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Boys & Girls
Superheroes in the Doll Corner
By Vivian Gussin Paley
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Social action in kindergarten is contained in dramatic plots. Since the characters create the plot, actors must identify themselves. In the doll corner, if a plumber arrives, then a pipe has just broken; the appearance of a schoolteacher signals that the children are about to receive a lesson.
The four girls in the doll corner have announced who they are: Mother, Sister, Baby, Maid. To begin with, then, there will be cooking and eating, crying and cleaning. Charlotte is the mother because, she tells the others, she is wearing the silver shoes. Leadership often goes to the child who is most confident about the meaning of symbols.
Karen: I'm hungry. Wa-a-ah!
Charlotte: Lie down, baby.
Karen: I'm a baby that sits up.
Charlotte: First you lie down and sister covers you and then I make your cereal and then you sit up.
Teddy watches the scene as he fills up the number board for the second time. Charlotte returns his stare and says, "You can be the father." He inserts the last two tiles and enters the doll corner.
"Are you the father?" Charlotte asks.
"Put on the red tie." She doesn't know Teddy's name yet, but she can tell him what to wear because she is mother.
The girls look pleased. "I'll get it for you, honey," Janie says in a falsetto voice. She is the maid. "Now, don't that baby look pretty? This is your daddy, baby." Teddy begins to set the table, matching cups and saucers as deliberately as he did the tiles on the number board.
Abruptly the mood changes. Andrew, Jonathan, Jeremy, and Paul rush in, fingers shooting. "We're robbers. Do you got any gold?"
"No," Charlotte says, stirring an empty pot.
Jeremy climbs on the refrigerator and knocks over several cartons of plastic food. "Put up your hands. You're going to jail!"
"We're telling!" The girls stomp out in search of me or my assistant, Mrs. Brandt.
Cops and robbers is off to an early start. The first week of kindergarten is usually uneventful as children cautiously decide what they can expect from one another and from the teacher. They want to know with whom they will play and how free is free play. The four robbers in the doll corner are already a team, having practiced being bad guys in nursery school. They are impatient to test classroom limits; but, mindful of my resolve to study their behavior, I sidestep the issue.
"You can't keep spoiling the play in the doll corner, Andrew," I say with affected calmness.
"It's not spoiled. It's gooder this way."
"Only if the girls agree that it's better. Tell me what you were playing and let's see if it makes a good story for me to write down."
"Cops and robbers?"
"Sure. If you tell me what the cops and robbers do, I'll write down your words and that will be a story. Then we'll act it out at piano time just the way we did 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' yesterday."
Storytelling is easy to promote when there is a tangible connection to play. Andrew's story completes the interrupted scene in the doll corner:
The four robbers are shooting people in the middle of the night. Then they had enough shooting, so they snuck up on the house and said, "Put up your hands!" Then the robbers brought the good people to jail. Then they went back to steal the money. Then they went to their hiding places.
Later, with the class seated around the sixteen-foot circle we use as a stage, I read Andrew's story and ask for actors.
"I have to be the boss of the robbers," Andrew says, "because it's my story."
Jeremy waves his arms wildly. "I'm a robber!" The boys who volunteer for Andrew's play all want to be robbers.
"Who will be the good people?" I ask.
Several girls' hands tentatively go up. Out of the doll corner, a girl can afford to be less rigid.
The next day, Paul and Jonathan follow Andrew's lead in storytelling as they do in play, but he is not chosen to be the "boss." This, the children begin to realize, is one of the many advantages of authorship.
We sneaked up in the house. Then we put the good guys in jail. Then we killed some of the good guys. Then the four bad guys got some money and some jewels. (Paul)
When the robbers were looking for gold they went to every house and they said, "Do you have any gold?" If the people said yes, then they took it, and if they said no, then they said, "You better get some or we'll put you in jail." So they had to put some in jail, but not all. (Jonathan)
Charlotte is no more influenced by the boys' stories than by their play. Her story is a doll-corner idyll, and she is, of course, the "pretty bunny."
Once there was four kittens and they found a pretty bunny. Then they went to buy the bunny some food and they fed the baby bunny and then they went on a picnic.
Every year, the girls begin with stories of good little families, while the boys bring us a litany of superheroes and bad guys. This kind of storytelling is an adjunct of play; it follows existing play and introduces new ideas for the future. Language development and creative dramatics may be on my mind, but the children take over the story-plays for a more urgent matter; to inform one another of the preferred images for boys and girls.
Teddy tells his first story at the end of the week. The boys' response is immediate and strong.
Once upon a time there was this little boy and his name was Pretty. They called him Pretty because he was so pretty. His name was really Hansel. There was this sister. He didn't know he had a sister. The mother and father told him and then they had candy and then they went for a walk.
Andrew, Jonathan, and Paul explode with laughter. "He calls him Pretty!" "Ugh!" "Pre-e-tty!"
"He can call him that if he wants," Charlotte says.
