Sometimes I come across a moment that profoundly bothers me. In my job, I learn about many things that are troubling, and consider the consequences of what decisions made will have for an agency, a community or an individual. But occasionally, something falls across my lap like a shadow, and I can’t swipe it away.
I’ll preface this moment with this video, then I’d like to recount with a story about a boy from my past. Warning, this is a pretty tough video.
Now to the past.
There was a boy who lived a couple doors down from my family in our neighborhood, and I and my friends could tell he was in trouble. Some days, he was all right, and we would let him play with us. We actually would say the words, “Ok, you can play with us.”
We had to size him up, because on other days, there was a vibe coming from this kid that made us uneasy, and sure enough, something would cause him to snap. Then somebody got hurt.
One time he took my best friend’s hair in his hands and began to pull it from her head. Tufts of her hair came off in his hands. And it was all without warning. We were more or less ambushed.
Another evening, we were all playing in the alley, and I had noticed he was carefully filling a soda can with gravel. One moment, he was engaged, off doing his thing, the next he turned on me and was shaking the contents of the can in my eyes. I was blinded, and found my way, crying, to the house where my mom washed my eyes with water.
What followed was unsettling. This was in the days before the erection of towering privacy fences, so from our kitchen, I watched as his parents dragged him down their back walk-and I mean dragged-not escorted, but had him by both arms-down the alley to our back door where they forced him to apologize.
By then, I was so shocked by this kid being hauled like a frightened dog to our door, I was ashamed. I said I was ok.
Maybe that year, or a year later, me, a neighbor girl, and my little brother were playing in the backyard of the troubled boy. He had a younger brother, too, and my brother had established a kind of friendship with him. Plus, they had the only real swing-set on the block. Swings ruled.
For a little while, there was a bit of harmony.
The troubled boy was on the periphery of us, not interfering. Then out of nowhere, he began smacking my little brother. In the midst of his knocking my brother around, a shout came from the back of their house and the father of the kid appeared at the back door.
I’ll never forget what happened next. The boy let out this shriek, like a rabbit when it is being savaged by a fox. The boy kind of hunched over and slouched across the yard. The father tore down the steps, grabbed his son by the collar of his shirt and began hammering on this kid with his fists. Blows. Right in front of me, the girl I was with and my brother.
Shocked the hell out of me. I can’t say what the others were feeling, but it scared me. In hindsight, it explained a lot about the haunted look in this kid’s eyes.
A couple years later, when the boy attacked my brother and another child in our backyard, I ran out and hurled abuse at him to scare him off. My language was not pretty, and was heard by that father who came out on his back porch to reprimand me for the language.
I shouted over the yards to tell him he had no right to yell at me for a few swear words, since he made a habit of beating his own son. I was pretty steamed. And I have never forgotten the trouble that kid was in.
Anyhow, it brings me to his moment I witnessed more recently.
I was in a classroom, and I should explain I am frequently in classrooms. It’s part of my job. Most of the time, it’s a delight. This time, I left disturbed.
The incident involved a small boy, about seven, I’ll call him William. He was acting maybe more enthusiastically than the situation warranted, ignited by a kind of desperate energy. William was a little wired, and grinning all the time, but his actions might be called by some, acting out. Edgy, smiling, looking at me, fussing with the kids around him, to me, he was in trouble.
The class was in the middle of a creative activity with another teacher, and William was doing his own thing in time with the activity. I kept my eye on him and saw the second teacher give him a few warning looks and say his name in a serious way. Then she warned him out loud in front of the children while this activity was going on around him.
He did try to calm himself, but it wasn’t enough. He began doing some little hip-hop moves. At one point, the teacher watching him stood behind him and tried to quiet William by putting her hands on his shoulders, but only momentarily, and soon, William was getting himself into trouble again.
It ended up that she took William aside and made him sit in a chair on his own. Reprimanded him that he was not making “good choices” and this was the consequence. In about ten seconds, the boy was up again and she made him sit down. This happened maybe three times.
She hovered near the chair, and all the while, the activity was reaching a crescendo and the other children were winging their way joyously around the room. You could see it was too much for William.
He popped up abruptly from the chair, and stood very close to the teacher. If there had been an opening, he would have thrown his arms around her legs, but he dared not and had this heartbreaking, devastated look on his face staring into the middle distance, lost.
She bent over and pushed him gently but firmly back into the chair, but he was up in a flash, again, standing as close as he could beside her, but not touching her, with this look.
Thankfully, the activity soon ended and William was let back into the group where he sat down. He put his face in his hands had a quick cry. Just for a second there was a wash of despair on this little boy’s face. I was relieved when the other teacher beside him rubbed his back and in a moment, he had this little brave smile again.
I felt extremely agitated by what I had seen.
Later, I met up with an older adult and was so disturbed by the incident, I told them about what I had witnessed. In a coincidence, this person is involved with child protection, named the boy before I could recall his name, and said they knew William and his family and story well.
