It’s not just that I’m a parent — that’s not the only reason I’m always thinking about it, though it is the primary and most obvious reason. It’s also because I deal with kids all day every day — I see the results of others’ efforts.
Taiashia is a girl whose attitude on most days goes from bad to worse. She arrives at school mad, and she is often furious before the beginning of the first class. She is obstinate and often belligerent. She can be incredibly incorrigible with some teachers all the time and with me some of the time. She often refuses any redirection from a teacher and responds to explanations of the coming consequences with, “I don’t care.” She is generally regarded by most teachers not to be the most trustworthy pupil. She is, in short, difficult to deal with. But she is smart. Incredibly smart. Despite all her behaviors and issues, she maintains A’s and B’s in most classes.
Earlier in the year, when I first realized how bright she was, how much faster she was on the uptake than a lot of the students in her class, I offered her a temporary spot in one of my advanced classes. “It’s the level class I’d like to place you in next year, and I think it might be a good experience for you this year.”
“I don’t want to,” was her reply.
“Think about it first. Then give me an answer.”
“I don’t want to,” she said the next day.
I had to call her guardian recently about her behavior, and I knew what I’d hear. Anyone could guess what I’d hear. Tough life. Not the best home influences. So on. A common story with such kids.
Cut to this evening. I’m scrounging the bookshelves for a book I haven’t already read and am willing to read because I am not willing to pay the overdue fine I still owe at the library. (The Girl had a bunch of books checked out on my account and, well, time got away from us…) I found a book about child rearing that had the word “character” in the title. Probably not a surprise in a Catholic home. It proposed eight elements of personality that show a person has character — things like integrity, self-discipline, joy. All elements that Taiashia lacks. Completely, it seems some days. At the same time, all things K and I are trying to instill in our own children.
And the opportunities to do so abound. The Girl will face one tomorrow. Her class has earned Electronics Day, which means students can bring electronics for twenty minutes of free time at some point in the day. L’s tablet is busted; our tablet is busted; the tablet I use for school is at school; laptops are not allowed. And so our daughter was worried about what would happen if she came to Electronics Day without any electronics.
“They’ll laugh at me!” she sniffled.
How do you explain to an almost-ten-year-old that what others think doesn’t matter? How do you provide the kind of perspective that makes that possible? You can’t. It only comes with time, with experiencing it for yourself and noticing that you survived it, noticing that not everyone joined in the laughter, realizing that those people are your true friends. A tough thing for not even ten years’ experience.
K and I did the expected thing; we said what any parent would say. And when she brought it up again as I was tucking her in, I thought of Taiashia.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Maybe pray for them?”
“Why?” she asked.
“If they’re in a place in their life where it makes them feel good to make someone else feel bad, they must have a pretty bad life.” Now, I don’t think that’s entirely what’s going on with fourth graders, but by the time they become eighth graders like Taiashia, it is what’s going on. “And then remember it: remember what it feels like and be the one that stands up for others when they’re getting laughed it.”
She thought about it for a moment.
“Yeah, I guess.”
She didn’t sound so convinced, but perhaps there’s just enough seed, water, and care for something to grow there. And if not, K and I will plant again.