I got a call from T’s school today. Texts from his teacher are common, but by the time she calls me, I know it’s pretty bad.
“T’s screaming, Amy. He’s been screaming for an hour. He won’t stop. Can you try to talk to him?”
“Yeah, sure. Of course,” I say.
The thing is: When he’s that escalated, it’s a chore to even get him on the phone. I could hear his familiar, piercing scream in the background.
“Nooooo!” he was shrieking, “I won’t talk to Amy! You can’t make me!”
But something about his cry was different.
When T is triggered, he will scream and moan and carry on for hours. He can get truly hysterical. He’s a master of angry wails, of fake sobs that are so obviously conjured—of cries that come from a place of frustration or a desire to manipulate a situation. When he’s in that kind of a meltdown, the phone calls from school are pretty brief. I can talk him down in 3 or 4 minutes, mostly because he’s smart. At that point, he knows I’m serious and that he’s gone too far.
“What are my expectations, T?”
“That I’m kind and that I follow directions.” (Said amid grunts and hisses.)
“Yup. It doesn’t sound like you’re making good choices though, dude. Would you like to choose to be kind and follow directions, or would you like me to take away your drone? You get to decide, okay?”
“Okay, Amy. I’ll tell my teacher I’m sorry. I’ll choose to be kind.” (Said in a very chipper tone.)
But today something was different. He actually sounded sad. His cry was a real cry. And that’s significant. A month ago, if I had asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, he’d swear at me, punch the wall, and scream. Now it’s just as likely that he’ll fall to the ground and cry. In the year-and-a-half he’s been with me, I’ve only heard T cry like that a handful of times—the kind of cry you’d expect from a little kid who just fell off his bike or broke his favorite toy.
That’s what it sounded like today, over the phone. They were real tears. They were sobs of sorrow and distress. It was that deep, aching kind of cry that hangs in the air and feels tangible even as I listened from miles away. It’s like his little body was finding a way to mourn a very real tragedy, even when his conscious mind wouldn’t let him.
“T! T! Put the phone to your ear. We’re just going to talk, buddy. I want to know what’s wrong.”
“I’m just so upset right now! I’m feeling so upset!”
“I know. Tell me what happened.”
“Amy I just can’t. I’m feeling too upset right now!”
“Buddy I need you to listen to my words. Listen to my words, okay?”
“I, I, I, I, I just caaaaaannnnnn’t!”
“Listen to my words. You have to listen to my words. Buddy, listen to my words. I can’t help you if I don’t know what happened. I want to help you. Tell me what happened.”
It turns out: An hour earlier he decided he wanted a piece of black construction paper to make his butterfly in art class. But, he initially asked for yellow. By the time he changed his mind, there was no black paper left.
But T wasn’t crying about construction paper. He didn’t kick another student because of black vs. yellow. He didn’t get off the phone with me and go tell the lunch lady to eff-off because his art project went south. He did it because his mind is constantly churning with things I can’t even imagine—with pain and confusion I can’t begin to comprehend.
But how do I convince the lunch lady or his para-pro or his teacher or his principal or the strangers staring at the coffee shop and the grocery store that he’s not a bad kid? How do I convince them that more meds or more discipline are not the answer?
How do I convince myself that that’s true?
He’s a little kid. He’s been hurt. Really, really hurt. And he doesn’t have the skills to process that pain in a healthy way. Not yet, anyway.
All I know is that I don’t know.
Because the truth is: Most days I do still have to try to convince myself. On some level, I always know it, of course, but it’s hard to keep that at the forefront of my mind when he pees on my carpet or screams in my face.
But today he was sad. So sad. And it was easy to remember. My heart broke and my tears flowed and all I could do was remind him that I was there and that I cared and that I trusted he’d be okay.