Mollie Is Three: Growing up in School


"No adult can escape the adult perspective; but simply recognizing its inevitable limitations in a children's world enables a few gifted educators to accept the existence and vilify of whole kindergartens full of different perspectives. One such person is Vivian Gussin Paley. . . . Her books. . .should be required reading wherever children are growing."—New York Times Book Review

"With a delightful, almost magical touch, Paley shares her observations and insights about three-year-olds. The use of a tape recorder ...

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"No adult can escape the adult perspective; but simply recognizing its inevitable limitations in a children's world enables a few gifted educators to accept the existence and vilify of whole kindergartens full of different perspectives. One such person is Vivian Gussin Paley. . . . Her books. . .should be required reading wherever children are growing."—New York Times Book Review

"With a delightful, almost magical touch, Paley shares her observations and insights about three-year-olds. The use of a tape recorder in the classroom gives her a second chance to hear students' thoughts from the doll corner to the playground, and to reflect on the ways in which young children make sense of the experience of school. . . . Paley lets the children speak for themselves, and through their words we reenter the world of the child in all its fantasy and inventiveness."—Harvard Educational Review

"Paley's vivid and accurate descriptions depict both spontaneous and recurring incidents and outline increasingly complex interactions among the children. Included in the narrative are questions or ideas to challenge the reader to gain more insight and understanding into the motives and conceptualizations of Mollie and other children."—Karen L. Peterson, Young Children

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Editorial Reviews

Paley invites us to reflect on the ways we interact with children and attempt to educate them. To anyone who has ever wondered what growing up in school feels like when you are very young, this book offers insight. No scholarly impedimentia. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226644943
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/1988
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 490,827
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Mollie is Three

Growing Up in School

By Vivian Gussin Paley

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1986 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-64494-3


On the first day, Mollie sits quietly at the playdough table watching Fredrick. She is waiting to find out what happens in school, and he is someone who makes things happen. He wants to know why he is here and how he can impose him self on so many people. He begins in unsubtle ways, knocking over blocks, grabbing toys, stomping on dolls, throwing sand–the list is familiar.

The other three-year-olds may have committed similar mischief, but seldom in such rapid succession and not yet in a classroom. Fredrick exaggerates and speeds up these behaviors, forcing me to reveal my intentions.

"Why do you bother everyone, Fredrick?"

"Don't talk to me! I hate this school!"

"I must talk to you. I'm your teacher."

"The next day after this one, I'm never coming back."

"But it's your class. You have to come back."

"Then I'm angry."

He shows me he is angry by turning his back when I read "Curious George," but at dismissal time he sits on my lap.

"Am I bigger than everyone on this porch?" he asks.

"No, you're not," I tell him. "The four-year-olds are bigger and so are the teachers." There are thirteen fours in our class, most of whom were here last year.

"No, I'm the biggest. And the strongest."

The next morning he snatches the entire supply of playdough from Mollie, Emily, and Stuart. "It's mine!" he shouts defiantly.

"Give it back, Fredrick. You can't grab things from people."

"It's mine."

"They had it first."

"I don't have any."

"You have to say, 'Can I have some?' "


He cannot wait for such amenities. Nor has he reason to believe that the children will hand over a portion of their playdough; he certainly would not. Since others may have the same possessive urge, he'd better act out the feeling first.

Mollie's eyes follow Fredrick as he confronts the unknown, ordered world of the classroom. She sits across from him at the snack table when he talks about the wicked monsters who enter his room at night.

"Last night I saw a monster in my bed–a big white monster. Then a dinosaur." He looks around, expecting encouragement.

"Then what did the dinosaur do?" Stuart asks.

"He hided downstairs. Then he went upstairs." Fredrick pauses to eat his graham cracker, watching me.

"It was a dream, Fredrick," I say.

"No, teacher, listen, I want to tell you something. I saw a big white monster and then I saw a dinosaur and it was hiding by my bed under the covers and it was a monster in my room."

"Fredrick, I know it really seemed like the monster was in your room, but it was all in your dream."

"It wasn't a dream. So I leaved the door open and then the dinosaur came in and then he didn't eat me this time. He was putting his arm like this. With his fingers. He wanted to eat me up because he didn't want me to go to school."

"Why not?"

