The door swung open, and the school counselor pushed a seven-year-old child into the room. As the child’s eyes met my own, his face turned pale white. I groaned inwardly but maintained a stoic expression.
“This one of yours?” the counselor said.
I nodded, and the counselor ushered Dustin to an empty table. He settled down in the back of the room, and I returned to the group of staff members at my own table. These meetings always ruined my day.
Dustin had entered the school a few weeks ago. Quite frankly, I was less than thrilled by his arrival. Thanks to him, my classroom expanded — yet again —to an impossible 28 children, an unacceptably large number for kindergarten. And he wasn’t just the normal addition. He was the kind that liked to curse, punch, scream, run out of the room, hide in various locations, and refuse to listen to any sort of command or request whatsoever.
When I first met him, for example, Dustin was squished between an open door and adjacent wall, ostensibly hiding from his mother. I said, “Hi, Dustin. I’m your new teacher.” He shook his head, wriggled a little closer to the wall, then cursed out his mom, who threw up her hands and left the building.
I looked from Dustin to the 27 other little people I was charged with educating, and back to Dustin. They all needed my attention. But with each new student — each Dustin — they would get less and less. They were getting less and less.
In that moment, I felt a mixture of exasperation and capitulation. A part of me wanted to revolt in some sort of heroic fashion. But what could I do? Chain myself to the office door and demand they give us more teachers? Go on a one-woman strike against the entire education system? With a union that didn’t exist?
I lived in the real world. And in the real world, you get fired for speaking out. I wanted to buck a system that I myself was trapped within. There was nothing I could do.
So I accepted it.
But Dustin. He did not accept it. If he wasn’t angry, then he was jealous. If he wasn’t starting a fight, he was ending another. If he had a problem and I didn’t respond, his fist took care of it instead. If I spent too much time with another student, he threw his work or broke his pencils. If I gave him a consequence, he stormed out of the room.
Once, when I was outside with a group of students, Dustin (who was not in the group) took off his shoes, ran to the back of the school, and threw them onto the roof of the building. I calmly informed him that there was no way to retrieve his shoes, and he stomped and shouted all day long, demanding that they be returned, as if I was the one who had thrown them there in the first place! I was quite satisfied by the natural consequence of it all. But then the counselor showed up and gave him a new pair of shoes instead, completely ruining the lesson.
Dustin was my daily headache. Now, as my staff meeting droned on, I glanced in his direction. His feet dangled from a chair and his arms rested awkwardly on the high table as he doodled with a crayon. He had tried to run away while I was absent for the meeting. ‘Course he did. I began to scheme a worthy punishment.
On this particular day, I had left Dustin and the rest of my students with an assistant while I attended the staff meeting. Meetings interrupted my teaching at least once a week, so the routine was familiar.
Familiar and dreaded.
The assistant who watched my kids had already been “written up” twice. Once for hitting a child, and once for throwing a pen — at a child. No, she hadn’t been fired.
So before the meeting, I prepared my students as I normally did, addressing last-minute needs and laying out instructions. As usual, the classroom was characteristically quiet. My students had perfected the art of “whisper-voices,” which had paid off well in keeping everyone focused. The assistant teacher smiled at me reassuringly, and I nodded back, thinking that perhaps it would go well.
I exited the classroom and closed the door behind me. As I began walking, however, something stopped me, and I turned around. I walked back over and pressed an ear to the classroom door, listening for signs of misbehavior.
I cocked my head in surprise. Maybe it would be a good day.
I turned to leave when a sudden shriek, coming from the door to my classroom, hit me like a blast of icy wind. No, it wasn’t Dustin. No, it wasn’t any of my students. It was the assistant teacher.
High-decibel yelling continued unabated as the teacher scolded one child and then the next and the next and the next. Student voices, which had been quiet, slowly began to escalate, until all I could hear was a thunderous cacophony of yelling, screaming, and shouting.
I thought about opening the door to intervene. But I knew it wouldn’t help. This happened every single week, and no amount of complaints and interventions had changed that reality. This teacher’s propensity to yell, berate, and bully my students was the same as it had been six months ago. Intervening would settle things down, but as soon as I left, things would escalate again.
So I peeled my eyes from the classroom door and walked away. My stomach felt like a thousand little knots. There was nothing I could do.
Now, thirty minutes later, Dustin sat alone at a table in the back while I pretended to pay attention to the meeting. The counselor bent over and whispered the story to me. He had escaped the classroom and tried to run away in my absence. After searching around, the counselor had found him hiding in some bushes by the school. Dustin had refused to come inside until the counselor promised that he wouldn’t send him back to the classroom. I sighed. We all knew why he didn’t want to go back.
The meeting ended, and I looked at the clock. My students would be in the gym for PE, so the classroom would be empty.
“C’mon, Dustin,” I said. He took my hand, and we left the meeting room together. I didn’t say a word as we walked down the hall. Neither did he. We arrived at the empty classroom, and I sat down in a child-sized chair. Dustin’s sulky-looking face turned away.
“You wanna tell me why you tried to run away, Dustin?”
“Because,” he said, looking down. “I’m bad.”
I didn’t say anything at first. I hadn’t actually decided on a punishment. After several seconds of silence, I took up both his hands and said, “No.” He looked at me, then looked back down.
He stood there, quietly biting his lip. Not saying a word.
“Dustin.” I lifted him onto my lap and wrapped my arm around his shoulders. “You’re not bad.” His body tensed. He stared at the floor with unblinking eyes, and I gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “You are so, so good.”
We sat together for another few seconds. Dustin continued to stare at the floor, biting his lip in silence. I hugged him a little closer and leaned in, speaking in an almost-whisper, “Dustin, you are such a good boy.”
And the child began to cry. He threw his face into my shoulder, and I held him there, his whole body shaking and trembling. I said it again, and his crying turned into uncontrollable sobs. It was like he had never heard it before. “You are good.” I said it over and over and over.
He spent the rest of the period with me until we picked up his classmates from the gym. By then, his tears had ebbed, and he joined his friends like nothing had ever happened. He was the same as before. Loud and forceful. Demanding his way. Cussing when he saw fit.
He was a child. No better or worse than any other. And he deserved so much more than what my overcrowded, underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced school had to offer. He deserved no less than anyone else. But he was getting less anyway. Some children accept this reality. Others, like Dustin, rail against it.
But something had changed. Something that impacted the rest of our time together as teacher and student. Dustin knew that I knew that he was no more bad than any other child in this world. And just as good. And because I knew it, he could know it too.