I had a situation where some black paint got spilled onto the carpet in one of my third grade classes. When it happened the students' first reactions were to blame each other. I didn't see it happen, and like so many conflicts that I have witnessed while teaching, I could see it was going to be another "he said - she said" battle to the death, with other students jumping into the drama by taking sides. It felt as though I was turning to face the commotion in slow motion because I had time to clearly think through the two reactions that were available to me: to completely flip out or to be chill. Selfishly, I didn't feel at all like having an explosive day, and so I said calmly, "I think it was an accident. I will put a chair over the paint, and I will clean it up in a bit." I also patted myself on the back for choosing to go with tempra paint at the beginning of the school year when I was ordering supplies. "This sort of paint will clean up pretty easily," I said to the students, while I looked at the puddle of very, very black paint soaking into the carpet.
"We just ran into each other," one girl said, her voice significantly calmer. "It was an accident." She had gotten a paper towel by this time and was trying to clean up the paint, while other kids were telling her, "Stop, you're making it worse." She looked at me, and I told her it was okay. She wasn't going to hurt it.
After the students had left I made a big dent in the mess with a couple small scrubbing sponges I had on hand. What I really wanted though was a nice big scrub brush. I went down the office to ask if there was a janitor's closet I could grab one from. Instead, they contacted the janitor himself and he said he would meet me in my classroom.
He came in eating a bag of snacks. I was back on my hands and knees scrubbing.
I spoke first, telling him what had happened, and asking if he had a scrub brush.
He asked how much spilled. He asked what kind of paint it was. He asked me what color it was. He asked how it happened. He asked how much I had soaked up. He asked if water would make the paint liquify again after it dried. After answering his questions he told me not to worry about it. He told me they'd take care of it in the summer when they cleaned the carpets.
"You can scrub all day and you're not going to make it any better. You're just going to spread it."
And to think all I wanted was a scrub brush. I could have handled it myself, I thought.
"I like to clean up my own messes. I just wanted to know how to handle it when it happens again. If there are supplies I can use...I don't want to call you each time."
"Woah, woah, woah, woah, woah. Don't be telling me that." He smiled a sickening smile that suggested I would listen if I knew what was good for me. "What do you mean happen AGAIN?" He asked. "Why would it happen again?"
"Because I am an art teacher. And because we use paint. And because accidents happen."
"Just tell them to be careful," he said, grabbing his snack off the counter and walking towards the door. "And stop scrubbing. Just leave it."
"Thanks," I said, while mentally adding "scrub brush" to my "things to buy" list and making plans to definitely not ask for clean-up help in the office again.
I've lived in the "real world" long enough to know this trickling down affect. One person puts pressure on another person to "not screw up." Then that person, who is in charge of managing a bunch of other people (in this case, little people) feels the pressure to micromanage all the other people, making sure they comply, otherwise she has to deal with person number one who doesn't believe in accidents, especially not repeat offenses. The first person has no desire to help the second person learn, he merely wants her to stop being inconvenient.
Mary Catherine Bateson said that home is "creating an environment in which learning is possible." While I don't know if the students care about feeling at home, in my classroom, I do, and I can't feel at home if I'm trying to keep messes from happening all day. They know the school rules. They know my rules. But apart from that there is a lot of wiggle room and experimentation and excited energy and possibility. The possibility of masterpieces and the possibility of error. Both are full of learning potential.
I work my magic when I make the conscious decision to figure out how to handle "accidents" and clean up messes in a way that honors what I value. I am smart and I CAN figure that out, without the help from someone who is only interested in showing me how limiting my magic and adapting to his values would make him more comfortable. I have no desire to perpetuate a world where I fear mistakes or failure and thereby stunt my capacity to learn.