Turns out, William is the fourth generation in his family experiencing or witnessing of domestic violence. He has been removed from his parents, and it’s only been in the last year of his life that he has finally had some stability. there had been a threat that he would be separated from his younger brother. They are now together in another home in an out-of-home-care kinship carer situation.
Down the track, I happened to see William again in another situation with a large number of children around. He recognized me and said hello, and I said I was happy to see him again.
He was highly-charged, a grin stretching from ear to ear, and running around with all the other children. For some reason I could not see, teachers’ voices were ringing out with his name, and publicly saying to each other, and of course sending the message to William and all the other kids around him, “William is not making very good choices today”.
At another location at this event, I saw another boy, anxious, a little too hyper, sometimes absenting himself form the activity with a little grin on his face. A teacher said to another within hearing of everybody else that that little boy was also “not making good choices”.
I asked the adult who knew William’s background about the concept of “good choices” and they said, “He does not know how to make a decision, so how can he make a good choice?”
I recall children I was in primary school with who were always getting into mischief or disrupting things. They had this definable energy that was unsettled. No adult had to tell us these kids were in trouble. Any classroom discipline only solidified the fact among the rest of us. And likely caused that child to believe they did not fit in. Cast a cloud over them.
I asked a teacher just a couple of days ago about this idea of asking a child if they were making good or perhaps not such good choices. She said it was a common practice, and I had learned that already from doing some internet research.
Then I asked her, “Would you tell a child they were making bad choices in front of a room full of other kids?”
She said first of all, she makes a practice of never telling a child they are making a bad choice. Instead, she says to the child, that maybe, the choice made was not the best choice. She said she also takes the child aside for that conversation.
And I have to wonder, in a world where a bad choice gets you attention when negative attention is better than no attention at all, why not make a bad choice? Especially for a little guy who has battered shoes and a dirty pair of shorts for school, is some attention better than what you’re not getting at home?
I’m not a teacher, and I don’t have to deal with a room filled with first graders, some of whom are dirty or their hair is knotted because there is nobody to brush it for them, who have not had a breakfast and maybe not dinner the night before.
Some who are tired from looking after siblings because their parent or parents or guardians are too drunk or stoned to do so, or who are kept cowering all night because of the fighting in the home.
I’m not in a room where some children already carry a stigma from adults and other kids because they are Aboriginal, or another race that labels them as a minority or they smell funny or have something physical or compromised ability that sets them apart.
I don’t have to worry about keeping order in a class with a few young ones that essentially have ongoing stress disorder from the violence in their domestic lives.
But I am an adult whose heart hurts for these kids, and I wish there was something I could do.
A teacher told me recently that you had to look out for some of these disruptive kids, because they can manipulate a situation. She said one young boy was trouble on a daily basis and warned if he did not change his choices, he would not be allowed to attend a special event.
It caused the kid to go off the handle, but in the end, he did modify his behavior. She relented, and the child allowed to go to the event. The next day, he was back to the same old bad behavior and she said clearly, this young child had manipulated her into allowing him to go.
I don’t see it that way. Clearly, I am not in the hot seat, but unless the kid’s a sociopath, I imagine that again, the need to be in trouble, no matter how uncomfortable it is for him, is a better deal, a deal he understands, inside and out, than the world he might inhabit if he changed.
Also, for those children who have to return to a highly stressful environment daily from the relative safety of school, to have to constantly flip up and down your guard must be exhausting.
I’d like to finish this by saying for all the years I trained horses, and as my husband still does, we talked about giving a horse the chance to explore their options. In the case of troubled horses, like children, often the worst ideas are still the ones that have kept them alive, so they are loathe to change.
When you ask a horse to search and experiment, it is important you do not make the wrong choice impossible. Instead, you make the right choice the easiest and keep opening up the opportunities for the horse to find that easy option util they own that pathway to the decision.
People who choose to do this often find it challenging, because the horse is emotionally tied to his decisions, so the finesse needed to judge when to block a thought and when to allow that thought to develop is changeable in many respects.
I see this is no different in children. One benefit is that we can share language with a child. But the difficulty is without changing the environment the child reruns to each afternoon or evening, is often impossible. You are asking that child to put aside their stress for a few hours a day only to take up the thread again once it is time to return home.
There does not seem to be a good answer. I think about William, and his shoes somebody has picked out for him, and his worn shorts and shirt. His little haircut.
In the morning, he put on these clothes, shouldered a backpack with a superhero or a character from the latest animated film on the back, and a smile, and got on the bus, or into the car to go to school. There, it is a minefield of getting things wrong, dancing around the moments of trouble, maybe sometimes, in a teacher, a friend or an accomplishment, finding solace.
Life without conflict certainly has been thin on the ground for far, far too many children like William. I don’t have to say of all stages of life, early childhood should be the one most free of despair, and yet.
If it leaves me with a knot in my gut, what must it feel like for William?