In the 1990’s I was in high school – a couple of them, actually. The last was a short bus school (they were called Alternative Schools back then) and its wasn’t about memorizing facts so much as it was about not getting into fights or settings things on fire. I learned a hell of a lot more lessons that would later help me in life than I did at any other school, that is for sure.
What I’m about to tell you is absolutely true but I don’t wish to present it as “I was right they were wrong” – with that disclaimer firmly in place:
One of the classes I took was Child Development…it was partly because of a girl I liked but mostly it seemed like an easy class. At the end of the course, we were taken to a daycare center and under supervision, put it charge of a ‘class’ of children for ninety minutes or so.Almost all of the women who ran the place were all old enough to be grandmothers to the kids from my high school so the kids attending the daycare center were nearly another species, as far as I could see. They were definitely all looking at me when they warned that any defiance would result in our being banned from the place and thus, failing the class. Back then, I had a blue mohawk which hung to my shoulders, I wore lots of rings with spikes, eyeballs, etc and I definitely wore all black.
I figured this would scare most kids off but the kids I was in charge of were either not normal or young enough to not judge – or, as I suspected, they read one’s emotional vibes more than anything else. They swarmed over me like zombies over humans who can’t get away but there wasn’t any biting. I believe it’s a universal thing to consciously try and not pick favorites but it happens. There was one kid, a girl named Amanda or something who was clearly sharper and more mature than all the others. She never cried when her mom dropped her off, she was never one of the ones to get into a fight over a toy (I quickly smoothed out conflicts like that by asking who wanted to wear my sunglasses or listen to my headphones for a minute – strictly Pink Floyd and The Cure) and when it was time to read a book to the kids, she sat next to me and turned the pages. The first time I ever saw her start to cry was when she fell and when I helped her up, she hugged me and that was that, she was back to normal.
When a fight got bad enough or some kid was unruly enough, my supervisor would deal with the kid in various ways, one of which was putting the kid by themselves in an empty classroom until they calmed down. It made me uncomfortable but (1) I wasn’t sure how I would have dealt with it if it were up to me and (2) it wasn’t my deal; I was there for the class thing. After a week or so, I knew which kids were the ones to keep an eye on and which kids could be relied upon to play nice; to share, to not push back, etc. One of the things I taught the class was the ‘peace sign’ and I really thought it would pass in and out of their minds but kids are mysterious in their own way. And as the school semester was ending, there came a day when my teacher told me I had been reported as being ‘surprisingly good with the kids’ and I figured it was a done deal, I would pass this class with no sweat but then the day that was The Day came.
Amanda’s mom was late dropping her off and it was clear that the kid was exhausted; pretty much half-asleep and cranky and totally unlike her usual self. It didn’t take long for one of the more troublesome kids to take something from her and when she tried to take it back, they pushed her over. She began to cry and I knew if I gave her a hug she’d be fine but one of the supervisors intervened and with more disdain than usual, put her in an empty classroom and slammed the door. She began to scream and something in my head – and my heart, I suppose – changed modes. She wasn’t my daughter or even the daughter of a friend but what was happening was wrong and I could not allow it to go on. Hearing her howl PHYSICALLY hurt me. And the look on the supervisor’s face pushed me through rage into another state where…well, where we do things we shouldn’t.
I was told that she wasn’t allowed out until she stopped crying, just like all the others…but she Smiled at me when she said it. At least, that’s how I remember it. Amanda’s howls were echoing in the room and she was pounding on the door and my supervisor crossed her arms and said to me, “NO. Don’t you dare.” I tried to explain that a simple hug would solve the situation and she told me that if I opened the door, I was “done” and it was around then that I realized it was very very quiet. Every single kid was staring and other teachers (and kids from my class) had gathered in the doorway; she could not see them since she was staring at me but I could see them watching me…and I tell myself I weighed the situation, I thought it through but I also know I didn’t care.
I was not defiant enough to smile at her when I did it but I clearly remember I looked her directly in the face when I opened the door and Amanda pretty much jumped into my arms and I hugged her and she stopped crying immediately. It was the first time I ever wiped tears and snot off a kid’s face and absolutely the first time I felt a fulfillment in making a kid feel better. I remember her eyes were still bright and shiny with tears when she smiled at me and I smiled at her – and then the moment of reckoning was upon us. The woman told me, “You’re done.”
I looked at Amanda and smiled then looked back at the woman and said, “That’s cool.” I set Amanda down and the woman looked like she was going to have a heart attack she was so pissed. And I was somehow more than ‘cool’ or ‘ok’…I felt (for lack of a better term) Good. She turned away and saw everyone had been watching and I began to feel pretty great…she was totally unaware that we’d been observed. As if to prove this, she said to the audience, “He was wrong!” There was no response and I didn’t care. It was time to read the kids a book and Amanda already had our chairs set up.
At the end of that final session, the woman told the class that “John won’t be coming back so say goodbye” and each one of the kids looked up at me and gave me the peace sign and I felt something that I’ve felt maybe two or three times in my entire life. It wasn’t anything specific, I know that, it was just Overwhelming. Amanda smiled and waved and I smiled back and then I had to go. I had to get out of there. I couldn’t bear the thought of that woman being in charge of those kids, the unruly ones as well as the well-behaved ones. That was the only time the woman who ran the daycare center spoke directly to me – she stopped me on the way to the bus and said to me, “Thank You” and shook my hand.
On the bus, a girl from my class sat next to me and I remember a weird sense of Disconnect. She squeezed my hand and didn’t say anything. If I remember correctly, nobody said anything or maybe I just wasn’t listening. When we got back to the school, I knew there had been a phone call or something; my teacher took me aside and told me that I wouldn’t be going back and I should have obeyed and I may have set a bad example by picking a favorite. I probably did. But I didn’t agree. And I didn’t say so…and I don’t think I needed to.
I think about all of that now and sometimes I think the woman who was my supervisor didn’t like Amanda’s mother (who was pretty, well-dressed, elegant, etc) and sometimes I think I would be a bad parent because I would pick a favorite but mostly what I feel is that there’s nothing to think about. It’s an emotional thing and that is it. It was a decision blinded by emotion. I can’t decide if I feel it was right or wrong in the ‘big picture’ but by every rule, every factoid, every piece, every element to the foundation upon which my present day self has been built up from, I know it was worth it.
She was a tiny human, a person in the making and she was in distress and I knew how to fix it and I did. Everything else is irrelevant. I remember it and cherish it as much as I am haunted by it. Yeah, she was my favorite and that affected my judgement but it also made that moment when she stopped crying and smiled and I wiped the tears and snot from her face something elemental. There’s that concept of ‘the exploded second’ where time warps…when I think about the events of that day, I know to an absolute certainty part of me became known to myself in that moment.
In the end, I guess I know it wasn’t only me who knew it because I didn’t get an “F” even though we’d been told repeatedly that if we didn’t finish that section of the course, we would. I never asked the teacher why I got a “C” and I never told anyone in the class about it -although later, I found out that the ones who didn’t gather in the doorway and see what happened told the others. To say it was one thing or another isn’t right or wrong it just isn’t Enough.
I think I changed a little bit – maybe more than a little bit – that day.
It’s something that I can’t quantify or easily reference or write into a script.
It’s something I’ll always remember.
It was worth it.