The Weight ofnBricksnby Janet Scott BarlownAre we all going crazy? A fewnmonths ago, I read a newspaperncolumn containing information sonshocking yet unsurprising, so awful yetnpredictable, that I was overcome bynemotional vertigo. Then, seemingly outnof nowhere, I thought of John andnLawrence, two children I knew longnago, and disorientation was replaced byngeneralized depression. The lesson ofnJohn and Lawrence is that the pastnindeed is prologue.nFrom 1965 through 1969, in thenyears between getting married and becomingna mother, I worked as a teacher’snassistant in the preschool/daycarencenter of a private, well-funded familynservices agency, one that employed annarray of highly credentialed teachers,nsocial workers, and psychologists. Thenagency was in an integrated urbannneighborhood, next to a large university,nand on the edge of a ghetto, whichnmeant that the school drew children ofnall races and nearly every ethnic andnsocioeconomic background. Therenwere children of university professors, ofnfiremen, of welfare mothers. Therenwere children of full-time college studentsnwho were also part-time hippies.nThere were Arab and Israeli childrennwho got into fistfights during the Six-nDay War. There were Haitian andnGreek children who started schoolnknowing not a word of English (andnlearned the language with breathtakingnspeed).nFor me, a young woman with annaffinity for children but no experiencenwith them, no systematic knowledge ofnthem, and no preconceptions aboutnthem, the four years I spent in thatnpreschool would be a disorganized crashncourse in the ways of kids, a time whennI learned many things rapidly, through anreverse version of cause and effect. Thatnis, my learning was inefficient but indelible.nIt was as if I had been ushered intona laboratory filled with bricks and invitednto explore the law of gravity. Inevitably,nI wound up dropping bricks on mynfoot. The trouble with experientialnknowledge is that, for a while anyway,nyou learn more about the weight ofnbricks than about the principles of gravity.nOf course, the beauty of experientialnknowledge is that when some physicistncomes at you all theoretical and technical,nyou can say, “Hey, have you everndropped a brick on your foot?” As anform of insight, the lowly object lessonnhas an inescapable purity.nI also discovered a few things aboutnadults in that environment, but in thatninstance, sequential knowledge was notna factor. My most important discoveryn— it was news to me at the time—wasnthat adults as a group have an infinitencapacity for rationalizing and justifying,nin the name of children’s welfare, allnkinds of self-serving adult behavior thatnis contrary to children’s welfare. Andnthat’s where John comes in.nThe late 60’s were the period of thenblack power movement, and there wasnmuch talk among the agency staff aboutnhow to “deal with” the issue of blacknpower with the children, how to “communicate”nthe concept and “support”nit. It is a strange experience to be, as Inwas then, 21 years old and professional-“nly inexperienced, and to encounter expertsnin the field of child developmentnwhose thinking takes the form of urgentndebates about how best to teach streetnpolitics to a group of preschoolers, somenhaving serious emotional problemsncompletely unrelated to race, class, ornethnicity. It is so strange an experience,nin fact, that it can color for life one’snfeelings about experts.nThe black power discussions, likeneverything else during those years, wentnon and on, month after month. Andnone day in the midst of all that, John, anchild whose charm was the product ofnperfectly combined intelligence and in­nnnnocence, showed me a picture he hadndrawn. The picture was a collection ofnrandom shapes, all of them colorednblack, that were arranged on the page tonlook like they’d been shot from a cannon.nWhen I asked him about thendrawing, John, who was black, said, “It’sna picture of black power.” As I wasnstudying the picture, John lifted hisnhand from behind his back and coverednthe first drawing with a second, this onenof exploding orange-colored shapes.n”That’s orange power,” he said. Anotherndrawing, “Here’s green power.” Another.n”Blue power.”nWhen I related that episode at thennext staff meeting, several teachers respondednthat John’s drawing had exemplifiednhis “confusion.” And to minimizenhis “confusion,” John was to benaided in being less “literal.” It wasnalmost funny: Hey, isn’t that a brick onnyour foot? The plain fact was thatnJohn, four years old and by naturendelightful, needed politicizing about asnmuch as a day in springtime needsnpoliticizing, and I had made anotherndiscovery about adults: they will fail atnthe business of helping children if theynare unwilling to be made fools of bynchildren.nLiteralness, I would find, was to benencouraged or discouraged in childrenndepending on what they were beingnliteral about. Even more memorablenthan John is Lawrence, another “literal”nchild. But the difference betweennthem was that John’s literalness wasnorganic to his age while Lawrence’snwas not.nAfter more than twenty years, I stillnremember every detail about Lawrence,nincluding the color of his sneakers,nthe shape of his hairline, and thenbelt he cinched so tightly through thenloops of his jeans that I wondered hownhe breathed. Lawrence was a childnwithout resistance to physical impulses.nWhen in doubt, which was always,nLawrence sought motion. He wasnfruitlessly confrontational, very intelligent,nand extremely unhappy.nAmong Lawrence’s many burdensnin life was the issue of religion. Hisnparents, both college professors (that’snno dig at college professors, but itnseems somehow relevant), had toldnhim from the time he could talk thatnthere was no God and that religion wasna “lie,” an idea dreamed up by peoplenunwilling to accept the finality ofnSEPTEMBER 1991/57n