by Nora Wheat, former staff member and parent

Reprinted from the April 2002 issue of “The School Bull,” the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

Spring is here and Clearwater field trips are in full bloom. Swimming trips have been especially popular lately and we are all growing familiar with the routine. Recently, two students and I made our way to a neighborhood pool. We paid, changed, showered and were in the water in record time. “Swim doughnuts” are the favorite pool toys of these four – and five–year–old students. One girl brought her own from home; I helped the other inflate one belonging to the pool. We played our usual games of jumping from the steps and swimming two feet to me, chasing floating balls that seem impossible to catch and glaring and disagreeing before choosing who should have the first piggy back ride all the way to the rope.

After 30 minutes of our usual pool play and dispute, a new toy came into view. I’m quite sure it had been there all along, but we needed time to discover something new. Intrigued, we asked about the large blue foam cut into the shape of a seal. It was a floating toy used to help kids learn to back float. Most importantly, it was available for us to use. I towed the girls in every combination imaginable. One at a time on her back. Two at a time on their stomachs. One on the seal and one on my back. Both with swim doughnuts around their waists and a seal flipper in hand. They giggled, splashed, scowled and squabbled but were generally accommodating of each other’s movements and ideas.

Quite the explorer, one student found a mini zoo of floating foam animals. She worked to situate herself on the belly of a foam goldfish while the other girl kicked about in her doughnut. Once the fish caught her eye, she excitedly paddled over.

“Hey, what’s that?” she asked and with out pause continued, “I want a turn.”
From the fish I heard, “Well I’m not sharing.”
“But why?”
“Because I found it first.”
“But I want it.”

They spoke in familiar tones. These are the voices I know from their daily struggles and compromises at school. Still I wondered if they might need some help with the goldfish. Only three feet away, I was confident I could reach them before any dramatic escalation of debate. Wading through the shallow water, I was slower moving than the lifeguard on deck. His rapid response time was admirable but this was not the life-threatening event he was trained for. He leaned over the water as they continued.

“Well, I did get it first.”
“Why can’t we share? I want to use it with you.”
“No, I’m doing it myself and I’m not sharing.”

That must have been the cue because immediately the lifeguard intervened. “Girls, these toys are for everyone.” He too continued without a pause, “Now, are you going to share?”

“No,” answered the girl from the fish.

He bent further over, reached his hand into the water and lifted the goldfish out. “Well, if you don’t share I’m going to take this and then no one can have it.”

The girls looked confused, started to speak out in resistance and soon were in tears. The pace of my wading quickened and I was able to catch the lifeguard, goldfish still in hand.

“Please stop,” I said, unsure of what to say next.

He turned, now showing his confusion.

“I don’t think taking the fish will teach them how to share. They just need a little more time.”

My arm extended and without a word, he handed me the fish.

These girls are excellent problem solvers and discover creative ways to share and take turns each day. In the pool, their method of conflict resolution went unrecognized by the adult who stepped in to “help.” Still wading, I reached the girls and returned the fish only a minute or so after it was taken from them. Too late. Any notion of the goldfish as fun had passed and they were holding the wall, wearing their doughnuts, splashing with their feet. Their play, conversation and friendship had resumed and neither looked the way of the goldfish or the lifeguard.

The remainder of our pool time, I felt a bit uncomfortable. It wasn’t my intention to override the lifeguard’s authority and I wanted him to know that. I approached him again and our conversation wandered from the abstract idea of sharing, to the importance of learning to do it, to the variety of parenting/adult styles of interacting with children, and closed with my choice to return the fish to the girls. We had some philosophical agreement yet I’m not sure we understood each other entirely. The key difference in our approach to sharing may be due to our relationship not with children, but with time.

As a lifeguard and swim teacher, he faces the enormous pressure of the clock. His day is broken into half–hour swim lessons and occasionally the luxury of a 90–minute open swim session. His success or failure may depend on the ability of a child to do the butterfly at the end of an eight–week session. When a disagreement over who will use the blue kick–board arises, he doesn’t have much time for kids to negotiate their own terms for sharing. Besides, he’s an adult with plenty of experience sharing. Doesn’t it make sense for children to learn from his experience and follow the sharing rules that he’s established for himself?

As a staff person at Clearwater, I do have time for the “Yes” “No” “Me first” “My turn now” debate that is often the first step as these students devise a plan to share. No bells or clocks are pushing me to pressure them into sharing my way. Their school days are rarely free from obstacles. Time and again these young girls rise to the challenge, struggling to reach conclusions deemed fair by both of them. Along the way, they grow conflict resolution skills and develop a more complete understanding of themselves as individuals and the relationship they share.

At Clearwater I don’t have to measure a child’s success and progress according to her achievements in any random eight weeks. Rather, I can admire endlessly as she develops her talents and skills. Here a student’s time is truly her own to use in any way that is meaningful to her. She may learn to back float in weekly 30-minute intervals with the help of a blue foam seal. She is equally entitled to spend 57 minutes of an hour-long swim session arguing with a friend over who should use the foam goldfish first.