Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A New Light

Here's E., who bears an unfortunate poultry-related nickname, sitting in the office, sullen, hood up, face a battered mess. He's got a big egg on his forehead, an eye that will turn black and blue, and the kind of scrape marks you get when someone kicks you in the head (I've got a little experience with such things). I talk to his grandma a little, and then jerk my head a little: C'mere.

So we're here now, I say. You've been heading here all year, getting all suerenoed out, and now you're looking like this. I do some standard stuff about choices, about decisions, about how you never need to feel like anything has gone so far that you can't stop, turn around, and head in a different direction. He pushed back on how this isn't any different than getting in trouble last year, when the worst thing he ever did was talk too much and be annoying, all of which is easily debunked and deflated. I talk about friends, what we should look for in our friends, and how our friends don't always help us show our amazing. In the last five years and eight months, I've had this conversation many, many times.

I run out of steam a little, and there's some silence. I let it sit because I am not afraid of child-generated silence, and then E. says: "I don't know how to have fun."

He repeats it, looking right at me, all that vaunted eye contact. "I don't know how to have fun." And then, "I have no imagination."

I'm floored and flummoxed, prepared with nothing, when my parents, who are visiting from S.Florida, pull up in their rented Kia. I tell him I don't believe those things are true, and to go back inside and apologize to his grandma for fighting. I tell him we'll talk more. I leave feeling ineffectual and weak. A kid offers this extraordinary level of openness, directness, honesty, and I respond with... what exactly? In sixty-eight months of teaching, no kid has ever said something like this to me.

Some thoughts since then:

■ He's probably right. Where is the model of teenage fun that doesn't involve something illicit, illegal, or not age appropriate (in either direction)?

■ He probably has less imagination than he should, based on a reliance to have fun constructed for him, a product of too much T.V., too many movies and video games, too much Great America, too many examples that fun is a passive thing to be experienced, rather than a product to be created. Language itself promotes this mindset: "having fun."

■ What an interesting take on (minor) gang affiliation! Forget the stuff about belonging, generational inertia, cultural identity, fitting in, and living in no-choice neighborhoods, E. is drawing a clear connection between his increased gang-affiliation and resulting beating with an inability to construct and conceive of fun. It casts the problem in a wholly new, and much more approachable light.

■ I (still) don't know what to say to him next Tuesday.

We talked about the difference between a full shower and a strong coating of Axe Body Spray.


Blogger H. said...


What if you just told him that you don't know what to tell him, that you've been thinking a lot about what he said, and that no student has said this to you before? And added that you were curious to hear more, for example during lunch?

Not to be glib or anything. I've read this three times - fascinated, and bemused.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is so sad that fun has morphed into a packaged item.
and i guess your kids can't afford to buy any of that fun ( cars,drugs,tv,gameboys...)
and the old fashioned concept of fun.. hanging outside playing down by creeks and stuff.. just isn't there...

11:48 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Yeah, that probably would've been better. It's hard to restart moments like that, though. Get it done in the moment or blow it.

10:15 AM  
Blogger just a teacher said...

in fear of being repetitive WOW.

It's the moments like this that keep us fresh in teaching - and keep us on our toes! I also think it's good for kids to see that we don't have all the answers.

I would definitely touch base with the kid again and maybe have him reflect back to when he was younger. I think a lot of kids in this population (I teach in a similar soc/ec type area) are forced to grow up too fast and don't in fact remember what it's like to "play". I know it's cliche but what about sports.

I have a kiddo (8th grader) who was "joined" a gang this year and when I talked to him about it and his other interests he talked about soccer. So why doesn't he play soccer I stupidly asked . . . "mom works so she can't drive me to games and practices and she wont let me go with anyone else and we don't have the money for the uniforms and all that". No easy answers for this kid or probably for yours but something we all need to keep thinking about . . .

Keep us updated!

10:41 AM  
Blogger said...

No, no, no. TMAO-- don't let the mythical boundaries of a "moment" stop you from retrying this conversation.

I know nothing about retrieving kids from gangs or handling real violence in school. But I do know this: kids know when you come back to them because they got into your gut, and that knowledge is more important, and every once in awhile can be more transformative, than anything you actually say.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Word on Seneca glass' statement. Go back, TMAO. Unlike Orpheus in Hades, you've got another chance. You're alive. Take it.

On another note, I've been thinking about this post for days. How it sums up so much of what's wrong and missing. The despair. The inability of this student to see himself as an agent of fun, of an imaginative, creative *something*.

There's one thin thread that E has got, though, and that's his connection to you, TMAO. You've been given something pure and true, and I'm in awe.

Middle School Mom

9:49 PM  
Anonymous ms. frizzle said...

I'm with the commenter who suggested retracing his steps a bit. Does he remember having fun in the past? What was involved? What was fun when he was a kid (if anything)? What does he see other kids doing - real kids or tv/movie kids that might seem fun? Maybe a kernel of an idea of what might be fun is in there... a sport... theater... music... building things... and maybe you can hook him up with an opportunity. That's the idealistic answer but at least start the conversation.

What a fascinating moment.

-ms. frizzle (who has forgotten her blogger sign in)

9:29 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Seneca, MSM, Ms. Frizzle:

You're right, of course. I didn't mean to suggest that I wouldn't re-engage, but just that these things can be less viable and certainly less easy when it falls outside the moment. Also, we've had 11 calendar days of vacation plus the time I'm sure he'll spend suspended between then and now to water down the perception of the necessity of openness.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Ben Chun said...

"Hey, did you figure out how to have fun over the break?"

Yeah, maybe not. I might throw it back. "Why is having fun important? Why is having an imagination important?" But usually those just buy you some time at the time and give you a little more to work with.

I honestly don't know where you take it, unless you've figured out the ideal hobby / after-school program / semi-academic obsession / sport for this kid.

5:14 PM  

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