Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1162
Loneliness and Isolation ‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ is primarily about the suffering that the story's protagonist, Shaona, feels because she is unable to fit into her new surroundings. She is a young child who has been away from home for just over a week. At home, she has been replaced in...
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Loneliness and Isolation
‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ is primarily about the suffering that the story's protagonist, Shaona, feels because she is unable to fit into her new surroundings. She is a young child who has been away from home for just over a week. At home, she has been replaced in the family by a three-week-old baby brother. Shaona misses her parents, and she is not even sure whether they love her as they did before, because of the baby.
At school, she finds that she does not fit in with any of the cliques that are already established. She assumes that the rough and tumble play of the boys by the merry-go-round is too much for her to handle, because after having played on the merry-go-round once before, she felt ill for days afterward. The girls accept her and make her the queen in their make-believe court game, but Shaona finds the game too passive for her tastes. Isolated from all factions, she cries through naptime, and in the night she is unable to sleep out of loneliness.
In the end, she becomes socialized by learning a secret behavior that gives her confidence. Spoiling the purslanes that the teacher was counting on rearranges the rules of society in a way that gives Shaona power over her bleak situation, and as a result she no longer fears the aggressive boys on the playground. She steps right into their soldier game and for once feels secure in her bed at night.
Teacher Shen behaves in a way that Shaona finds difficult to understand, because the teacher is driven by a knowledge of poverty from which Shaona has been shielded throughout her young life. Shaona expects her teacher to be honest and is shocked to catch her lying, taking home the purslanes that were promised to the students. She does not understand how desperate Teacher Shen's situation is, how her life is threatened by low wages, illness, and the fear that she might lose what little income she has if word of her abortion were made public. Teacher Shen' s husband has been sent to prison, and she has to care for her mother, even though she herself is undernourished because of the blood that she lost during the abortion. She does not lie to the students and bribe Uncle Chang because of greed; she does so to save her own life.
Shaona is even more personally affected by the teacher's uncommon behavior when she finds that her peanuts are missing. To Shaona, the peanuts have a sentimental significance because her parents gave them to her. It is a sign of just how starved the teacher is that she would steal from one of her students out of a compulsion to nourish herself.
Teacher Shen tries throughout the story to behave in a responsible manner, even when it is obvious that she is desperate. In the end, the sight of the lame rabbit and the possibility of actually having meat to eat drives her into such a wild frenzy that she forgets her job and her responsibility to the students. The fact that Uncle Chang is not in the turnip patch on the second day is an indication that the class's presence there is probably inexcusable, and so Teacher Shen is taking a great risk to bring them in to pick purslanes. It is a chance that she is apparently willing to take. If entering the turnip patch is dangerous to her, then destroying it is certainly cause for dismissal, if not imprisonment. Still, she is so hungry that she cannot focus on the obvious consequences, and she encourages the children to catch the rabbit at all costs, regardless of what their childish efforts will mean in the long run.
The attitudes that the people in this story have toward the different genders are very much like typical American attitudes. The kindergarten teacher caring for children is a woman, whereas the guard of the turnip field is a man, although, because the field is not in much danger, the job is given to an old, retired man. Shaona's father apparently cares about his daughter enough, but he is overjoyed when a boy is born into the family.
In the kindergarten, the traditional gender roles are followed: the boys play soldiers and make pretend guns out of anything they can find, and they aggressively threaten and intimidate the girls; the girls play court, but the strongest and smartest of them is expected to take orders from the weakest, dimmest boy, who plays the king.
There are signs that the traditional expectations are changing in the world of this story. One is the fight between Dabin and Weilan. When Weilan disagrees with Dabin, she stands up for herself, and she matches his obscenities with her own of equal strength. Still, she does not fight against Dabin when the conflict turns physical. At the end of the story, though, Shaona does break the line that separates boys from girls by playing soldier with the boys. It is because she is fulfilled and no longer repressing her aggressive, unladylike side that she is able to sleep comfortably.
As the title of this story indicates, ‘‘In the Kindergarten’’ belongs in the category of stories about young people who learn to develop independent identities, separate from those of their families. In this particular case, readers are not directly shown the family situation that Shaona, the main character, comes from but are only given hints in the scattered memories she has of her mother and father. Still, the importance of her family is clear from the way that she finds herself unable to sleep, distracted by thinking of them. Having been taken from her family and put into the kindergarten means that she must grow up quickly, because she does not have a chance to follow the gradual process of maturation that she might follow if she had stayed at home.
One harsh reality of the world that Shaona is faced with is the fact that her teacher, whom she trusts as a substitute for her parents, is untruthful. Shaona is in a position to understand this like none of the other students. She is the one who hears Teacher Shen on the phone, begging for time to pay her debt; she is the one who sees the teacher ride away on her bicycle with the bag of purslanes; and she is the one whose peanuts are stolen by the teacher. When she is convinced that Teacher Shen cannot be trusted, Shaona is forced to grow up quickly and to face the ugliness of the world that her parents shielded her from. Deciding to sabotage the purslanes is an immature way to deal with the situation, but it is the fact that she takes action at all that makes it possible for Shaona to think that"all of a sudden she had become a big girl.''