"Because he wanted to eat me all up so I couldn't go to school. Because I wanted to come to school. And he wouldn't let me."

"I'm glad you came, Fredrick."

"And it wasn't a dream. There was a really monster."

"It might have been a shadow on the wall, in the dark, shaped like a monster."


The children at the table look as if they too have seen these monsters. Mollie asks, "Is it the kind with green on top?" Fredrick nods. "Also on the bottom," he adds.

It is the first time Mollie has spoken directly to another child. She talks to me early in the morning, before the others come, but grows silent as the classroom fills with children.

Fredrick has ways of getting immediate responses from people. Today he makes Mollie cry, and Libby, a four-year-old, is indignant. "That boy took the little girl's cash register," she reports to me.

"Give it back, Fredrick," I order. "Mollie is crying. You can have it when she's finished."

Anger makes Mollie eloquent. "I'm already going to be finished now," she sobs.

"Do you mean you are finished now, Mollie?"

She tightens her grip. "No! Not yet now!"

"Okay. She'll be finished in a little while, Fredrick. Then you can have your turn."

"Turns" and "little whiles" mean nothing to Fredrick. In five minutes he is back, sitting on the cash register, and Mollie is crying again.

This time, Libby takes charge. "He's a bad boy! Don't let him come to your birthday. He's just a robber."

Mollie stops crying and stares at Libby. Fredrick also pauses to consider. "Yeah, I am a robber," he says solemnly.

"Well, too bad for you," Libby counters, haughtily. "Because robbers can't come in the doll corner, ha, ha, ha!" She looks at me for confirmation. Libby is in the group who decided last year that robbers are not allowed wherever babies are sleeping.

"She's right, Fredrick. If you want to play in the doll corner, you'll have to be something else, not a robber."

"He can be the father," Samantha says. "Put on this vest, Fredrick."

"Mollie is the baby," Libby decides. "Lie down here, sweet child."

Suddenly, Mollie and Fredrick are part of a drama that has its own conventions. The roles are assigned, and, for the duration of the plot, events will be governed by an evolving set of rules that reflects the children's own logic. There is nothing in my curriculum that can match the doll comer in its potential for examining behavior and judging the aftermath. The two three-year-olds know intuitively that once they begin to pretend they become accountable to the community of pretenders.


Mollie is brought to school every day before eight. In the empty rooms, her large vocabulary pours out in search of time and place.

"I'm not too big to reach that," she says, trying to hang up her jacket. "But my already birthday is going to come now. Then I can be big to reach it."

"When is your birthday, Mollie?"

"Tomorrow. It's called October ninth."

"October is the next month after this one. Then you'll be three, Mollie. This month is called September."

"When I get four, I'll be three."

She joins me at the painting table as I prepare the art materials. "Can you put in the brushes, Mollie?"

"I can put in the brushes." She inserts one brush in a jar of red paint and begins to cover the paper in front of her.

"The other jars need brushes too, Mollie."

"They do need brushes too," she echoes, without looking up.

"Or do you want me to put them in?" I suggest, a bit impatiently.

"Do you want ... do I not ... I do not want you," she answers.

Mollie is a passionate grammarian, reconstructing my sentences into useful shapes. She cares about form but eschews the message. Her obligation is fulfilled once she creates a sentence. In effect, she has pretend conversations with me.

"This pie is for Daddy," Mollie murmurs, taking up a piece of playdough at the next table. She pounds and flattens the soft, floury mass, punctuating her monologue. "Daddy wants to finish dinner when he gets dinner and go to work and work some work. Give me a big piece a little tiny piece ..."

"Look, Mollie, I made a snake."

She examines my face, as if trying to understand the context of my remark. "Is that a real one? A real snake that one is. This is my castle. This."

"Can my snake live in your castle?"

"I'm going to roll him up when he's sleeping. Sh-sh. Time to go to school, little baby snake. Put on your school clothes."

As the fantasy develops, her sentences achieve a continuity that eludes our conversations. She has moved to another plane and can suddenly view an entire scene about to unfold.

"I'm the mommy snake. 'Read me a book,' says the baby snake." Mollie turns invisible pages, pretending to read. "The horsie and the chicken. And the robbers. Once upon a time there lived a horse and a chicken and a dog. And the next morning there was a robber in the house. That's Fredrick. He's the robber. That was scary."

