Many adults, caught in the tangled net of responsibility, look upon their childhoods or those of their own children with nostalgia. They recall childhood as easy, but I know I wouldn’t want to travel backward, except to visit moments here and there that weren’t so hard, that weren’t rife with confused emotions, intimate conflicts with friends, and tall people telling me what to do and feel and laughing with condescension at my wounds. Then kids, too, get bundled up like debris in the messy lives and emotions of their adults, whether those are parents, guardians, or teachers, people they’ve been told to follow, but who at times have no idea what they’re doing. Yet they tell their kids, Follow me, while another adult, doing something completely different, also tells their kids, Follow me. Still others are punishing their kids in order that their life won’t be followed.
Kids are told to do this now or don’t do this now for reasons they’ll understand later. They’ll get to thank some big person later. Study math now because you’ll need it later. Don’t have sex now and you’ll understand later. Too much of a kid’s life is spent in a vast later that stretches beyond comprehension, because when you’re five and those five years have seemed pretty long, the next 13+ years of later is forever. I would imagine by the time you’re in the adult-dreaded teenage years that later is a pretty sickening word, especially because you’re starting to feel more like an adult, be given adult-level responsibilities, but with none of the freedom, and are still hearing about that neverland later. You know that later is closer but still much too far.
This is me, trying to be compassionate with my students.
One of my seventh graders, KB, lives in one room with her family, her mother, her older and younger sisters, and her niece. The fathers of her sisters are semi-involved financially in their lives; hers is not. Their family relies on her mother’s part-time income and foreign support. KB is the responsible one, for her little sister and for her niece when her older sister isn’t home. She worries about too many adult things, like rent payments, because she has to. She has adult worries but not adult trust, and KB is very torn by this. Her mother gets suspicious whenever she talks to a boy in her neighborhood and has punished her upon hearing rumors of such conversations. I’ve been told about name calling and shouting over this issue. My student knows why her mother is concerned—pregnancy—but all KB wants to do is talk, and it’s unfair that she’s responsible enough to take care of her family but not move beyond the gate that closes their apartment to the street. I have heard this story many times this year.
With my oh-so-vast adult wisdom, I can see as her mother does, how talking leads to one thing and another, as it did for her mother and so many others—and too many of the others are barely older than KB—and I can understand that her mother fears most that this second daughter will create or end up in her same circumstances and is determined to lock her up and even beat her to prevent this. I can also see that KB is fiercely loyal to her mother, protective of her family, responsible as best she can be, and she honestly just wants to talk to this boy (Okay, I bet if a kiss happened, she wouldn’t mind.). But there’s no way that KB will understand that for now she gets to worry like an adult, care like an adult, but can’t be trusted like an adult. There’s too much now and later.
This is me trying to be compassionate when she fails a test and can’t help flirting with a classmate rather than take notes.
Kim is insecure and not a little goofy. She’s tall, long-limbed, and has a birthmark on her face she’s ashamed of. Rather than believe in herself, she idolizes other girls, girls I wish she wouldn’t, because they are terrible role models, girls who need good role models themselves. For a few weeks early in the school year, Kim and I had a breakthrough and she went from coloring in class to wanting to please me, which translated into her working. Now, she works and will participate more than she did at first, but if her friend isn’t working, neither is she. So I try to sit them apart, and her mother wants this as well, but Kim is shy, a little strange, and a lot of the kids don’t like her. How can I begrudge her a friendly elbow partner? She gets mad when I move her and sulks with her head on her desk. She tried to cheat on her last parcial exams. Then, after lunch, she’ll zoom around the room and stand an inch away with her lovely lopsided smile and a “Hello, Miss Theresita!” Of course it’s a joke on me, but I’m glad she’s comfortable enough with me to be that weird and, honestly, I’m quite weird. I just worry that the sparking light I see in her is going to be twisted by whomever she places her trust in and not lifted, as it needs to be, but she’s not strong enough to lift it herself. Yet.
Lately she’s been in detention a lot, for not doing her work. When she’s upset, she shuts down and it’s hard to find access. Sometimes I have to threaten her with going to the office.
Her best friend and idol, Jojo, has divorcing parents and a distant father. Too many dads are out of the picture. Jojo’s been a slippery enigma since the beginning. She has a wall a mile high, much of it fortified with insecurity. I also can’t sit her next to anyone else in class because, as I’ve said in my less compassionate moments, she gets her claws into them and brings them to the dark side, as she did with Kim. But I’ve found some chinks in her armor. If she doesn’t do her work, it’s often because she doesn’t understand, which she’s too proud to admit, and so I always thank her for her questions and invite her to ask more.
This is me trying to be compassionate when they both ignore and giggle at me and I itch to place them in hugs bordering ever so slightly on a chokehold.
This is me trying to be compassionate when Fred, mortified at being so behind, yet again cancels our tutoring session, but the fact is he shouldn’t be in seventh grade, he’s already failed once, and he continually disrupts class because he’s bored and lost. He gets by on his sweet smile.
Sometimes I have no idea if my sandwich is being buttered with bullshit. I wasn’t prepared for life in this emotional blender of compassion and adolescence. Did Jojo really not understand the homework or is that an excuse for forgetfulness? How can I blame the kids for whining when it’s over 80 degrees in our classroom with the broken fan, but I need the whiteboard for our lesson? Was the science quiz too difficult or did the kids just not study? Am I explaining this poorly or are the kids just not paying attention? I’m not proud or arrogant to enough to assume I’m always right. I dole out negative reinforcement with secret guilt, wishing the positive reinforcement were enough.
Often I forget they’re kids. It’s hard not to when they’re practically adult sized and not cuddly like the wee ones. I struggle to comprehend that they (mostly) aren’t kids like I was, who paid attention, who suffered the boredom silently, who didn’t like but understood the importance of later. I forget that my world is not their world. The other volunteers were more normal as children, or perhaps they’re just more resilient, and don’t appear to be caught in this emotional goo. I forget that inadvertent rudeness happens when you don’t know the subtleties of the language you are learning. I get impatient and sometimes unfair and too often take this all personally.
My kids are kids; they barely comprehend tomorrow, much less later. As I write this, the compassion swells into my fingertips and my weekly forecast is tinted with hope and strength. I can just see myself navigating these moments with skill and grace. I feel myself remembering childhood and the future that came much too slowly. And then…I can feel myself dreading the alarm Monday morning.
P.S. Grover came to Honduras with me. Despite his self-doubt, he dabbles in superheroism.