The twelfth rainy day in a row, and the school garden looks more like the school mudpit. What else is there to do but pull out the watersheds & wetlands lesson plan. T called us this morning, the parent volunteers, to make sure we’d all come prepared in full rain gear. I’m excited. Seriously, what could be more fun than tromping around in the rain and then playing with clay? I’d love to tell you more about how great it was, how the kids followed the waterflow around the campus, learned about the water cycle, and molded huge slabs of clay into mountains and streams flowing into wetland sponges on their way to the ocean. But, um, I seem to have missed even the parts I was present for: most of my attention was monopolized by Wild Child.
Wild Child doesn’t always have it so easy at home and lets us all know it by pushing the limits whenever he can. When your self-esteem is already in the toilet, you have very little to lose by getting sent to the office, and then you don’t have to try and learn anything. So we in gardening try very hard to keep drawing him in, to not let him drive a wedge between the adults and himself. Today, though, he’s at the top of his game. He calls out, disrespectful and off-topic, while T is explaining the plan for the day, reviewing the water cycle. Seated at the front of the classroom, he erases the board when T’s back is turned, draws his own pictures. I call him over to sit by me, rub his back a little. But he keeps escalating the behaviors, until it’s blatantly unfair to the other kids to allow him to stay in the classroom. T asks him to go stand outside for a few minutes until he regains control.
Next thing we know, the kids are complaining: Wild Child is waving his arms, distracting them through the window. I take a deep breath, head outside. Wild Child proudly proclaims, “I can distract from anywhere.” Another deep breath, trying to blow away my impatience and frustration. I take hold of his hands, squat down to look under the skate-punk fringe of hair he is hiding behind, and catch his eyes with mine for a moment before they glaze under a veil of unshed tears. “I know you like gardening,” I say. “Don’t you want to learn what T is teaching today? It seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun, and we want you to be part of it.” Almost under his breath, he growls, “Some of it, I like some of it.” He looks away, hiding his vulnerability in the corners of his eyes, trying to regain his mask of toughness. I keep hold of his hands, talk about how when I was in school, I didn’t always like parts of it, even lots of it, but you just don’t get to pick only the parts that you want. I’m not sure that I even have a clue what I’m really trying to say. Please don’t turn away from the gifts the world can give you, I guess.
He rejoins the class, tightwalking the line between staying and getting sent out again, seems like he’s signing on, and then I make a fatal mistake, I set a clear boundary: you have to put a raincoat on to go out with the class. So, showdown in the raincoat corral, he’s got both his hands firmly at his hips, ready to pull out guns ablazing. T senses trouble, and takes Wild Child under her expansive emotional wing for a moment. Wild Child re-emerges ready to compromise with an umbrella provided by one of the other parents. But he doesn’t really join the class. He remains twenty feet too far away to hear the lessons being explained as we walk, trailing apart, his own personal raincloud with him under the bright sunflower umbrella. When we return to the classroom, he makes it as clear as the raindrops on his cheeks that he’s not doing it today, and he is finally sent to the office.
I’m relieved, and I ostensibly turn my attention to the project at hand, helping the groups shape watersheds out of their clay. But my mind has gone to the office with Wild Child. He pushes my buttons, and I just don’t know how to serve him. No matter what openness I try to bring to him, he works against my best efforts. He’s just protecting himself, I know, with his “Hey, I’m way more comfortable if you just get the rejection over with” attitude, with his search for the shortest way to get the abandonment part done. I know, at least in my brain, so I resist his efforts, but then…do I just let all the boundaries that are established for the other kids be ignored? He pushes away, we try to pull him in, he pushes harder, I set a boundary, he smart-mouths, he gets sent out. Mission accomplished. He’s in his comfort spot of mutual rejection, he can relax and put his feet up. Aaarrrggghhh.
His classroom teacher has found him there in the office, had the usual talk with him, brought him back with apologies if not eye contact, and with a willingness to at least go through the motions for the remainder of class. Watching him, I want to shove my head through the chalkboard. Why can’t I reach him? He’s only nine. Can his armor really be this thick already?
I watch them all, bent over their work. They are so different than they were last year, even than a few months ago, when we were planting the wheat, now knee-high. They are getting older, beautifully, tragically. The ways in which they have bent to search for the light, to survive the force of the winds, are getting stiffer, more solid, their crooked stems weak in places. We stake them, tie them to us with soft binds of careful lesson plans, and good intentions, and well-meant words, and hope that it is enough, that they will be able to stand on their own by the time they outgrow us altogether.