Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a teacher.
On January 6th, as the kids begin their first day back from break, you give them their first assignment. “Let’s all write an essay on what we did over break.” Pencils clutched awkwardly in fifth grade fists and the scratching begins. Except for one boy sitting sullenly in his chair.
“Reymundo, please stay on task and start your essay,” you say.
“Reymundo, everyone else has started their assignment. If you don’t start writing you’ll be moved to position two.”
“IF YOU DON’T LEAVE ME ALONE I’M GOING TO GET ONE OF THE SPANISH LORDS TO F-ING KILL YOU!!”**
What is your reaction to this? Poor teacher. You’re just doing your job. Kids these days. No respect. Bad apple. So violent. What a bully. Sure is awful that you have to teach under these conditions with all these unruly kids. And you should probably stop working there. It’s too dangerous. These kids just don’t value life. You can’t change em. Get out while you can.
There’s more to this story.
That impertinent child who seems like he’s about to snap? He spent the entire ‘vacation’ either hiding under his bed, praying that everyone would forget that he existed or getting beaten mercilessly by his mom and step-dad. Now do you see why he didn’t want to write about his winter break? His story was not one of sled-riding and gifts from Santa, but fear and tears and pain. He isn’t developmentally ready to recognize the fact that what happens to him at home is not his fault. That this is an injustice and that someone could help him. All he can do is react. And he reacts in the ways that are most familiar.
Can we all just agree that no child is born violent? Cruel? Dangerous? That these are learned behaviors, and that no child enjoys this learning process? Can you see that when a child in your class or in your neighborhood or in your after school program does something like this that this is evidence of something greater? That this most likely has very little to do with you and a whole lot to do with the turmoil and uncertainty that they live in every single moment of every single day?
When a child speaks to you like this, you have two options.
#1 Jump on the bandwagon with all the others who treat him with disdain and prove to him, once again, that he is worth nothing. That he is unlovable. That there is something intrinsically wrong with him. Sit with your coworkers and talk about ‘those kids’ and write them off as evidence of everything that is wrong in this world.
#2 See this as in invitation. After he serves his detention (he just threatened your life, come on, there are consequences for stuff like that) start spending just a little more time with him. Pull a seat closer as he’s working on his math. Complement his shoes. Ask him to play a game of Uno. Chat with him about cartoons (because kids who threaten teachers’ lives also watch cartoons…because they.are.kids.) Find out what he likes and ask about it regularly. If you are patient and kind the layers WILL come off. All that scowling and attitude thrown your way? That’s protection. That’s evidence of fear and discomfort. And when you become a safe place, all of this posturing will fall away.
Instead of being the teacher that is threatened after giving an innocent enough assignment, you will become the adult, maybe the only one in this child’s life, with whom he can share the reality of his life.
I beg of you, the next time a child (or adult for that matter) has an extreme response to something that seems trivial to you, look a little deeper. Chances are very, very good that there is so much more hidden under the surface.
And I double beg you to beat down the fear or anger rising inside you and choose response #2.
That first time you get an honest to goodness smile from him instead of his customary scowl…your heart will sing.
(** The story at the beginning of this post is paraphrased from My Bloody Life by Reymundo Sanchez. Go buy it. It’s tough to stomach, but oh so good.)