In the middle of third grade, Ellen had her first experience with betrayal. In many elementary school settings, third grade is a big move. Students are no longer clustered with the K–2 crowd; they’re now navigating the Grade 3–5 group. During recess, she had confided in a friend from her class about a funny, slightly embarrassing thing that had happened to her earlier in the day. By lunchtime, all of the girls in her peer group knew her secret and were giving her a hard time. It was an important lesson, but also a painful one, because up to that point she had never considered the possibility that someone would do that.
When she came home, she burst into tears and told me that she was never going to tell anyone anything again. Her feelings were so hurt. Listening, I felt my heart aching for her. To make matters worse, Ellen told me that the girls were still laughing at her when they returned to the classroom, so much so that her teacher separated them and took some marbles out of the marble jar.
Ellen’s teacher had a large, clear glass vase that she and the kids referred to as “the marble jar.” She kept a bag of colored marbles next to the jar, and whenever the class was collectively making good choices, she would throw some marbles into the jar. Whenever the class was acting out, breaking rules, or not listening, the teacher would take marbles out of the jar. If and when the marbles made it to the top of the jar, the students would be rewarded with a celebration party.
As much as I wanted to pull Ellen close and whisper, “Not sharing with those girls is a great idea! That way they’ll never hurt you (us) again,” I put my fears and anger aside, and started trying to figure out how to talk to her about trust and connection. As I was searching for the right way to translate my own experiences of trust, and what I was learning about trust from the research, I thought, Ah, the marble jar. Perfect.
I told Ellen to think about her friendships as marble jars. Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out. When I asked her if it made sense, she nodded her head with excitement and said, “I’ve got marble jar friends! I’ve got marble jar friends!”
When I asked her to tell me about it, she described four friends whom she could always count on, who knew some of her secrets and would never tell, and who told her some of their secrets too. She said, “These are the friends who ask me to sit with them, even if they’ve been asked to sit at the popular kids’ table.”
It was such a great moment for both of us. When I asked her how her marble jar friends became marble jar friends, she thought about it for a minute and replied, “I’m not sure. How did your marble jar friends get their marbles?” After thinking about it for a while, we both started blurting out our answers. Some of hers were:
And mine? Exactly the same (except for me, Oma and Opa are Deanne and David, my mom and stepdad). When my mom comes to Ellen or Charlie’s events, it’s a great feeling to hear one of my friends say, “Hey, Deanne! Good to see you.” I always think, She remembered my mom’s name. She cares. She’s paying attention.
Here’s what I’ve learned from the research and in my life: Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. It’s the small things. Every single day. Trust is built one marble at a time.