One of the big draws in the Big Boy Yard, I might have mentioned, is [cough] “waterplay.” The other day, when I came to get Mini from school in the afternoon, he was situated with several other kids around a “water table” (basically a giant water-filled tub on legs). The kids were systematically filling unused turkey basters and non-surgical syringes with water and squirting each other with delight.
[I will pause here so that, in a dungeon-like university office somewhere, Judith Butler can catch up with her furious note-taking and diagram-drawing.]
The rule for squirting is, basically, you can squirt other kids (or adults) with water as much as you want, provided the other person says it’s OK. But the catch is, because of the general Bedlam-like environment of the Water Table, the onus is often on the squirtee to say it’s not OK, either by literally telling another child to stop squirting them, or by crying or throwing a fit, or by fetching a teacher.
Since there is water involved, and because it’s a preschool, there is always at least one or two teachers in the vicinity of the water table supervising the waterplay. But they are usually pretty busy, and things get a little hairy. Often, it’s tough to sort through exactly when there has been a violation of the rules of OK and not-OK squirting.
When I get there Mini’s having a great old time. I have noted that unsurprisingly, Mini is the one doing the squirting — onto the ground, back into the water table, into cups, and onto one of his buddies, Andrew, who for some reason thinks it’s hysterically funny to be squirted on the back with a turkey baster. I’m laughing, Mini’s laughing, Andrew’s laughing. It’s all very funny in a kind of three year old version of Benny Hill kind of way. Until a third kid, Merridew, decides to take a non-surgical syringe full of water and squirt Mini full on the face with it when he’s not even looking at him.
Merridew is so nicknamed because of the warpaint he was wearing on the first day I met him, and the fact that I always expect him to be carrying a sharpened stick and leading a boar hunting expedition like his namesake from Lord of The Flies. Today, though, Merridew is wearing a shirt that says “Canada,” because when they say that truth is stranger than fiction, what they really mean is that you cannot really capture how strange life really is until you start writing creative non-fiction.
Now Mini is standing in front of me in tears, looking for solutions, because even though there are teachers and there are boundaries to be set, there is Mommy and she is the great solution maker, and her presence here has made everything that much more complicated.
“Buddy,” I say, “Did that boy squirt you in the face?”
“Yes! Him did,” he sobs.
“You don’t like that, do you, sweetheart?”
“No, I don’t,” he says, and tears are falling down his face.
“You have to go tell him that, bud. I will come with you. But you have to tell him.”
“NO! YOU! I WANT YOU TO DO IT.”
He is pleading with me, and tears are falling down his face. I am pretty sure my heart is going to break, if I don’t snap Merridew’s neck in half first, but instead of going with that impulse, I take Mini by the hand and lead him up to the punk in the Canadian t-shirt.
“Tell him, Mini. Tell him that you don’t like to be squirted in the face with water.”
“I don’t like it.”
“What don’t you like?”
“No, Mamma –” he protests
“I know,” I say, “It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to say it, but you have to.”
I wish I could say the episode ended with Mini directly addressing Merridew and telling him not to squirt him in the face with water. But this is life — preschool — not a sitcom, and what really happened was that Mini fixated on a kid who was in his way to get back in front of the Water Table, saying, “I want him to get out of my way,” and I wiped his tears away and went back to watching them play from afar. Merridew continued to play at the Water Table, with a slightly more sheepish expression on his face this time, until later, when Mini started squirting me with the non-surgical syringe, and things got more interesting.
“Don’t do it again,” I told him. He did it again, immediately, because I am Mommy and pretty much everything is negotiable with Mommy in Mini’s mind.
“Listen, dude, what did I just say? Didn’t I just tell you not to do it again?”
“Why did you do it, then?”
“I like to squirt you.”
“Did you like it when he [pointing at Merridew] squirted you in the face without your permission?”
“Then why would you do it to me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you going to do it again?”
That was the last of the rules violations I witnessed that day at The Water Table, though I’m sure there were more as the day went on. Boundaries are weird, and I don’t know how much three-year-olds can learn about them, but they are pretty strict at Mini’s school about how they are to be dealt with: the kid doing the violating of the boundary is to be admonished and the kid whose boundary has been violated is asked to formally assert the boundary. Sometimes it seems foolish and overly formal, but then again maybe that’s only because somewhere along the line we stopped doing enough of this in our daily lives. Maybe at some point we started relying too much on things being “common sense” that clearly are not common sense for everyone. Sometimes you do just have to come out and say, “Look, asshole, I don’t want to be squirted in the face with a non-surgical syringe full of water, OK?”
It reminds me a lot of when I first got sober and I had been complaining, day after day, about students who would waste my time constantly, and my sponsor stepped closer and closer to me until finally she was standing on top of my foot. I looked at her like she was insane, but she didn’t say anything, so finally I said, “Umm, are you going to get off my foot?” Thinking, surely this doesn’t need to be said, right?
She said, “Well, you never asked me to.”
Sometimes you do just have to say it, I think. And not to invite a reflection on the rightness or wrongness of the action itself, either — but because even if some of us think that these things should be common sense, maybe they just aren’t.