“I’m gonna tell you something, Miss Randle,” he said as he was headed out the door. “Don’t ever change.” He even did a little pistol-point at me with his finger.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll try not to.” Mostly I was being dismissive and trying to get him to scurry on out the door. Planning time, baby.
“NO. Don’t try. Just don’t change. Don’t do it.” He had his serious face on now. Brows were furrowed.
“Well, what if I want a haircut?”
Sigh. Miss Randle is so slow sometimes. “You can do that. You can, like, change your clothes and stuff. You can even shave your head bald if you want to, and if you do that I’ll shave my head, too, but don’t you ever change your personality, ok? Just don’t. It’s great.”
If you had told me the first week of school that I’d be on the receiving end of this level of pure sweetness by the end of October, I’d have checked the temperature of your forehead for signs of some kind of brain-boiling fever. September had me in a full-on ugly cry at my desk after the second full week. I even left a meeting in tears, accidentally slamming a door behind me, because I couldn’t handle people saying the phrase “3rd grade.” I’d made a scene and I never make a scene, always preferring to suck it up in the moment and let it out somewhere other than in front of my coworkers and boss. September was just that rough. It was pray all day, drink wine every night, start every day knowing you won’t succeed kind of rough, but it’s over now.
October is over now, too. It has had its own challenges, but I no longer feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. In fact, I feel like a lot of the time we’re all winning. The conversation above is evidence of that.
If he could, the student I was chatting with would tell you his September was also very rocky. There were lots of angry, screaming breakdowns, lots of time in the office, some violence, some storming out of the building, some calling of security guards.
So, how did we get here? How did we get to this place where he’s not just settled and controlled, but loving and funny? How did I stop having tearful meltdowns in inappropriate settings?
I’m convinced it’s investment.
When I walked out of that meeting and the door slammed behind me, I went to the quietest place I could find and, with all the lights off, literally backed myself into a corner. I took several deep breaths and tried to stop the tears from flowing. A minute or so later I looked up to see someone in the door. A coworker, a friend, had followed me into the dark place. She sat down with me and asked what I needed. Throughout the day other folks showed up with lots of, “Hey, I’ve been there, too.” The end of that story is that our team got together and solved a problem that was making it impossible for me to invest in my kids. We all invested in the solution, but they also invested in me as a person. Now I know that I have a group of people I can trust to come through for me, even when I’m a hot mess.
I’m not used to rushing from overwhelming situations and crawling into corners. I’m not used to people coaxing me back to sanity. But for so many of my kids, it’s their normal. Just a few days before he said the sweetest thing ever, I’d found my little friend hiding under my desk. Thinking he was just playing and hiding from me and knowing he doesn’t respond well to outright scolding, I made a game out of finding him with the other student in the room at the time. When we found him, though, he was curled up, rocking, and visibly upset. Redirecting the other student to work on some reading, I sat down next to my friend under the desk.
“Hey, dude. I can see that you’re really upset about something. What would you like me to do? I can sit here and you can talk to me about it or I can leave you alone. What would work best for you right now?” I figured something had happened in his classroom or he’d had some kind of run-in with another student.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again!” he yelled at me.
“Um…do what, friend?” Now I was confused.
“I had no idea where you were! I was worried sick! You could have been dead or something!” Oh…what? This friend comes in about three minutes early for his time every day. It’s never a big deal. This particular day, however, I’d been in the office. Knowing he’s always a little early, I took the ten second walk from the office to my classroom and was two minutes early. That’s when I noticed he was hiding and figured he was playing around. He had maybe spent 60 seconds on his own, but it was clearly enough time to send him into a panic.
My heart broke for him. What had life done to him to make a 60 second absence enough to stir such strong feelings of abandonment? As I’ve gotten to know him, it’s become very clear that so many of his reactions and behaviors are entirely fear-based and that in response my actions have to be totally trust-building. So, okay, friend, let’s sit under the desk in the dark and figure this out.
The day he made me promise not to ever, ever change, I’d just spent nearly an hour trying to corral him into something that at least resembled productivity. He’d had this idea to scrap the classroom management system and use one involving earning play money for completed work and paying rent for things like chairs and pencils. Switching systems is kind of a pain in the booty, but I saw it as a way to have valuable conversations about natural consequences and the weight of our responsibilities. Plus, it’s always more powerful when kids have a hand in creating their own reinforcement systems.
So there we were, cutting out approximately one bajillion little paper bills, when he popped up and said, “Thank you so much. You listened. You really listened to me. I had an idea and you said we could do it! Here we are and we’re actually doing my idea! And we’ve been working on it for days. And you let me!”
“Well, buddy, it was a good idea. Honestly, if I didn’t think it was a good idea, we would not be doing this right now.” He asked me once to always be honest with him. If he came up to me with a song he made up and I thought it was dumb, he asked me to please just tell him. Don’t sugar-coat it because that would never help him come up with better songs. And besides, he could tell. I asked him if this same philosophy applied to correcting his reading mistakes because he regularly yelled at me about that. I got no response.
“I’m just so excited that someone actually listened to me this time.” I am regularly thankful that heartbreak doesn’t make an audible sound. If these kids could hear all the times they absolutely shatter me, I’d be in trouble.
And now here we are. He gets top marks on his behavior chart nearly every day. I cry every day, but now it’s because I’m laughing so hard. At him. For shaking his hips like Elvis, who just happens to be his favorite.
He’s not my only kid requiring such significant investment and I’m not the only one investing. I’m not the only one sitting on the floor and creating safe spaces for kids. Beyond a doubt, better than any IEP goal I could write, social skills lesson I could plan, or behavioral data tracking sheet I could design, that investment in their actual emotional selves is what I see spur the most change in the majority of my most difficult behavioral students. We sit, we talk, I listen. And as I listen, as we listen as the grown-ups in their lives, their little hearts change. To stop the fighting, we have to stop the fear. To stop the fear, they have to believe they are safe. To believe they are safe, they have to be able to trust the environment and the people around them.
Even though he specifically asked me not to, I can’t help but change just a little bit when I’m around him (and all his little cohorts). When you see the impact a bit of trust can have in just a little, bitty person, you can’t help but want to become more trustworthy every day. I have people I can lean on who have proven through their investment in me that I am supported and not alone. My fervent prayer is that I can spread a bit of that same thing to all the small humans who have been entrusted to me. I don’t know what happens out in the big world, but when they step into my small one, please let it be safe. Let it build trust. Let it be a place where we can all change, even just a little bit, into more of our best selves.