Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Student Meltdown

Today, as school was coming to an end and students were filing out the door to the buses, one of the kids went nuts. It happens. Her ride hadn't come. She was swearing every few words, calling staff members every obscene name she could think of, and melting down completely. Our hall monitor suggested that she ride a certain bus and ask to be dropped off near her home. The girl said, screamed really, that she wasn't going to ride that fucking bus and then stormed out the door screaming that she would just walk home.

A few minutes later she came back in the building, still screaming. She went to the office and used the phone to call her mother. As she had with us, she screamed and swore at her mother almost non-stop. This went on for ten minutes or so. She came out and walked down the hallway, her hood up, her face clenched tight. At the door she turned and asked if we would tell her the fucking way to get to the fucking town she fucking had to get to or were we just a bunch of fucking assholes. (I add the swearing not to mock her but so that you can have a sense of how far gone she was from herself.) One staff member said that it was too far to walk. I asked if she wanted to walk downtown and catch a bus. She said that she didn't have any money (sprinkling this too with swearing), that she lives on her own, and then she wondered if we were that stupid. "Just tell me how to get there!" she demanded. I said that we would be glad to help her with bus fare, that it wasn't a problem. She said that she didn't want any help. Just the directions, she demanded again. A staff member said, "left out the door, right on 31, and keep going," or something to that effect. The student left.

I'm reminded by all this of the power of breathing.

Throughout the exchange, when it felt as though we were under attack, I kept breathing. I had to consciously whisper the word "breathe" in my head, but I was able to do it. I breathed and as I breathed I came to understand something about the girl in front of me.

She was absolutely sure that she was not good enough to love.

Once I had that thought in mind, the entire situation became about her and not about me. How freeing that was for me. And also, how much better equipped was I to be of use to her.

If there is one thing I can teach kids here at this school, it will be to breathe. Had she been able to breathe, even for a moment, she could have been convinced that we wanted to help. She might have begun to imagine that she was worthy of being helped. But she couldn't do that because she was, as I said above, so far gone from herself.

I sympathize. I've been there. I've lost my control, not just in moments of screaming rage, but in long months of simmering anger and frustration. I have spent years gone from myself.

I don't know what will happen tomorrow for her. Right now, she is outside, walking. It's cold but luckily for her not as cold as yesterday. She will survive the walk. But I'm not betting on her being in school tomorrow. That's a pity. I wish she would come in. I wish she would come back long enough to take one deep breath. That's all. Just one. And if she liked it, she could take another. From there, anything could happen.

So it goes in school.

We are here to teach them things like math and science. As I said yesterday, I'm here to teach them to be better writers and readers. On top of all that, or rather, mixed in with all that, I want to teach them how to breathe, how to pause, how to reflect. Writing does that. Reading too. But there's also a bit of showing them how it's done. Twice today I had the chance to show kids how to breathe. In one instance a student grabbed my good fountain pen, an object I don't share with anyone. I explained it to him, I settled myself, I breathed, and I was able to help him understand me and through that begin to understand a way to be himself. The second breath happened when girl in another class took a phone call from her boyfriend (I make them step into the hall for this) and then came back furious and lost to her anger. I wrote her a little note saying that I was sorry that it seemed like things had gone wrong for her. She read the note, put it in her purse, and when it was time to go, she nodded at me. It was an awfully nice acknowledgement and a good sign that she had learned something.

I was able to breathe today. The girl without a ride home was not. Because I was able to breathe, her situation was sad for me, not threatening. The more I can remember the power of this simple act, the better teacher and person I'll be. Writing helps me learn it, so I suppose I might as well write on.