From day one I knew it was going to be a battle with this kid. He was a class clown with an attitude who had never been expected to respect someone before.
It wasn’t the battle you may be thinking, though. It wasn’t a battle to control him or tame him or change him. I was battling to love him well. Yes, from the moment I met him I knew he would be a challenge. Yes, from the moment I met him he made me want to pull my hair out. But also…yes, from the moment I met him I could see that he was broken.
I don’t know if it was just Tristan’s demeanor or something in his eyes or something God put on my heart, but this boy needed to be loved. I’d been given a challenge.
I tried to find a system that would work for Tristan. I tried positive reinforcement—with words, with stickers, with time to work in pairs. I tried negative consequences—his name on the board, three strikes. Nothing ever consistently worked. Finally, I had to do what I’d been avoiding…
In my opinion, one of our school’s greatest weaknesses is dealing with behavior. According to Costa Rican law, we are not allowed to send kids out of the classroom for misbehaving, take away any of their 4 recesses, or do anything that could be considered punitive. So what do we have? We have boletas—essentially a “ticket” like you would get for a traffic violation. What are they? Boletas are an official note home to parents explaining what the behavior issue was. They take away conduct points according the severity of the behavior. So there is not an immediate consequence to associate with the behavior and whether or not there is a consequence at all is determined by how involved the child’s parent is.
I wrote Tristan a boleta. I had been avoiding it. Why? Because something in me deeply suspected that he had been or was currently being abused.* I have no proof. I’ve never seen a bruise or heard him talk about it. But I just sense that about him. I was scared to send something like that home, but after talking to other administrators about his situation I did.
He apologized the next day and seemed okay. I breathed a sigh of relief. And for a few weeks, things seemed to be going well. There were still interruptions, but I knew he was a work in progress and tried my best to focus on the improvements he was making.
During those weeks, he had an English test and had to answer some questions in the present progressive—What are you doing right now?, What is your mom doing right now?, etc. Tristan raised his hand and when I walked up to his desk he pointed to question number three. What is your dad doing right now? With anger in his eyes, but no emotion in his voice he said, “I can’t answer this. I don’t have a dad. He left.” I told him that he could tell me about anyone he wanted to—a grandparent or a friend. It was like he snapped out of it…he genuinely smiled and said okay and continued working on his test. I walked away with an overwhelming urge to hug him tight and tell him I was so sorry. That his dad was missing out. That he was valuable.
He had given me another peek into his reality. I was starting to learn the concrete reasons for the brokenness I saw in his eyes.
The next week was Spring Break and we had the whole week off. When Tristan came back, he was truly a terror. He broke things, he yelled, he gave me the meanest looks I’ve received in my whole life. On one particularly hard day he came back from the bathroom and I saw him lift his hand as he walked by the front row back to his seat on the other side of the room. I quickly heard gasps and groans from the front row and then I realized what he was doing. In the bathroom he had soaked a bunch of paper towels in water and was proceeding to squeeze out all of the water on his classmates’ heads as he passed by.
One word—fuming. I was so angry. Yet another interruption. Yet another incidence of disrespect for his classmates. What would it take? How could I help a kid that pushes every limit so hard?
I couldn’t let him behave that way without consequences. I wanted to show him that he was lovable, but I also demanded respect in my classroom. I couldn’t make exception after exception. It would have been a disservice to him to exempt him from learning to respect others. So I pulled out a boleta. All I could think was, “I don’t want to do this! Asd;flaksdh WHY do you make me do this?”
As I was processing this drastic decline in behavior with my boss, she opened my eyes to circumstances that I’d never had to face. Growing up, vacations were awesome for me. Endless days with my siblings (who also happened to be my best friends). Swimming. Getting to go visit my dad at work and meet him for lunch. Soccer camp. Cooking with my mom. Hundreds of books. Unbridled imagination. My boss helped me to see that for kids who don’t have a great home life (whether that means they are abused or neglected or whatever), vacations can honestly feel like hell. For them school is an escape. For Tristan, school was an escape.
Things mellowed out into the more normal minor disturbances over the next few weeks, and then “winter” break came. (Here winter means rainy season.) As I reflected on being Tristan’s teacher, I felt such a sense of helplessness…mixed in with guilt for not knowing how to reach him, and a sense of failure at not loving him better. I was sharing some of these reflections with my boss over the break. She told me that right before break she had called Tristan into her office. He was rude and rolled his eyes at her, assuming he was in trouble. He sat down and asked why he was in her office. She told him that he wasn’t in trouble she just wanted to see how he was doing. He started to cry. He told her that during Spring Break his mom and her boyfriend, who had lived with them for years and was the closest thing to a father he’d ever had, got in a really big fight. He just kept saying, it was bad. And then he looked at her and said, “He left us. “ That was his Spring Break. Abandoned for a second time. No wonder he was mad at the world.
At the end of last week, the first week back to school, I asked about Tristan and how he was doing with his new teacher. The director told me that he hadn’t shown up at school yet.
I think about Tristan a lot. I pray that other people will try with him, that they will try to love him like I tried and do a better job at getting through. I pray that one day he will understand what it is to have a father who will never leave, when he will see that God has never turned away. And then I pray that he will be that kind of father to his kids one day.
*I did not just feel this way and not say anything. I tried to give him plenty of space to talk to me about it and I passed it up the “chain of command,” if you will. He started meeting with the school psychologist and the school was monitoring his situation. Ergh, why is it so complicated to protect innocent kids??