I stood outside my classroom door every morning to greet the students. My good friend, Derek, stood across the hall. It was a hopeful time in the day. Those moments in which the kids were fresh and so were we.
The second bell chimed indicating all buses were in and school will begin now. I looked at Derek with a “maybe today?” look.
You see, I had a tough student that year. He was 5 sizes larger than the other 5th graders and intimidating as heck. I wanted one day, without him, to teach my class without behavioral interruptions. It wasn’t big hearted at all but necessary.. I needed to reach the classroom benchmark like 4 days ago.
I know this sounds awful. I was an accomplished educator. I set boundaries and had an awesome money system. I treated my class to auctions and allowed them to balance check books. I was pretty firm. But this child, Aaron (changed his name), had my nerves on the ropes. I just couldn't meet his basic needs.
I turned to go in my classroom when I heard Derek say: “Um. You have a late student.. Let me know if you need any help with him today.” The air was sucked out of the hallway. Aaron made his way, in no particular hurry, even though the bell had rung.
“Hey Bud. How are you doing today?” I asked. He grunted his acknowledgment.
I will make a break through today. I began my mantra.
Well, I didn’t.
In fact, Aaron had brought a can of Coke with him that day. During our snack break, he hurled the unopened can at a classmate, injuring him, and had to be removed.
His last sentence was chilling: ”I don’t care. I want to go to JUVEY.”
I felt like a failure.
I had tried so hard to plant the seeds of empathy and they just wouldn’t take.
I went back to the drawing board.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA shares his thoughts on empathy this way:
"When kids are able to watch an interaction that's empathic, empathy isn't just being taught; it's being demonstrated," Talking about the importance of empathic attunement, Dan says, "When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another. This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships. Children need attunement to feel secure and to develop well, and throughout our lives we need attunement to feel close and connected.”
Let me tell you a little bit about Aaron:
1) He never played with anyone on the playground.
2) He was a bully.
3) If it was too quiet, he would start a ruckus.
4) He could barely read and did not know multiplication tables or basic math.
5) His mother never attended a parent teacher conference, in fact, I met her for the first time at the Magistrate’s office after charges had been filed due to this incident by the student’s parents.
6) He failed a drug test at 10 years old.
My guess is that Aaron never had the opportunity to practice empathy. He was constantly being reprimanded, yelled at or, ignored.. He had been gone from his home overnight, while his mother was partying. A full 24 hours went by before she realized he was missing.
One thing I remember though, as much as I practiced empathy and tried to model it, I was constantly taken aback by his lack of compassion and for the hurtful things he said and did to his classmates.
Can you even imagine this type of self-loathing? At ten?
I would like to say that this story has a happy ending.
The problem is I really don’t know.
After a few weeks in the Juvenile Home, Aaron’s mother sent him to another district. Before we could send his records, he had been placed back in the JH.
In your time to reflect, as a teacher, you really don’t worry too much about the honor students, or the marginal kids with good families.
You worry about the Aarons. Beat yourself up about not being able to save him.
Sometimes our super powers just don’t reach that far but we keep trying.
Don’t stop trying.
Thanks for listening.