"No he can't!" shouts Andrew. "Not if he's a boy he can't."
"It's Teddy's story," I add. "He didn't tell you what to say."
Teddy is not insulted, only curious. He smiles at the boys, who continue to make faces. Teddy's use of "pretty" crosses over into female territory, a subject he will learn about from boys, who care more about boundary lines than do the girls.
"Anyway, his name is Hansel. Just call him that." Teddy looks at the boys as he speaks.
"Are you sure, Teddy?" I ask.
"Yeah. I'm sure."CHAPTER 2
Franklin is one of Teddy's two friends. He lives a distance from this university community and Teddy sees him only in school. He is as dark as Teddy is fair, exuberant as Teddy is solemn. "Ah needs tha' hammer, boy," he tells Teddy at the wood-bench. They make boats nearly every day. When their hammers clang in unison, Franklin says, "Me and you workin' men, huh!"
Besides making boats and painting them, Franklin draws pictures of houses and cars. He acknowledges that he is the only boy in this class whose first choice during free play is painting and drawing. "The girls mostly likes to color, 'cept for me," he says.
The girls do, in fact, like to color. Throughout the scheduled playtimes—forty five minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the afternoon—plus all the incidental times between activities, the art tables are filled with girls and deftly avoided by boys. If I insist that the boys sit down and draw, they animate their volcanoes and space wars with exploding noises, as if they have jumped inside the pictures. Teddy comes more often to the tables now because he wants to be with Franklin.
Robert is Teddy's other friend and game partner. They play checkers, tic-tac-toe, dominoes, Curious George, and Cat and Mouse. Once in a while they build something in the block area, but then Robert suggests they attach what they have built to Andrew's spaceship, and Teddy leaves. Superhero play makes him timid—a small inconvenience indoors, where there is so much to do, but a major problem on the playground.
"I don't have any friends," he says when we go outside.
"Sure you do, Teddy. What do you feel like playing?"
"I want to go inside."
"What's Franklin doing?"
"They're playing Jaws."
"Let's go see who's in the sandbox."
Teddy likes the sandbox and the maze of poles, chutes, and ladders that cover the playground. When he and the others dig holes and climb heights, there are no differences between the sexes. But then Mother and Sister stop to gather leaves and seeds, and the boys unleash their powerful creatures, who run into one another at such exhilarating speeds that the girls move away. Girls like to be chased, but the boys' impulsive movements worry them.
Teddy cannot ignore these dramatic contrasts. A compelling herdlike instinct propels the boys into large-scale maneuvers unknown among the girls, who go off in twos and threes. Super friends and enemies blend into a collage of shooting, chasing, and complaining, but the message is "We are boys" to some and "I am an outsider" to others.
Teddy is reluctant to join, yet not content to remain apart. My sympathy and suggestions serve only to focus on his loneliness. At five, the feeling of being an outsider strikes with new impetus. Outsideness is now seen in terms of membership in a boys' or a girls' group.
It is drawing time. Mrs. Brandt has sent Andrew, Jeremy, and Paul to a table to draw because of an overlong noisy argument in the block area. They see the act as a punishment and recover status by scribbling on both sides of their paper.
Franklin pays no attention to the newcomers to his table. He is making a Halloween picture. "This is a hunna house," he says.
"Honey house? Honey, honey, honey house!" The boys scream and laugh and pound the table. They keep repeating Franklin's words until he is laughing, too.
"Ah ain' tol' no joke! This is a real hunna house wit' a ghos'!"
Teddy, who is seated beside him, shouts, "It's a haunted house! Haunted!"
"Yeah. Haunet," Franklin agrees.
The boys look at Franklin as though seeing him for the first time. Teddy reddens and speaks again with uncharacteristic loudness. "Franklin sure does make a nice house. See, it has furniture inside. He makin' a real house!"
In Teddy's passionate appeal, he directs the boys to consider not only Franklin's house but also Franklin's manner of speaking. He uses Franklin's rhythm, his inflection, and even a piece of his grammar. Teddy has found a hero.CHAPTER 3
Suddenly the boys are drawing haunted houses. Cars, volcanoes, and space wars are temporarily set aside; unpredictably, Franklin's house has become a rallying banner. Jaws served a similar purpose on the playground, but Franklin's house is more of a private ceremony. Symbols imposed by society sometimes cause dissension, as if the children are stimulated in ways they cannot fathom. Their own creations, simple and direct, bring unity and contentment.
Franklin's houses, which he has been drawing for several days, have four floors, including an attic and a basement. There is usually a train set and a tent in the basement, a kitchen and a dining room on the first floor, beds on the second, and chairs in the attic. Starting in the basement, he draws upward, furnishing each floor as he goes.
A house seems an unlikely selection as a male ritual. Houses are usually drawn by girls. However, Franklin calls his a "haunted house" and uses a ruler. Rulers are "working men's" tools, and weapons in the arsenal of sticks boys wave, poke, and shoot at one another. The ruler is very masculine.
