A week or so ago, one of my friends (and former colleagues) reminded a few of us about an incident that happened several years ago, at St Francis Middle School. At the time, I was one of the assistant principals at this ex-urban school. The Study Center is a small inner-office complex that housed us assistant principals, some administrative assistants, and a small waiting area for students to come and regale us with their latest Middle Schooler foibles and escapades.
One of our teachers, Adam, came into the Study Center from the hallway, and poked his head into my office. “Can you come out here for a minute? Crystal (not her real name) could use a little–help.” We went into the hallway, where Crystal was pacing back and forth, arms crossed tightly across her chest. She was seething. Have you ever been around someone who was so angry or frustrated, that their emotions were felt by you? A visceral, raw, state, where it was like walking into a physical presence? That was Crystal.
“I’ve been trying to have her some in here,” Adam said. He was calm, and kept his distance from Crystal. “Hi, Crystal. What’s up?” I asked.
“I’m NOT going in there!” Crystal yelled. Great. Happy Days are here again!
“Huh. You look kind of upset” I said, rather please with my powers of observation and insight into the psyche of adolescent girls. “It’s going to be passing time soon. Maybe we could go chill out in the Study Hall for a few?”
“I said, I’m not fucking going IN THERE!” See? Told you she was pretty upset.
“Come on,” Adam said. “Let’s just go in for a minute. Then there won’t be a bunch of other kids around during passing time.” “Yeah,” I said. “Please come on.”
Crystal, not well pleased at the is point, stopped her pacing and looked at us in turn. “Well, fuck you guys and the horse you rode in on!”
Now, what followed wasn’t one of my more professional reactions. I laughed. So did Adam. I said to Crystal, “What, are you forty? Nobody says that anymore.” This did not endear me much to Crystal, but at that point we didn’t have much to lose anyway. Plus, it was pretty damn funny coming from an eighth grader.
I don’t remember what happened next. Likely my partner, Bobbi, came to rescue the situation and got Crystal to come inside. But, I really don’t remember.
I’m not sure what set Crystal off that day. Adam just happened to come across her, so he had no idea either. What I do know is that Crystal carried a lot of anger and a lot of hurt with her, all of the time. I mean, All. Of. The. Time. I also know that this was a funny, smart, creative, and articulate kid, who up until that point, and probably well past it, didn’t know she was any of those things.
What Crystal knew was dysfunction. She knew abject poverty. She knew that men in her family went to jail or to rehab. She knew that her mom worked her ass off, and it still wasn’t enough.
Crystal, like so many others, had in a way befriended anger, welcomed hurt, and grew intimate with pain. Crystal had understood that it’s much easier and much quicker to keep those very powerful forces close at hand, so that they could be used to shield and to hide. It was what she knew.
Crystal should have been suspended out of school that day. That was one of the rules. A kid tells an adult to fuck off (and his horse), you don’t get to be there. It’s easy. Look in the student guidelines, put your finger in the correct row and column, and BAM! Solution. Easy, easy, easy. And, since it’s literally in black and white, there can be no argument against the consequence. Easy.
We don’t sign up for easy. We sign up for the mess.
Bobbi took Crystal into her office. Not sure of their conversation, but I know Crystal got to stay in school that day. Bobbi is pretty amazing, and she got Crystal off of the ledge, at least for a while. And, Bobbi didn’t just forget about her after that. She did her best to be there for Crystal, to provide some consistency and sanity in her young life.
What we do is we sit with one another. We just sit. We look at the beautiful person when they can’t see their true selves, we hear them above and more deeply than they words they might be using, and we stay with them while they are in it.
And, if they sit with us long enough to know that we are not going away, that we are not going to screw them over, that we will absorb some of their anguish, then their armor begins to crack. Just a little bit. But, it’s enough of a start.
Now, for those of you who are at this point asking, “Don’t people deserve consequences for their behaviors?” Yes, of course. However, sometimes rules are made for those who are going to obey them. The kids who are in a place of deep hurt and deep distrust punish themselves far more than we ever can. Yes, they can and did get consequences. But that wasn’t the real work.
I know that I often failed kids. Maybe I didn’t take the time to see them, to listen to them, to try and understand them. Or, I would just be tired and frustrated and “throw the book” at them. Yeah, for sure I did that. We all do.
But, we get better at it with practice. Just sitting and seeing people for who they truly are, despite what the might be saying, feeling, or seeing about themselves.
So, Crystal, wherever you are: I still don’t have a horse. And, I hope that you have come back to your true self.