"The robber is scary?"

"The horsie and the chicken."

Fredrick is the first classmate to enter Mollie's early morning talk. She examines his behavior inside another fantasy and does not feel threatened; he scares the horse and chicken, not Mollie. Fredrick is an actor in her story and he knows "the monster with green on top" who visits her at night. If she continues to watch him, he may help her disclose other secrets not yet put into words.


Mollie tells me no secrets, but she is full of information. "Red is my favorite color," she says.

"I do notice you paint a lot of red pictures."

"Yes, I do notice a lot of red pictures that you do notice."

She halts, then completes the thought. "That I paint."

Now, along with red paint, she institutes another ritual: she moves to a new chair for each painting. "Green is my favorite color, orange is my favorite color, blue is my favorite green." But she continues to use only red.

"Mollie, it's best to stay in the same seat and just get another sheet of paper. You're using up every piece on the table. The other children won't have a place to paint when they come."

"They want the playdough."

"Here's a better idea. When you finish a picture, pick it up like this and put it on the rack to dry. Watch me. Then take another piece, go back to the same chair ..."

"To the same chair," Mollie says, moving over.

"Mollie, you're not watching. Look. Up goes my paper, now another paper, paint, paint, paint, up it goes on the rack, then another paper, now back to the same chair."

She stares at my hasty swirls of color traveling back and forth, but has stopped listening. As the room fills with children, I give my seat to Adam, a four-year-old, who covers his paper with graceful arcs of every color. Suddenly he drops his brush and jumps up.

"Hey, Tulio! Whadya bring? Hey, lemme see!" He runs off, leaving a wet brush on his unfinished rainbow. By the time I return, Fredrick has wiped a fistful of brushes across Adam's painting and the surrounding newspaper.

In the space of an hour, Mollie has observed a number of painting behaviors, including mine. She repeats my words, but they seem to carry little more meaning than her singsong recitation of favorite colors. It is Fredrick's technique she thinks about the next day.

"Fredrick doesn't know how to do it," Mollie states. "Fie has to use too many colors. Red is his favorite color."

When Fredrick comes to the painting table, I mention Mollie's concern. "Mollie thinks you use too many colors."


"Mollie. This is Mollie. She's at your snack table. She thinks you should paint a red picture."

"Huh? Oh. Is this red?" He lifts the red brush and drippingly moves it back and forth on a paper.

"Here. She can have it."

Mollie accepts the gift without looking at Fredrick and hangs it on the drying rack. She sees the rules and regulations of the painting table, not through my words, but in the actions of other children. Fredrick has, in a sense, pretended to paint a red picture, and Mollie can now act out the procedure of painting and drying. But I was also pretending; that is, demonstrating. Why didn't my example suffice? Apparently my pretending does not carry the vision she needs in order to understand the meaning of an event.

My lesson is a set of rules without tangible evidence or dramatic context. It offers Mollie no opportunity to imagine herself playing a role in relation to another child. She cannot step up to that elevated perch from which to see the whole picture.


Repetition of little memorized behaviors is the three-year-old's specialty, erupting into new insights according to unseen schedules and fooling the adult into premature expectations.

Mollie, for example, calls off numerals in fast succession, as if really counting. She tells me the number of brushes–one to fifteen–while I line them up in paint jars. In her rapid calculations, she misses a few brushes at the start and adds a few at the end.

We play "math" games at the playdough table that inevitably conform to her rules.

"Make me a bird's nest" is the way she begins one of her games.

"How many eggs does the mother bird lay?" I must then ask, molding a nest out of playdough. I cannot vary my words or actions; the game is to proceed as originally played.

"Six only," she says.

"Here they are. Plop, plop, plop, plop, plop, plop. How many eggs, Mollie?"

"One, two, three!" She holds her fingers over two eggs at a time. I have already learned that if I correct her and ask her to count again, I am spoiling the game.

I gather up the six eggs and press them together. "Now how many does the mother lay?"

"Three only three."

"Very well. Plop, plop, plop."

"One, two, three, four, five!" For the remainder of today's game, she counts to five no matter how many eggs are in the nest. There is no necessary connection between eggs and the words called numbers, though I notice that she assembles her four snack crackers daily without error.

