“How was your day at school today?”
“Because of Raymond again.”
“What did Raymond do today?”
“He grabbed my library book out of my hand and threw it on the floor!”. My younger son looked tired. I had noticed lately that he was coming home from school saying he’d had a bad day almost everyday. He even said at one point, that he didn’t want to go to school because of Raymond. I had also recently noticed him taking frequent deep breaths, even as he sat dormant on the couch watching Mountain Men. I recognized that chronic panicky feeling and frequent deep breaths in myself when I was feeling particularly anxious, and assumed he was doing it for the same reasons.
“He punched me in the back because I wouldn’t play with him.”
“He stomped on my foot in line at recess.”
“He threw my lunchbox off the table because I wouldn’t sit with him.”
“He won’t leave me alone, even when I tell him I don’t want to sit next to him.”
Everyday, it was something different, but always the same child. At first, I tried to help him problem-solve and give him some suggestions of what he could say to Raymond. Then, I tried to talk to him about compassion and trying to have more patience and understanding for someone struggling so much, but when I started seeing his breathing change and his demeanor change, I started feeling angry. I knew that feeling, and the sanctimonious part of me vehemently believed that my 7-year-old shouldn’t be that stressed out in life already.
I taught 4-winds for Sam’s class and so I knew Raymond, had experienced him myself. He wasn’t just a child I heard about. He was energetic and excitable most of the time. Always calling out instead of raising his hand. Running everywhere instead of walking. Sometimes unable to follow directions. Whenever I walked into the classroom, he came up to me, always trying to take my hand, asking to be in my group, hugging me, wanting to be near me. He was so much in need of affection. I couldn’t understand why he took to me so quickly. Or, maybe he took to everyone that way. But, it sometimes annoyed me. His neediness. His eagerness to be so close to me all the time, especially knowing that just the day before he had punched my son. Sam would sometimes act a bit jealous about this and I would need to hug him or hold his hand and reassure him. Raymond would ask to be in my group and I would brusquely respond, “I don’t know what groups there will be Raymond, please have a seat and we will see”. Or, I would half-heartedly give him a hug back and then quickly tell him to “please sit and wait for the puppet show to start”.
When I would show up at the school to have lunch with my boys, Raymond would spot me in the hall and immediately ask why I was there and if he could also have lunch with us. Knowing how stressed my son seemed around him, I would say something like, “I’m not sure if you can, you might have to ask your teacher”, and then continue on my way. I rationalized that I wasn’t being mean. He really did need to check with his teacher. But nonetheless, I felt badly about it. I had a nagging in the back of my head that reprimanded me for pushing him aside.
One morning just a few weeks ago, as my son was getting ready for school, he started talking about Raymond as he tied his shoes. “He was mean to me on Friday and wouldn’t leave me alone and kept asking me to play with him and so I told him……’my mom doesn’t want me playing with you'”.
At the sound of those words, as I stood above him watching him fiddle with his laces, in my work clothes and dress coat with my purse in one hand and carrying my laptop in the other, a rush of shame and guilt crept up into my chest, up my neck and face and ears, coloring me red. I immediately put myself in Raymond’s shoes. What must it have felt like to have someone you so much wanted to be friends with say something like that? I could only imagine the hurt he felt at hearing those words about himself. I wondered if he felt the same kind of shame and guilt that I was feeling at that moment.
The truth was, I had guessed a while ago that maybe Raymond’s life was quite different from my boys’ life. My boys were rich with love. Rich with stability. Rich with two parents who were extremely present in their lives along with a slew of extended family. Rich with routine and dependability and familiarity and affection. I had guessed that, possibly, Raymond’s life was not so abundant with these things. I had spoken to my boys about having some compassion for other people who weren’t as fortunate as we were in those ways before, but somehow, in some way, I had conveyed something vastly different to my son, who let Raymond know, “my mom doesn’t want me playing with you”.
Part of me didn’t. The last thing that I want to do is help mold someone into a bully by ostracizing them, by reinforcing the idea that they are somehow not accepted or worthy or loved. But how do you protect your own child without destroying another? How do you teach your child compassion for someone else, but not allow that person to physically hurt you just because they’ve had been dealt a hard hand? I didn’t want my son to be getting hurt at school, or to feel so much anxiety, but I also don’t want to squash another child’s spirit in the process.
That morning, I vowed to try to set a better example for my boys, knowing that what I do will have a much bigger impact on them than what I tell them to do. I had been working under the premise “Do as I say and not as I do” and hadn’t even realized it.
On Friday morning a few weeks later, as I wheeled the loud, squeaky 4-winds bin-on-wheels down the hall to the classroom, I went over the science lesson in my mind: “Daunting Defenses”. The lesson for this month focused on the natural defense mechanism of plants and animals. The skunk and his stinky smell; the porcupine and his quills; the salamander and her bright colors and poisonous-tasting skin; the slimy worms and their slippery secretions that make it hard to hold on to them; even the raspberry bushes and her prickly brambles. Every living thing has some kind of defense to try to keep themselves safe-even if it has to hurt the person trying to get to them. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just how we learn to survive. Sometimes it’s a small boy and his fists.
As I entered the classroom, the children were loud and boisterous having just been dropped off by the buses. 10 first graders packed the cubby area, hanging their coats and back packs, taking out their folders. A group of boys huddled in one corner of the room checking out each others’ Pokemon cards. A few girls sat at their desks reading from their Book Boxes and talking about who will play with who at recess. Pulling the rickety bin by a long string, I had to weave in and out of chairs and desks and children to get to the front of the classroom to begin setting up for the puppet show.
Before I even had a chance to get my coat off, Raymond came running over to me, wrapped his little 1st grade arms around my waist and pressed the side of his head into my stomach.
“I missed you Mrs. Spaulding” he said, looking up at me with his hazel eyes, his arms grabbing me tightly.
I dropped my bag and coffee mug wrapped my own arms around his shoulders, hugged him back with a newfound appreciation and said, “I missed you too”.