Very long story somewhat short: I’ve got this kid… or, rather, I should say I HAD this kid. Let’s call him Mitchell.
Mitchell and I never really got along very well. While I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this, the one I come to first is that he’s a pretty insecure young man, and I think that my forthrightness intimidated him. Regardless, he ended up leaving my class on ideological grounds; his mother, it seems, is a fundamentalist Christian, and from what I understand, she didn’t appreciate my challenging her kid in the ways that I did.
The truth is that I have nothing personal against the boy, and never have, though I don’t go out of my way to chat with him as his behavior around me makes it pretty clear that I make him uncomfortable. That’s why I was surprised, and pleasantly so, when Mitch asked me this afternoon if I had a few free minutes I could give him. I invited him into my room and gave him my full attention.
He started out by asking me some vague questions about how I handle fear. I spent a little while talking about how different fear – fear for physical safety, fear about personal conflict, fear of intimidation, fear from shock or surprise – have different effects. I let him know that I, personally, have difficulty managing my physical response to fear; despite going into a conflict armed with confidence and knowledge that I have a strong foundation upon which to stand, I still shake and my palms still sweat and I often find myself in angry tears. I told him these things as a way of humanizing myself to him because, as I say, I know that his impressions of me have not been entirely favorable.
It turns out that, despite what else he may think of me, Mitch understands that I’m someone safe to go to with difficult personal issues. He confided that he is having some pretty serious problems with a family member (not his mother), and that the issues are sufficient that he felt it necessary to warn the school about what’s been going on. He asked me for advice on how to comport himself through these experiences, and I told him that while I could not counsel him – that I’m neither a social worker nor an attorney – I did know that, as an adult (he’s 18) he has absolute freedom of association; he gets to choose whether or not to spend time with someone, and that his fears of being compelled by court order to associate with the person in question are unfounded. I recommended that he seek the advice of law enforcement about the possibility of a restraining order and that, if he feels it would do him some good, he should talk to a counselor to sort out how he feels about the whole mess. I offered that I grew up as an abused child, and I understand that there are a terrible lot of mixed emotions that come with that legacy. I also offered up confidence to the boy that I had faith in his ability to find his way through it, and told him that I would always be a listening ear if he felt I could be useful to him.
It turned out that I had some things to take care of a the end of the day, so I was on my way out the door when Mitch emerged from his meeting with administration. He was clearly upset, so I hung back to offer up one last shot of support. I took him aside, so that we wouldn’t be in the middle of the hall, and asked him how he was doing (though it was patently obvious the boy was on the verge of tears). As I was giving him my “you’re not alone; there are plenty of resources; you’re strong and smart and I believe in you” pep talk, his mother came around the corner and stopped dead in her tracks. I know, though I’ve never been told outright, that she has very little use – and even less respect – for me, but at that moment, I didn’t care. Her son recognized me as someone safe to confide in, and I was not about to disrespect that for fear of what his mother might think. She stood there, a respectful distance away, listening to every encouraging thing I had to say to her son.
Though I’m truly sorry for what’s happening to Mitch, this could not have happened at a better time for me. After everything that’s happened at school these last several weeks, having THIS kid come to ME to address something difficult and painful and personal is nothing short of divine confirmation that I am doing a good job. He sees me being a support to other kids; he recognizes me as someone safe and caring and generous, and came to ME despite our previous rocky history. That tells me that what I do – and the way that I do it – are working. This boy’s choice to seek me out for this personal issue is a vindication of the very public, open, and honest way I love my students. ALL of my students.
Thank you, Mitchell.