I Failed a Child Who Needed Me
I sat in the principal’s office going over some reports that detailed how students in the school rated in the achievement of some arbitrary reading goal set by people who don’t work with children the walkie-talkie crackled.
“John, flipped over a desk again,” his teacher’s annoyance was palpable.
“I’ll get him,” The school social worker rolled her eyes as she stood.
A few moments later she returned, her hand wrapped around the wrist of boy with owl eyes.
“Sit in the corner, right there,” she pointed a shellacked talon at the tile floor.
The boy complied, knees pulled up to his chest, arms wrapped around them — a useless shield against the school-to-prison pipeline he was in.
“Well, what did our troublemaker do this time?” the Principal rounded her desk.
“He flipped over his desk. Acting like he doesn’t know how to behave in school.”
“Why did you flip over your desk?” the principal raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest.
Owl eyes grew wider, “I got mad,” barely a whisper escaped his throat.
“You got mad?” The social worker’s hands went to her hips. Her head swiveled to the principal. “His teacher said he didn’t have a pencil again.”
“No pencil? Didn’t we just give him some last week?” the principal shook her head then turned to John, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with you.”
“You don’t know how to behave so I don’t think you should be allowed to have recess,” the social worker directed her words towards John, though her body was turned away.
The boy covered his face with his tiny hands, “Can I have a chair? The floor is cold.”
“A chair? He wants a chair,” the social worker parroted.
“Do you think he deserves a chair?” the principal’s voice raised an octave, mocking owl eyes.
“No, animals don’t deserve to sit in chairs. You stay right there until you’re ready to go back to the classroom and behave yourself.”
I saw, but I stayed silent. In a world where every adult either abused him or ignored him I was complicit.
All this because of a missing pencil.
The boy didn’t have a pencil, but, that wasn’t the first time he’d been chastised that morning. It was 8:45 am and John’s rage already bubbled over. He’d missed the bus because his foster mom forgot to wake him up. He got to school after breakfast was served and missed that meal. He was hungry, fed up, and needed a pencil to do his work.
Teachers in urban districts know our students come from homes where parents work two or three jobs to make ends meet and can’t always afford a pack of number two Ticonderogas. So, why are we still making a big deal about a pencil?
Then, you have the kids like John whose trauma was far worse than the neglect associated with latch-key parenting. John was in foster care because he witnessed his father repeatedly beat his mother. When the criminal justice system released his father, he moved back in.
John’s little six-year-old brain was wired for reactivity. Unresolved trauma puts people in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, and that morning, when John felt threatened he chose to fight. Most kids his age are still watching Sesame Street on Saturday morning in footie pajamas.
I knew all of this about John because I’d responded to requests from John’s teachers to remove him from the classroom during times when he lost control.
I sat there and said nothing.
Sure, I could say that I was afraid of undermining my principal and getting slapped with an insubordination note in my personnel file. The district I taught in liked to keep teachers quiet. The ones who didn’t rock the boat were praised and those with too much backbone were insubordinate. Sure, I was protecting my career. That’s true enough, but, we all know that’s bullshit. I did nothing because I didn’t want to get uncomfortable.
I could have saved a tiny child another traumatic experience. If I’d touched the principal’s arm to pull her out of her anger, or taken the boy by the hand and removed him from the office I’d have shown him that there are people in this world who will love him even when he makes mistakes. I would have shown him he wasn’t an animal with no control, but a little boy who needed love, guidance, and safety. But I failed.
I went home that day to my six-year-old son and when I tucked him into bed with a kiss on his head. I felt the growing baby squirm beneath my ribs. I thought of John. Who tucked him in at night? Did he get bedtime stories? If I won’t stand up for children who are suffering right before my eyes, do I deserve to be entrusted with these beautiful souls of my own?
At this point, I’ve forgiven myself for not stepping in with John. I was able to find self-compassion because, after that day, I changed my behavior. I may not have found a way to speak out about the treatment in a broad sense, but I found little ways to show students in need that kindness existed in the halls of their schools. The next time I saw John being abused was on field day.
“You ruin everything that’s supposed to be fun, why would I let you play?” His teacher sneered.
John’s eyes opened wide, and the trembling that preceded an explosion threatened to ruin the day.
“Why don’t I take him for the day? I’m running the costume relay race and he can help me with supplies,” I jumped in.
The teacher sighed, her shoulders falling from her ears, “Sure, you can deal with him,” she waved him in my direction with a sneer.
John helped me with the relay races and, when I moved to the snack station he skipped about filling cups, and passing out popcorn and watermelon to his schoolmates. At the end of the day, he was our biggest helper in cleaning up the debris from the field.
I know the small kindness of giving him a positive role in field day isn’t likely to change the trajectory of his school career. I am willing to bet that by the time he got to middle school the label of troublemaker was so deeply etched into his subconscious that he didn’t know how to behave another way. But, I’m also hopeful that he moved forward with a small understanding of the kindness that exists in this world — and that we all deserve to find it.
Maria Chapman is a parent of five, a personal coach, and a chronic illness warrior. Follow her newsletter, Lies We Tell Ourselves, for more truth.