Friday, March 25, 2016

A Fable for Our Time

Every teacher has a story about that kid. You know who I mean. The one that seemed hopeless, gave you a run for your money (which was paltry enough), thwarted your every effort to help him or care about him. And then. Sometimes at a slow glacial pace, sometimes with an astonishing explosive breakthrough, something changed. That hard exterior softened, that scowl changed to a smile, that lack of faith in himself turned around. But none of it happened without significant, constant and unified effort.

We had a kid like that once. He was the terror that no one could tame. He mocked the kid who stuttered, teased the girls relentlessly, had to win every game or else he’d get his gang of miscreants to beat you up. He had no sense of shame or remorse and the only smile he could manage was an arrogant smirk when he won or made someone cry. He’d say whatever came into his head with no thought of the consequences, lied repeatedly and didn’t care if he was caught in a lie. He had to be the center of attention in every social situation or else he’d pout or lash out. Like I said, a terror.

But we had to deal with him, so we set to work. Called in his parents and began the meeting listing his strengths and good points. At the same time, we required some family counseling to help them learn how to set reasonable limits at home and clear, natural consequences when he did something mean-spirited. We listed specific behaviors that were unacceptable because they hurt other children, disrupted the learning environment and ultimately worked against his best interests as well and made a plan for consequences. We developed strategies to help him become aware of his actions and begin to care about how they affected others. We paired him with the girl he teased to work together on a project with a high-stakes grade at the end. We partnered him with a younger kid with a disability who admired him to see if his bullying side could turn into protecting him from other’s teasing. We told him that he actually had a fine musical talent, but created situations to show him how his notes sounded even better when they worked with his neighbors—which meant he had to listen.  We discovered he had a passion for fly-fishing and let him teach a lesson to the other kids to show off his considerable knowledge. And then take it around to some other classes as well. In short, we did everything in our power to show that “playing well with others” was the most important kind of power a person can have. Kindness, listening, helping was more powerful than bullying, shouting, pouting, teasing— and made everyone happier as well. Especially him.

Over time, it began to pay off. His aggressive energy turned into more positive channels and some delicate part of himself hidden behind the rough exterior began to realize how much we truly cared about him. There were many one-step forward, two-steps backwards moments, but the general direction was forward. These efforts carried him into high school and lo and behold, he now is doing inspiring work in a company devoted to sustainable futures. It worked.

Right around the same time, a friend told me about a similar boy in another school. But the parents of that boy showed no interest in changing their style, talked about his mean aggression as a laudable ambition to get ahead. The teachers threw up their hands, the community excused it all as “boys will be boys.” The other kids, fearful of his power, kowtowed to him and their parents chose not to get involved. In short, not only did no one challenge or question this kid’s actions, but fed it through indifference and excuses. The kid had no motivation to change and even if he wanted to, had no tools with which to do so, no support system, no community who cared. You might expect that this kid got involved in gangs or drug trafficking or some such thing and eventually landed in jail.

In fact, this kid grew up and is running for the President of the United States. With millions of people cheering him on.

Nothing about this story is true.

Everything about this story is true.

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