I wasn’t potty trained until I was three-years-old, but not for lack of enormous effort on the part of my mother. I must have frustrated the dickens out of her when I refused to give up my cloth diapers and finally wear big girl underpants…which was probably every day from 1967 until the summer before my birthday in 1969. She tried everything, including plopping me on the little potty and pouring water over my bottom to give me the right idea.
Scowling at her, I snarled, “Don’t you never, never do that to me again!”
Of course, I have no memory of this, but Mom loved to tell the story of how I was stubborn, right from the very start. She’d laugh whenever she regaled someone about how ox-like I was about toilet training until the day when she walked up to me, her hands splayed on her very pregnant belly and said, “Kate, we need those diapers for the new baby.”
Once I asked her, “What did I do then?”
“You unpinned your diaper and said, ‘Here…take it!’” Mom frowned. “It made me so mad that wouldn’t just do it, that I had to give you a reason!”
I shrugged. “You had to give me a good reason that didn’t include the words because I said so.”
I'm reminded of one my bosses at Esalen who used to tease me whenever he'd tell me how to properly hoe or plant or harvest and I'd respond, "Oh, that makes sense."
"Does everything have to make sense to you?" John asked one afternoon while we were planting fennel on the farm.
"One some level, yes," I replied. "I guess it's the teacher in me. I don't mind doing something as long as I know there's a purpose, even if it's thinly veiled in mystery."
To this day, I'm the same way. I don't mind following directions if there's a good reason behind it. Still, I'd much rather make up my own rules as I go along.
When I was an elementary school teacher, every year on the first day, my new students and I started the morning by creating the classroom rules. As someone who preferred to be authoritative rather than authoritarian, I felt it was important that everyone be involved in the management of the learning environment, especially first graders.
"To keep it simple, there will be only five rules," I explained, turning on the overhead projector and uncapping a purple pen. "As your teacher, I'll write the first one, but you get to decide the rest as a group."
Twenty-five little faces beamed at me, as I imagine it was a novel idea to make up the rules instead of only having to follow them.
Carefully, I wrote the cover-all edict Please follow directions. "Does anyone know what this says?"
Typically one or two kids knew the word please, but I needed to read the rest. "So this simply means that if I give you a direction, or a classroom helper, or any other teacher does, then it's important that you follow it. I'll do my best to explain the direction so you'll understand that I'm not bossing you around. I don't like that, do you?"
Twenty-five little ones shook their heads.
Then I'd regale them with my potty-training story, and they all squealed with delight. Imagine your first grade teacher not wanted to surrender their diapers! Imagine her even being a little kid!
"Okay...what's next?" I asked, my pen poised.
Every year the students came up with variations of the same ideas: Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Raise your hand to speak. Do your own work. I always liked to suggest Please be kind to one another.
Once the rules were completed, I bounced my eyebrows. "Now you get to make up the consequences."
I swear that every single time I said that, a few of the kids rubbed their hands together in gleeful anticipation of formulating penalties they hoped they'd never have to endure. Of course, I made sure none of them involved inflicting bodily harm or humiliation. Still, I remember the consequence the kids disliked the most was having to take a chair to the back of the room for five minutes if he or she shouted out an answer instead of raising their hand. All I'd have to say would be something to the effect of, "Sheryl, rule number three, consequence number four," and the child knew what they had done and what it would cost them.
There was rarely any argument; however, in the event that a child refused, I'd calmly reply, "Now you're breaking rule number one. Consequence number four again." That meant another five minutes in the classroom penalty box. For some of my kids, it was a heck of a way to tell time.
Once the rules and consequences were complete, I turned off the overhead and smiled. "Okay...the first question I'm going to ask you is the most important one I'll ask all year -- who is the boss of you in our classroom?"
"You are!" a child always answered.
"No," I'd reply, shaking my head. "I'm your teacher, not your boss."
"My mom?" another replied.
Looking around the room, I asked, "Where is she? I don't see her."
The kids wrinkled their little brows as if to say, If you're not the boss of me, then who is?
Sometimes there was a wise, old soul who raised their hand and said, "I'm the boss of me."
"That's right," I winked. "You're in charge of you." Then I looked at another child and say, "And you're the boss of you." Then I'd repeat that to every single child around the room.
As they looked at me wide-eyed, I said, "Every one of you is responsible for whatever you do in school...or don't do. You're the boss of your body. You're the boss of your hands and feet. And you're especially the boss of your mind. So whatever you choose to do or think or say has consequences. Some of them you might not like." I nodded toward the list we had just written. "Others you might really like, for example a good grade on a spelling test because you studied for it. Or maybe I'll catch you following directions and you can pick a bookmark or a pencil from the goody jar. Just remember that since you're the boss of you, you need to accept the consequences for every choice you make."
There were always kids who tested my limits. Who wanted to circumvent the extent of the boundaries. The first six weeks of school were mainly about establishing the reality that the children were indeed their own bosses and had to be accountable for their behavior. At first, that didn't sit well with some of the more challenging children, but when one of the best-behaved kids inadvertently shouted out or broke another rule, I'd be consistent in asking him or her to take their consequence. After that, no one gave me any guff because they soon learned I might have been firm, but I always tried to be fair. Not every day was perfect, but most days were filled with lots of learning, creativity, and love because the children understood that to take responsibility for their actions was the quickest way to move forward.
When grade card day arrived, some of the kids thanked me for their good marks. "Go look in the mirror," I replied. "Thank that person, not me. I'm not the boss of your grades...."
"I am!" they chimed right in.
"Oh, Miss Ingersoll," one little boy laughed. "I'm so glad I get to be my own boss."
Today, more than ever, I'm thankful for the very same reason.
Over the years, I've had a few bosses I've admired and respected. A couple I've reviled because of their lack of integrity and accountability. Now that I've been my own boss for the better part of seventeen years, I've learned that to go it alone is wonderfully empowering, yet a huge responsibility. It's been an incredible blessing and sometimes an overwhelming obligation. Still, after twenty years of practicing mindfulness, I now make choices intentionally, no longer allowing myself to be unconsciously motivated by fear, anger, or disillusionment. The decisions I make about my work, how I live, and how I interact with others aren't necessarily conventional, but then again, I'd much rather be a salmon swimming upstream, returning to the place of my birth to continually spawn new ideas, to launch new levels of creativity, to constantly and consciously challenge myself to grow beyond the person I used to be.
Last week I was having lunch with a friend at a local deli. The teenager behind the counter overheard us talking about our teaching days. He heard me mention a preschool at which I taught yoga and asked if I knew a couple of girls who live in his neighborhood.
"Oh, yes!" I smiled. "I taught Heather's class way back when."
"I sometimes babysit for her," the teen nodded. "She can be a real handful."
"She was back then, too," I agreed.
The teen gave me a knowing look. "Yeah...both of them are just like their parents."
"Aren't we all?" I deadpanned. "Until we get some good therapy."
My point wasn't to slam my mother or father, but to remind myself that with time and patience, I've learned how to unwind the thought and behavior patterns from my childhood so that I can integrate the ones that are healthy and gently let go of the ones that are not. Only then can I be more aware of what I say, how I think, what I believe, and how I behave based not on parroting someone else's choices, but based on who I truly am.
Now it's easy to get up every morning and pull on my big girl panties, recognizing that while I may not know everything that lies ahead, I'll move through each day being my own boss and accepting the myriad of consequences as they arrive moment by moment...the best ones still being thinly veiled in mystery.