Margaret arrives, bursting with news. She is also three, but older than Mollie by several months. "Blue and yellow is green," she says, raising her eyebrows importantly. "My mother showed me."

"We could try to make green," I suggest.

"Blue and yellow is green already."

"I know, but let's see if we can do it, Which paint shall we use first?"


"Red? Well, you said blue, so let's start with blue. Then you said yellow. There. Now mix it up. What color is it?"


"Green, green, a shame to be seen," Mollie sings, borrowing a line from "Jennie Jenkins."

"So, how did we make green, Margaret?"

"It commed out of yellow. First yellow, then red."

"Red? Did we use red?"

"Then green."

The next morning, Mollie tells me green is her favorite color. "Do you remember how we made green, Mollie?"

"Yes. I do remember. Mommy made it. With a spoon you do it. That's how it works."

"Can you do it?"

"Yes, I can." She picks up several brushes. "This is going in yellow.

This is going in red. This is going in magenta. Somebody will paint on this side. I will not change my seat."

"Watch me, Mollie. I'm making green. First a blue spot. Then what color?"


"Okay, we'll put red on the blue. Does it turn into green?"

"Yes, it does turn into green. Green is my favorite color."

"Mollie, you know this isn't green. It's purple."

"I know this isn't green."

The lesson is over for Mollie, but not for me. How many of my lessons and rules add up to "blue and yellow is green"? And how often do preferred behaviors amount to "green is my favorite color"? Mollie's method of painting is as far from my expectations as is Fredrick's, yet I label one idiosyncratic and the other chaotic. Fredrick uses every brush he can reach, Mollie restricts herself to one color; he covers the newspaper, she moves around the table. She is "funny," he is "negative."

Later, Fredrick slumps across from me at the painting table. He has been sharply reprimanded by my assistant, Mrs. Alter, and he wants to show me his anger. He reaches for the brushes with both hands, expecting to be stopped.

"I changed my mind about your painting, Fredrick."


"Because I can see that the way you paint is faster. So, if you want to use a lot of brushes at once, it's all right, but use just one set of jars, so the others stay clean. And, also, when you're finished, wash your brushes so the next person will have clean ones to use."

Fredrick's face lights up at the thought of washing dirty brushes. He paints a quick design, then takes six brushes into the bathroom. Five minutes later he emerges wet and smiling with reasonably clean brushes and replaces them carefully in the paint jars. The procedure makes sense; we started with his thinking instead of my rule.

Libby accomplishes the same thing in the doll comer. She accepts Fredrick as a robber and goes on from there. Why not? Everything in the doll comer is make-believe. If you can be a baby, you can be a robber, and, when babies sleep, robbers rob elsewhere.

But where? Am I to pretend Fredrick is a "pretend robber" every time he grabs the playdough? By what rule of fantasy do robbers refrain from stealing playdough?

My analysis is held in check by a loud wail coming from the block area. Fredrick is on the floor crying furiously.

"He did it on purpose!" Erik yells. "For no reason. He knocked the whole ship over!"

"I see that, Erik. But I don't want you to push him down."

"I told him. I grabbed him to stop!"

Libby's doll-comer logic comes to my aid. "Who are you pretending to be, Fredrick?"

My question surprises him. He didn't realize he was pretending. "I don't know," he sobs.

"Erik, who are you supposed to be?"

"I'm Luke."

"Fredrick doesn't know who to be."

Erik gives Fredrick a serious look. "Do you want to be a bad guy or a good guy?"

"A good guy."

"Then you can be Han Solo. But he can't play with us. We're too busy."

"Fredrick and I will just watch for a while," I suggest, but Fredrick has other ideas. He runs to the sand table and pokes his arm through Maria's sand castle. I am too angry to ask who he is pretending to be.

"Are you going to spank him?" Maria asks.

"We don't spank. We tell the rules over and. over until people remember. They have to remember without being punished." My voice sounds punitive.

"I hate this place!" Fredrick shouts. "And you don't like me."

When I am angry, he tells me I don't like him. At this moment I do prize Maria's sand castle more than I like Fredrick. He hangs his head and stares at the floor; there is no energy left to think about reasonable solutions. Anger has the same effect on me.


Excerpted from Mollie is Three by Vivian Gussin Paley. Copyright © 1986 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Michael Cole
Mollie is Three: Growing Up in School

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