The girls notice that something is going on and leave the doll corner and art tables to watch the unusual specter of eight boys sprawled on the floor drawing fully equipped houses. After a close examination, Charlotte returns to her painting of a girl with yellow hair and paints a house next to the girl. Unlike Franklin's cutaway view, her house reveals two faces looking out of an upstairs window and has a flower on each side of the door. Several girls at the art table copy Charlotte's house, varying only the number of flowers at the doorway.
The room is quiet. Noise comes in hills and valleys in the kindergarten. Even a Star Wars drama will eventually wind down, the players scattering into gentler pursuits. Calmness follows excitement in natural rhythms, the mood shifting back into restless gear as increased physical tensions generate new fantasies. My own measure of contentment and anxiety follows close upon the mood of the boys.
Andrew runs into the empty doll corner and begins dumping clothes from shelves and hangers onto the floor while Franklin watches.
"Y'all playin' house?" Franklin asks.
Andrew looks around quickly, self-consciously borrowing Franklin's patois. "This gonna be a spaceship. Y'wanna play?"
There are six boys in the doll corner. It is the first time they have been there without girls. Gregory and Ned totter and clump about in high heels, their arms stuck awkwardly into unfastened dresses. They giggle and screech and stumble into the other boys, who laugh and pull them down.
Andrew darts questioning glances my way as he surveys the mess: naked dolls face down under the crib, chairs overturned, hats and shoes heaped on piles of dresses and dishes. There is a moment of stillness and then Jeremy drags the oven to the middle of the floor.
"This is the computer terminal," he declares.
"Put it over here," says Paul. He picks up the fallen chairs and sets them in two straight rows. The oven is now covered by the shoe rack. Andrew turns two shoes back and forth and speaks into a silver slipper:
"Pilot to crew, pilot to crew, ready for landing. Snow Planet down below."
"Watch out! It exploded!"
"Darth Vader is coming!"
"Millennium Falcon, where are you?"
"E-e-k! B-e-e-p! Erk! Erk!"
"Get the light sabers!"
Andrew runs to the wood-bench. He grabs two long sticks and slams them on the painting table. "Quick! Emergency! Where's the red paint?"
Mary Ann looks doubtful but hands him her paintbrush.
"Thanks, miss, I won't forget this." He paints a red tip on each stick and rushes back to the doll corner. "Am I too late?"
"Just in time. Darth Vader found us, but we got away. Wait, he might be invisible." Paul kicks a pile of clothes.
All the while, Franklin has been turning an unseen steering wheel, making a siren sound and staring through squinty eyes. "M-m-m ... M-m-m ... Darth Vader, he escapin'! Follow me, men. Ah knows his plan. M-m-m ... K-k-k ... P-p-ah-ah! Ah blowed his ship to pieces. He back on the Death Star."
The boys gaze at Franklin in admiration. Ned repeats Franklin's words softly, to himself: "He back on the Death Star."
The girls don't care what goes on in the doll corner when they are not there. It is not a place so much as an idea ready to be adapted. Right now the girls are in the block area building a zoo. They have named the four rubber lions Mother, Father, Sister, and Baby and put them in a two-story house. Girls tame lions by putting them into houses. Boys conquer houses by sending them into space.CHAPTER 4
Once upon a time there was a girl named Snow White and there was a prince and he loved that girl. And he always loved her like a rose. He loved her so so so much better than the time before. And one day they met each other at the pond and they saw seven dwarfs.
The boys react on cue to Charlotte's prince who loved Snow White like a rose. "I won't be a prince. No way!" Andrew sticks out his tongue. "It's disgusting!"
"It certainly is not disgusting, Andrew," I say.
"He's disgusting if he says that," counters Charlotte.
"I'll be the prince," Teddy says. The boys, having made their point, say nothing further and the story is performed without incident.
Later, at the painting table:
"I wonder, why do you suppose boys never tell stories about princes and princesses?" I ask.
"They like rougher games than girls," Janie says.
"Couldn't it be a rough prince?"
The girls look at me in surprise. "Princes are never rough," they answer in unison.
Mary Ann is painting a row of red tulips. "Boys don't like to be fancy. Not kings or queens."
Charlotte nods. "Princes are good guys. The boys like bad guys."
"I like to be a prince," says Teddy from the easel.
"Sure. Some boys do," I say quickly.
He looks around doubtfully. "But not all the time I don't."
"Teddy, just because Andrew made such a fuss, you don't need to change your mind," I tell him in a whisper.
He avoids my gaze and continues to make random swirls with the paintbrush, the colors mixing into a grayish brown. He doesn't want to hear the adult feminine point of view, but when Charlotte speaks again, he looks up with interest.
"Here's what I think," Charlotte states definitively. "They don't want to be fancy because girls do. They just like to be not the same as us."
Excerpted from Boys & Girls by Vivian Gussin Paley. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsTitle Foreword Preface to the 2014 Edition Preface Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Afterword