This is a chapter from “Small People — Big Brains” that was written in 2012, shortly after the Newtown tragedy. My intent in republishing it this year is not to remind us of the tragedy; it is rather to remind us of the possibilities and opportunities we face every day.
When I got the call last Monday that I’d be needed at school, I was momentarily struck with the reality that going “to work” included the distinct possibly of not coming home. Like many, I’d been mourning the huge loss we experienced in Connecticut. As a society, we’ve trusted teachers with our children’s education for a long time. The Newtown tragedy has demonstrated that we also trust those teachers and staff with our children’s very lives.
While I in no way want to diminish the loss of those children and adults, as time has passed I think we might consider that we are also mourning the loss of safe havens for children to learn. The grief that we are feeling calls out for answers and brings with it a rush to prevent this type of tragedy. We want to bring back those safe places.
One of the most meaningful things I learned about “classroom management” while preparing to become a substitute was the observation that “the only behavior you can truly control in your classroom is your own.”
One day this week I was working with first graders on an art project. I’d been warned to keep them busy or “they will make your life miserable.” We’d been doing quite well, actually, when I suddenly lost control of the classroom. Amid the coloring and cutting and pasting and cries of “Mr. Boomsma, can you help me with this?” very suddenly and spontaneously one child started singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Within seconds, fifteen little voices chimed in and I was left to stand and watch the unfolding of what might be described as a “Normal Rockwell Moment.” For at least six renditions of the song (the part they remembered) my life was anything but miserable.
But it was not because of anything I did.
Every sane person wants to prevent the type of tragedy we experienced on December 14, 2012. As we work through the grief, I believe we need to remember that six-year-old who decided to sing. To be sure, somebody taught him to sing. But he decided it was time to sing. If we don’t remember him and his choice, we are in danger of deluding ourselves into thinking we can fix this by controlling things (guns, videos, the media, etc.) and perhaps even people.
I’ve asked myself what I might do to prevent this type of tragedy and believe the long look answer lies in another truth: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” While we cannot ignore those broken adults, we (collectively, not just teachers) are “breaking” children every day by missing opportunities, failing to provide structure, and in too many cases engaging in outright abuse and neglect. The same newspaper that headlined the Newtown events also carried a story of an eight-year-old girl who was raped. These tragedies deserve equal outrage.
Anyone who spends any time working in schools has met them–the kids we are breaking. A kid who is constantly angry for reasons we don’t yet understand–copes by screaming and pushing his way around. The loner who is always seen off by herself during recess…
All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games.
Just this week a nine-year-old confessed to being tired first thing in the morning explaining that her dad goes to work at 3 AM and she’s required to get up to care for her younger brother. She’s a real good kid and I think will grow up to be a responsible adult. I’m not indicting her Dad because it’s likely an economic necessity. But she’s carrying a lot of weight on her young shoulders–can we be sure whether it will make or break her?
What happens to us shapes us, but we decide who we are. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work with kids have a key–we need to focus on building strong children who learn the skills–including the skill of self-control–that will allow them make good decisions about what they will do and who they will become.
Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!