I asked several classes of kindergarteners what happens when they get frustrated, and almost every class responded like this:
“I take three deep breaths to calm myself down.”
“I talk to a teacher.”
“I find something else to do.”
These were not the answers I was looking for, so I tried something different.
“Show me what you look like when you’re frustrated.”
Faces scrunched up.
Lips pursed, fists clenched, arms crossed. I even heard some growls.
Now we were getting somewhere.
“Anybody stomp their feet?” I asked.
“Anybody throw things?” I lowered my voice as though I was confessing too.
Now that I had them good and riled up, I held up Bernice Gets Carried Away, a story by Hannah E. Harrison about a little girl cat who goes to a party in the forest and nothing goes her way.
“She is frustrated!” one student said, pointing to Bernice, who was on the cover of the book.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Her hands on her hips!”
“Her eyes!” They all blurt out.
“Exactly,” I said. “Bernice is frustrated.”
“Why’s she mad?” one student asked.
Here, I believe, is the work of empathy. Sure, it is important to settle oneself when one is feeling frustrated, but not at the risk of ignoring it all together, of shoving it deep within ourselves because we are ashamed or afraid of what might happen if we let ourselves feel frustrated. When we can name frustration within ourselves, when we know what it feels like, when we can see it in others and be curious and concerned about that person experiencing it. Perhaps frustration can teach us something. Perhaps frustration is useful.
“Let’s find out why Bernice is frustrated,” I said, and began the story.
Bernice’s day gets worse before it gets better. No flower on her piece of cake. Warm pop (and prune-grapefruit flavor at that). No turn at the piñata and no candy; just a stepped-on gumdrop.
Most of the classes were quiet at this point, and I could tell they felt sorry for little Bernice. Some students said, “I’d be mad, too.”
I agreed. So far, this party stinks. Bernice has had it. So when the balloons come out, she doesn’t take any chances. “MINE!” she screams, and grabs them all.
And then Bernice literally gets carried away. Up toward the sky she goes, and on her trip she sees other creatures who aren’t having the greatest day either. A squirrel looks grumpy. A mama bird is crying because she has an empty next. A cloud can’t stop weeping rain.
Bernice gives them each a balloon. In doing so, she not only brings herself back down to earth, but also she cheers others up along the way. Misery loves company, but I think joy knows how to turn it into a party.
“How about we make balloons for each other?” I suggested after we’d read the story.
I pointed to pieces of construction paper, crayons, and straws, and explained that we’d tape the paper to the straw to make a balloon.
“We”ll brighten peoples’ day, like Bernice did,” I told them.
“We can write, ‘Thank you,’ or ‘I love you,'” a student suggested.
“We could,” I said. “That’s a great idea.”
“We could draw a heart,” another student said.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Drawing is also a great thing to do.”
And so the classes made balloons for friends and loved ones. There were balloons for moms and dads, and nanas and papas – everyone could think of someone they could give a balloon to.
One little girl, Catherine, who I’ve known for a couple of years now, asked me if I’d help her tape the straw to the paper balloon.
“I’m giving the balloon to Becky,” Catherine said. Becky, who was close by, lifted her head at the sound of her name. “That’s nice,” I told Catherine.
“And she’s going to give her balloon to me,” Catherine stated.
I worried. Was this something Catherine decided, or was this something the two of them agreed upon earlier? I quickly looked at Becky’s balloon: “To Mom and Dad,” she’d written.
This is Catherine’s second time in kindergarten. Her class is on their third teacher this year. I know enough about Catherine’s home life to know she has more to be frustrated and heartbroken about than whether she gets a flower on her piece of cake.
Becky knows none of this, and perhaps she has her own troubles. (Don’t we all?) However, she knows what a friend looks like, and she knows what it means to be a friend. She rose from her chair, walked to Catherine, and handed her the balloon. “And this one is for you,” Becky said.
Catherine smiled and took the balloon.
“What’s it say?” she asked.
“To Mom and Dad,” Becky said.
I watched the two girls and waited.
“It’s for your mom and dad,” Becky said. “And your brother and your new baby sister. And do you have any pets? It can be for your pets too.”
“Thank you,” Catherine said. “I don’t have any pets, but my baby sister is brand new. She shouldn’t put this in her mouth.”
Catherine handed Becky the balloon she’d made for her, and the two left the library holding each other’s hands, their balloons tucked in the stories they carried with them.
This week, write a poem that begins in frustration (or fear, or sadness) but ends in joy – a bunch of bouncy, colorful balloons.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt challenge. Here’s a poem by Lynn that we enjoyed.
A Writer’s Dream Book
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—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine