ARTICLE

Caterpillars Teach Lesson in Friendship

In the course of the day, sometimes, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices and decisions to be made, I miss the big moments. Take a day last fall. We were coming from lunch when I noticed that Brendan was crying. “Malia, why is Brendan crying?” I asked. “Oh, he’s sad that his caterpillars got let go,” she said.

In the course of the day, sometimes, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices and decisions to be made, I miss the big moments.

Take a day last fall. We were coming from lunch when I noticed that Brendan was crying. “Malia, why is Brendan crying?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s sad that his caterpillars got let go,” she said.

I should probably tell you that Brendan was quite the caterpillar enthusiast. He had brought a container of four woolly bear caterpillars into our classroom, showing them to the other students and even carrying them to different classes.

“How did the caterpillars get let go?” I asked.

The story unfolded as we returned to the classroom and got ready for reading. On the previous day, I had left early for a meeting. After Brendan’s bus had been called, students noticed that he had left his caterpillars behind. Worried that they would not survive the night in the classroom, the substitute teacher and remaining students decided to let them go.

I felt a flash of annoyance—with myself, with the rest of the class and even with Brendan. I was annoyed that I had let this caterpillar business to get so far. I was annoyed with the class for letting the caterpillars go. And I was annoyed with Brendan because, really, are caterpillars so important?

“Sometimes I pretended they were my friends,” Brendan said.

My annoyance faded instantly. To Brendan, the caterpillars were very important. And I had to honor that. I also had to recognize that the students who had let the caterpillars go were acting out of good intentions.

This was a crossroads choice for me. Should I continue with the reading lesson about summarizing? Or should we try to make this right?

I made a quick choice.

I asked Brendan if it would be okay for me to talk about this incident with the class. He nodded sadly.

“Brendan is feeling sad because his caterpillars were let go,” I said. “I know that you were just trying to do what is best. And now I ask you—can you help us decide what to do now?”

A little bit of discussion followed. To my delight, the students rose to the occasion and decided that they should look for the missing caterpillars. As students combed the small grassy plot outside my classroom, they came to offer their support to Brendan. He seemed genuinely cheered by the attention.

“Feeling better, Brendan?” asked Bryan, holding up a caterpillar.

Brendan nodded. By the time we went inside, we had found three caterpillars—plus a new one. But what was more important was that we had come together as a class to support one of our members.

The summarizing lesson went on, but not quite as planned. Students worked in small groups to summarize the events of the day. I displayed their summaries, much to Brendan’s delight.

The sight of those summaries has helped me to remember, all year long, how to respond to these crossroads decisions. In a day full of questions and decisions, I can’t lose sight of what is really important.

Kissner is a fourth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania.