I once worked with a boy named Bobby. He was nine at the time, this particular time, when he asked a question of me. I told the class that I would be out of school the next day. A substitute teacher would take my place. Bobby was concerned. He knew that at times he could be a handful – actually an armful as well, even a whole bodyful – when he lost control. The question he asked was, “Who will hold me when I need it?”
Spoken with such deep and pure sincerity it touched my heart. I also knew that he would hurt me if he could, when deep in the grip of anger – to bite, kick, butt or spit. I learned a great deal from Bobby. I learned to question my immediate reactions to his behaviors, to see that much of how I behaved when someone became angry with me or attacked me, physically or verbally, was conditioned. My reactions were automatic and consistent. The specific situation, the unique moment I stood within, was disregarded. I didn’t need to know anything more than the fact that someone had treated me badly. My hackles went up, my defenses mobilized, while my objectivity became immobilized. “Ready for battle, Sir.”
Bobby taught me to see and to question – especially to question my own behavior and perspective. Perhaps there are other ways to act, beyond the automatic reactive behavior, that would be of greater value – to me, to students, to the classroom learning experience.
A few weeks later I took the class to the local library in town. I am always particularly attuned to the emotional state of the students when in public settings, for obvious reasons. I ran interference with various students, putting out potential “fires” as they arose, yet I could see that residue from a couple of incidents was building up a bit of fire inside Bobby. I called for students to prepare to leave, to head back to school, but we did not make a clean getaway as I had hoped. Bobby blew.
Instead of a full sit-down hold-down, I backed against a wall in the library hallway holding Bobby in tight restraint – to prevent harm to himself or anyone else. My arms were crossed over his, my head was to the side where he could not butt my face with his. He bit down on my arm as hard as he could. He got only jacket. It was a leather jacket, as I had driven my BMW cycle to school that day. He bit and bit and I simply held. Then I noticed something white fall to the floor, cascade in a long arc like a rock thrown off a mountaintop. It looked like it came from his mouth. I stared in dread, imagining all sorts of potential trouble. Bobby stopped all fighting and tentatively said, “Was that my tooth?” “Yes” I said. “I think it was.” We both stared, as I loosened my grip on him. Then I slowly asked, “Was it loose?” “Yeah, it was ready to come out” he said. “Okay, would you like to take it with you?” He did. Everyone quietly left at that point, no more fight remained in anyone. The incident was over.
Bobby and I shared a harmony together. That harmony could range from playful to intent to harm for him, from laughing to firm controlling for me. Where the harmony could be found was in the action I took in response to his behaviors – the play and interplay, in the questioning I learned to employ in regards to my patterns of thinking and believing, and in the hearts of the two of us. I just had to get out of my own way a little bit in order to clearly see what to do, and to note what was truly of value.
A week later another student in class came up to me and asked, in all seriousness, “Can I bite your jacket. I have a tooth that’s ready to come out.” I smiled and said, “No Sarah, I think we’ll wait to let this tooth come out when it’s surely ready”