You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don't help. 1

A few weeks before school wrapped up, I had to leave work early to get T. After numerous texts back and forth with his teacher, I got a call with the final verdict: he was too dysregulated to get on the bus.

Apparently, it started when someone offered him a piece of candy. He wanted a mint, not candy, but there weren’t any mints, so he got mad. In his subsequent breakdown, he scratched a para-pro’s face, kicked and punched three other staff, and flipped several desks and chairs.

By the time I got there, T was in an empty room sitting on the floor screaming and punching himself in the head. Unfortunately, when he’s in that state, seeing me tends to make it worse.

Usually, it’s just more screaming, but on this particular day, he decided to rip his pants off. Like, actually—for real—rip his own pants off. He started by digging at a tiny hole in the knee with his finger. As it got bigger, he just started tearing. When he was done, his pants were nothing more than a couple of shreds of fabric hanging by the elastic waistband.

I looked at him quizzically. “You realize you still have to walk through the halls, right? And now everyone can see your underwear?”

He was silent for a minute as that sunk in, and then he went into another fit of rage—calling me a motherfucker and threatening to kill me.

T is a good kid with a big heart. He gets angry and out of control, for sure, but it didn’t take more than an eyebrow raise and a slight tilt of my head for him to backtrack. He looked ashamed and said he was sorry for his hurtful words. And yet, it took another 20 minutes for him to calm down enough for us to go home.

That was a rough day. I was able to stay calm through the entire incident, but I was just exhausted. It’s exhausting trying to be cool when he’s so out of control. It’s exhausting to get pulled out of meetings to field phone calls and try to de-escalate situations from afar. It’s exhausting trying to stay one step ahead of a broken system that so easily lets kids like T fall through the cracks. It’s exhausting and just plain hard.

But the last week of school it got worse. It started with a series of text messages from his teacher. She wanted to let me know T had bitten another student, which—unfortunately—he had done about half a dozen times throughout the year. With each previous incident, he had taken a time out in the social worker’s office, so I didn’t think much of it.

But the texts didn’t stop. The next message let me know T would not be able to go on the field trip the following day, which seemed reasonable. And then, about an hour later, I got a final text saying the principal had decided to suspend him.

That’s when my exhaustion turned into anger. I was mad at him, for sure—mad about the biting and, selfishly, mad about the inconvenience of having to figure out an arrangement for the following day. But I was mad at the principal, too. She had never come to a single team meeting at the school. She had never once called me—never once made any kind of effort to be part of a workable solution. And now I was getting a text message letting me know T was suspended for a behavior he’d been displaying all year.

I called the teacher and let her know I was frustrated. She agreed that it wasn’t fair to move the bar and that it was confusing to T, specifically, to have a shifting standard of expectation. But her hands were tied, so I asked her to have the principal call me.

And then I waited. And waited. When I picked T up that night, I still hadn’t heard from the principal.

He was in a surprisingly good mood. He had recovered from whatever triggered him, and the first thing he said was that he was sad he lost the field trip—even though he understood why. “I should have used my words, Amy. Biting was not a good choice.”

“Right. That was a bad choice,” I said, “And you know there are consequences at home for that kind of thing, too. This is a big deal, buddy. Getting suspended is a really big deal.”

T starred at me blankly. “What do you mean? You mean I can’t go to school at all?” I could tell he was genuinely confused, and that’s when my anger boiled over.

T was wrong. Biting is never okay. We constantly talk about not using our bodies to hurt others. We constantly talk about using different techniques to calm down when we’re upset instead of lashing out at others. So, I was mad at him. But I was livid at the school.

Getting a text message about the situation seemed inappropriate, but not telling him he was suspended was too much. No one had bothered to inform the child that he couldn’t come back to school the next day. No one had thought to communicate with the emotionally impaired nine-year-old that behaviors that had once simply meant a time out now meant getting kicked out of school.

At first, I had been conflicted about how to channel my anger: Would he get more chores or spend the evening doing extra multiplication sets? But as I looked at him hanging his head in confusion and shame, I knew—this time—I would channel my anger into advocacy.

I called the office first thing in the morning. Yes, what T did was wrong. Yes, he deserved a consequence. But no, moving the bar wasn’t fair. Changing the standard without communicating about it was not okay. Not telling him about his punishment was unacceptable. It was confusing and unjust.

Nothing changed, of course. He was still suspended. But the whole experience helped shift my awareness even more. T is hard. Trauma is hard. Kids like him are hard. But they are worthy. He is worthy. And when he doesn’t have a voice to speak that truth for himself, I will do my best to speak it for him. Sometimes that means giving him extra chores, and sometimes that means making difficult phone calls and holding others accountable for trying to take the easy way out.

 

 

 

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