To wrap up our Asia Unit and our emphasis on social justice in the religious domain (aka respect towards all religions), the second, third, and fourth graders took a field trip to an Asian Art Exhibit at the famous Art Institute of Chicago yesterday. Our kids were divided into smaller groups and received a private tour of the galleries. As I walked with the fourth graders through the towering statues of various Hindu God’s and Buddha’s, I quickly realized that I was more impressed with these 9 year olds than I was with the thousand year old statues.
I watched them walk in a single file line as they followed our tour guide throughout the gallery, curiously looking at every statue along the way. Our tour guide was an older woman who was instructed to tour “elementary students,” in hopes they wouldn’t get bored or giggle at naked artifacts. Little did she know who these kids actually were….the fourth graders (who I like to call “little know-it-alls“) were about to be nothing more than their brilliant young selves. Their deep inquiry and fascinating memory still blows me away.
The tour began with Shiva. “Now to your right, we have a statue of a women from a religion known as Hinduism. She is situated in a ring of….wait, what do you see around the ring?” the tour guide asked, hoping for participation. “Isn’t that Shiva, the destroyer?” One kid answered. “…and she is balancing in the ring of fire. But I dont think she is just a women. Shiva kinda looks like a girl, but she’s actually not a girl and she’s also not a guy. She is made of one,” he continued. The guide stood silent for a second and slowly formed a smile, as she tried to process what this 8 year old just said. “Exactly. Wow, how did you learn about that?” “Oh, we have learned about all types of Asian religions, like Hinduism, and Shiva is a main figure.”
“Do you know where Hinduism began?” She quizzed them.
“Yep. India. But then it spread to other parts of Asia as well.” They aced it.
The tour guide stood looking at these kids as though she didnt know what else to say. She turned to me, somewhat embarrassed, and whispered, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t really prepared for them… I thought I had 8 and 9 year olds with no background on Ancient Asia. What have you guys been teaching them?” As the class stared at her talking to me, she figured this wasnt a great time for a side conversation. She continued, “Very good. Let’s look again at this statue and the fire around her. Don’t you think that might be kinda intense? Fire all around you?” Another boy looked at her with questions in his eyes as he raised his hand, “well actually, the fire ain’t really supposed to be scary or nothin’. Don’t it mean re…re…ummm…reincarnation. I think that is how you say it. Yeah, reincarnation. Hindus believe that like when someone dies, they are born again into something else. It keeps goin’ and goin’, kinda like a circle…which i think is why the fire is in a circle.” He pointed to the circle of fire. His understanding of the symbols in Hinduism was astonishing. How did these kids remember all these details? I was amazed.
Somewhat baffled, the tour guide smiled and re-focused on a different part of the statue. “Now look at what she is stepping on. It kinda looks like the other statues we saw from China. Why do you think she is stepping on this little guy? Do you think she is mean?” Hands all shot up in the air, and then one little girl in the front moved closer to the statue to illustrate her answer. “I remember that the little guys she is stepping on is a symbol for….I think… ignorance?” “I am very impressed. That is exactly right! And why would she do that?”
“Because no one wants to be ignorant,” the girl said in an “isn’t it obvious?” sort of way. “We all want to know things. She probably dont wanna bring ignorance into her next life. I mean, I wouldn’t.”
“Yes. I probably wouldn’t either. You kids know a lot.” The tour guide didn’t quite know how to respond. She directed us to walk over to the next statue. “Now does anyone know what this statue is?” She pointed to a large grey Buddha carved out of stone. “Sidhartha,” one kid stated. “But people call him Buddha. He used to be a prince, but then he gave it all up.” She nodded her head with a smile and told us to sit down on the floor with our legs crossed exactly like Buddha. “This is the position of meditation, where you think about something really hard.” “Or you can think of nothing at all,” Ms Harris clarified. “Or that too,” the tour guide said in a smile. “Let’s try it.” We all sat there for a couple minutes. Eyes closed. Silent. I must admit I have never seen the kids more peaceful and quiet. As she instructed us to open our eyes, she asked questions about meditation. “Buddha is meditating. What do you think he is thinking of?” One boy sitting in the corner scanned the room to find the answer, which he eventually found within the walls of his own mind. “I think I remember,” he raised his hand. “Ain’t he searchin’ for Nrr..Nrr..Nirvana? Ya know, when he will be completely at peace in life. I think that is what people do when they meditate like the Buddha.”
The tour guide looked back at me and Ms Harris and we both shrugged our shoulders. I didn’t even realize how well they paid attention in class when they discussed Hinduism and Buddhism from previous lessons. “I guess they really liked learning about other religions, and they really got into detail,” Ms Harris responded. These kids were kicking butt.
We continued our 90 minute tour as we walked through galleries of religious statues, ancient Shang bronzes, and silk road figures. The kids brought bags of questions and knowledgable comments with them to every room.
At the end of the tour, the woman turned to Ms Harris and I and said, “I have given many tours to many kids, and I have to say, I have never met kids like these. It really is amazing that there are children that have learned to understand and appreciate religions and art from different times and cultures.” I smiled in response. “Well, I think you should tell them that,” and I pointed to the class. She faced them and did her best to explain what she thought.
But I still dont quite think these kids know just how bright and globally aware they really are. I was proud of them.