A recent visitor from Russia gifted our classroom with a truly exquisite set of nesting dolls, the smallest of which was no larger than the fingernail on my pinky. All the children were curious about the dolls, but Annie, a nine-year-old who was new to our classroom, was truly enamored by the set. Between academic activities, she would spend time lining up the dolls and then nesting them again.
I was absent for a few hours on Tuesday morning, and by Wednesday three boys made the discovery that the six smallest dolls had disappeared. Accusatory fingers immediately pointed towards Annie and indignant voices clamored for justice. I quickly gathered the nearly two dozen 6-to-12-year-olds into a circle, took a breath to steady my emotions, and with a peaceful and positive attitude said:
“As most of you know, our generous visitor from Russia recently gave us a beautiful set of nesting dolls. They are really charming, aren’t they? I can see that many of you are attracted to them! It has been brought to my attention that several dolls are missing. I understand how someone could fall in love with those pretty little dolls and want them all to themselves. And you see, those dolls belong to the classroom. They are a precious addition to our treasures. So, if someone borrowed them, I’m going to ask that you please bring them back so that we can all enjoy their beauty. In order to ensure that the person who has them can return them anonymously, I’m going to ask that he or she put them inside the cabinet under the sink while we’re all outside at recess.”
“Why?’ asked one child. “Why don’t you just tell them to give them back right now?”
“That person might be feeling a bit embarrassed by their choice,” I replied. “And some people are feeling very emotional by the absence of the dolls. We want the person who has them to feel safe returning them, and we want him or her to know that nobody is going to say things in anger that they would later regret.”
A seven-year-old boy piped up in solidarity, “OK! Everyone stay outside during recess! Nobody should be watching the room!”
Suddenly, I heard a little voice say, “I’m really embarrassed.” I turned to where the voice was originating and saw Annie grinning sheepishly, her knees curled up to her chest.
“Why, Annie?” I asked.
“I’m really embarrassed because I took them just for a day but I accidentally left them in my therapist’s office. I’m sorry, I’ll bring them back next week when I go to therapy again.”
Her cheeks were flushed. The children were dead silent.
“Annie, I appreciate your honesty,” I said with a smile. “I’m glad the dolls are safe and I know we’ll all be happy to have them back in the classroom.” Annie smiled back with a mixture of relief and gratitude. I felt the entire group relax, secure in the notion that where one child is safe to make mistakes, all are safe.
With my heart singing, I brought out our read-aloud book and transitioned the class towards a new activity, knowing that many profound and powerful lessons had been learned by us all.