Candace Stevens Boehm
THE BAJA POST/Writer
They are getting ready to walk through your door for the first time. They are waiting to see how you will greet them. They are going to judge if they will like you. Will you like them? They are feeling excitement and curiosity and anxiety and maybe a little fear. A new school year is a big chapter. It’s a big step. What they don’t know, is that you feel the same way? You look at each one of them as they enter and you look for ways to connect. You search for commonalities. You look for clues to interests and hobbies. You wonder what makes them happy. What makes them smile. You wonder what makes them sad. What causes them frustration. What has made them the person you are about to meet.
I teach in an alternative education setting with some of the most struggling students. They are what most would expect. They are THOSE KIDS. The ones people ask how I work with and wonder how hard it must be. They have significant struggles. Some dealing with school. Some dealing with home. Some dealing with their current situation and some with past experiences. I know every student that walks through my door has a story. Most of them a sad story. Most of them a story that will show itself in my classroom. Much of the time in a negative manner. So I’ve thought all summer about the best way to start the year on a positive note. The best way to teach THOSE KIDS.
My moment of inspiration came to me this summer. I was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and visited Casa Hogar, a children’s home. Some of the children have parents. Many do not. Most have experienced extreme poverty or neglect or abuse. Some are waiting to reunite with families. Some are hoping for adoption. Most just need a safe place to live. I met Jayson Stirrup, the director, who gave us a tour. He was very thorough and showed us the facilities and described the program. He described how the children’s days were structured and the system used to measure expectations. He described the outside support they received and the areas of need they still had. The facilities were immaculate. The kids were looked healthy and well-cared for. I think these are the things many would have seen if they toured Casa Hogar.
I, however, saw more. I saw the young boy who came up to Jayson at least a half a dozen times wanting a hug. The same boy who squeezed himself in between a friend and I as we sat on a bench talking with Jayson as our tour ended. I saw the kids grab brooms and dust rags as we walked through the common area cleaning up their space. I saw them look to us to make sure we noticed. I saw the girl with the fancy braided hair come near us and turn her back to us so we could see her hair multiple times. She wanted us to notice how good it looked. I saw the girl working to sweep the outside sidewalk in the hot July sun. She never stopped working the whole time we were there. I saw the boy trying to discreetly follow us by hiding behind pillars and hanging close to the walls. Finally getting the nerve to come closer and sit on the opposite end of the bench where we were having a conversation. No words but he was there. I saw the boy come into the room and sit opposite us and cry. I saw his peers concerned about his apparent sadness.
I saw so many emotions. I saw Jayson pick up that same boy over and over and give him a hug. I saw tears in Jayson’s eyes when he described how hard it can be sometimes. How by the end of the day it was sometimes hard to give them all the attention they desire. I saw the kindness and compassion and love coming from him as he answered yes when I asked but you still do it anyway. I saw patience. I saw the man cutting the lawn stop what he was doing to show a young boy how the mower worked. I saw him answer question after question. I saw compassion. Jayson told the girl with the braided hair she looked like Alicia Keyes and then casually brought us into the conversation so we could provide her with a compliment as well. I saw her pride. I saw empathy. I felt empathy. I feared the girl sweeping in the hot sun was wearing long sleeves to cover parts of her body that made her feel shame. I felt Jayson’s empathy as he confirmed my fears and discussed how they bought her dry fit long sleeved shirts so she could still cover herself but wasn’t stuck in hot, bulky hoodies she once hid in.
Teaching. I saw teaching in every interaction. Teaching social skills and emotional regulation and just good old-fashioned manners. As each kid came to greet us and ask our name, Jayson guided them to do so appropriately. Some taking a few attempts to get it right. He quietly explained they are learning to interact appropriately with strangers. He provided praise as he walked through each room and saw the kids doing what they were supposed to. There was eye contact and pats on the shoulders and smiles. He was silently acknowledging their hard work. There was the intentional ignoring of the child who entered the room in tears trying to get attention the way he had probably been taught where he came from. Jayson calmly explained to the other children that he was overwhelmed and it was okay to cry but that he needed space and when he was ready to use words to communicate his needs they would be there for him. And they were. He eventually used his words and eventually received the attention I am pretty sure he desired all along. He was learning.
As I wrapped my head around the experience over the next several days, I thought about the children I met and saw. I kept thinking that those kids were my kids. They were from a different place and had different stories, but they could easily be my kids. It didn’t matter that I would never know why they reacted and acted the way they did. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know their histories and I didn’t know their trauma. It didn’t matter that I would never know their story. I would have been confident walking in and spending the day, or even multiple days with them. I would first show kindness. I would smile and I would be welcoming to each of them. I would get down on their level. Interact. Ask questions. Nothing feels better than knowing someone wants to get to know you. Nothing. I would be patient and explain myself over and over again if needed. I would explain things that I didn’t even know would need explaining.
I would laugh with them. Fun is a good thing. Not everything has to be so serious all the time. I would give compliments and praise. I would pat backs and give high fives and give hugs. There would be no criteria for receiving a hug. You need a hug, you get one. I would expect behaviors. Dysregulation. Triggers. I would see signs that would indicate there had been trauma and pain. I would sense it. I would know it was lurking below the surface. I wouldn’t push. I don’t have a right to their story. Maybe someday they will share. Maybe not. Either way it’s okay. Compassion and empathy don’t have to be earned. Not from me. I would see each behavior is communication. I just have to help them figure out a better way to say it or show it or feel it. So maybe the next time will be better. And there will be a next time and a next time. And that’s okay. Because I wouldn’t stop, I would keep teaching them because I would believe they can learn. We would connect. Grow. Trust. Believe in each other. That’s what THOSE KIDS need. That’s what all kids need.
So as I begin this year, I am not going to focus on the what and the why. I’m just going to focus on the who – the kids that walk through that door. It is who they are right now that matters. I’m going to be kind to all of them. I’m going to pay attention to new haircuts and logos on shirts and body language and reactions. I will ask questions. I will make conversations. I will respect that not all will be ready to talk the first day, but I won’t quit trying. I will try every single day. From me, they will learn perseverance. I will kneel next to their desk and even sit on the floor if needed. I will go to them. Eventually, I hope they will learn to meet me part way, but not today. Right now I will go to them. I will see that they need me. They will show me this when they struggle and can’t cope. When they misbehave. I will be ready. I will teach them, all of them. They will not have to earn that right. I will just assume they are all going to need me. Who they are. Who they want to be. Who they want to become. That is what will matter. The What and the Why can come later.