are by seeing us through others. The act of creating the box is like the act of fishing from a pool of wrapped parcels – our “making” experiences shapes who we are and do, not the materials that we collect or take.

One year, my son did not make a box. He wrote a poem and illustrated it. I found the laminated poem at the end of the year during our annual end of school “keep it or trash it” school stuffs. I read the poem and remembered feeling really happy. I pinned it on my study room’s wall so I can read it once in a while. Here it is.

Perhaps Me-Boxes aren’t so bad when children are encouraged to think outside the box, when they don’t just mark their existence with materials that they own, but by the imaginary in which they could see their possibilities.

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