“I went through puberty.” This was the big secret a fourth grader in one of my classes felt the need to tell me (I do programing at three inner city schools that uses experiential education to focus on empathy-building, self-control, and alternatives to violence, in case you didn’t know). He whispered it, but I winced because the whisper was way louder than it should have been with that sort of sentence. I’m not sure what going “through puberty” meant to him, and I sure wasn’t going to ask, so I said something nondescript and conversation-ending to the effect of, “Okay! Well, there you go!” Maybe he got a new hair somewhere, or his voice squeaked…. Who knows. But the way he strutted as he walked away made me think he was very proud of himself. It was a very cute moment from a kid who acted out a lot. He was a kid whose behavior often warranted discipline from his teacher–The sort of kid who spoke up in opposition when I suggested that hitting someone who hit you might not be the best way to handle the situation–The sort of kid who drew guns on everything.
I had forgotten his name (I am the worst with names), so I walked over to his desk to see if there was something there with his name on it. There was a letter he had written that started with the words “Dear Dad.” I thought he might have signed his name at the bottom, so I moved some papers that were on top of the letter. The letter said something like, “I love you so much. I think about you all the time. I can’t wait to see you again. You’ll always be my dad.” He saw me read it, and he said, “It’s a letter I wrote to my Dad.” I told him that it was a really nice letter while calling him “Bud,” or something thereabouts (he hadn’t signed the letter). He said, “Yeah…. I’m going to drop it off at his grave.” Shit.
I’ve worked with kids for a very long time now–About 20 years (Oh my God). There have been so many times in the past when I looked at a kid and made the decision (maybe subconsciously–never out loud) that he or she was just a bad kid. There was usually some action the kid had done to confirmed my suspicions. “You should know better! NO EXCUSE! YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR ACTIONS!!!” Then I had kids of my own…. Sometimes it’s easier to forgive other people’s kids for being little turds than it is to forgive your own. It makes sense that OTHER people’s kids are little morons, but with your own, you actually BELIEVE the whole “You should know better” thing.
Today, my son slammed my daughter’s arm in a door. He had locked the chain lock, and my daughter reached her arm in the space and he tried to shove it closed while her arm was in it. She cried out in genuine pain, and immediately I’m pissed (You should know this about me: I am at my most out of control when my kids hurt each other. I’m working on it). I go over to see if my daughter is alright, and she is. My focus turns toward the boy. I try to go inside, but the chain on the door is locked…. I see red and briefly consider kicking the door down (I teach kids about self-control). I have warned him before about the dangers of pushing doors shut while people are trying to get in…. HE SHOULD KNOW BETTER! In the time it takes me to walk around the house to the other door, I try to remember to breathe. When I reach him, I am slightly calmer–“How many times have I told you” and “Why in the world would you” and all of that…. He starts crying and says that they were telling secrets and wouldn’t tell him. And just as quickly, I’m not angry….
I think back to being a dorky little kid. I remember the sting of being left out. I remember feeling like I didn’t have any friends. I remember how something as simple as a person not wanting to play with me could make me truly believe that NO ONE liked me. I remember my own selfish and hurtful reactions as a child. When we forget our own failings, we are at our most unforgiving. And I consider that maybe what pisses me off the most about my kids hurting each other might be the shame of my own deficient DNA coursing through their sweet little brains. Besides, what does it say about my own brain that I would think to ask a question like “Why would you do that?” to a person who once shoved his used, poopy toilet paper into the bathroom floor vent so he wouldn’t hear his sisters in the next room?
But it’s not just kids…. We think we know why people are the way they are. We think we know why people do what they do. Most of the time, we have no idea. We are these little balls of chemistry and hormones walking around preaching to each other about “Personal Responsibility.” Maybe that kid has been acting out because of the allergy medicine he has been taking has a side effect of making people aggressive (this turned out to be the case with us). Maybe hints of adolescence are throwing everything off balance. Maybe the argument has more to do with the chemistry in our bodies than actual facts. Maybe that guy selling drugs has NO OTHER OPTION for making enough money to care for their family. Maybe person in the car next to you flipping you off because of a simple mistake you made is on her way to drop off a letter at a grave.
There are a lot of people out there who are very concerned with other people’s personal responsibility–People who seem very passionate about everyone getting what they deserve. These are people who attempt to break down everything into something as simple as choice–That way, every success and failure is warranted. It makes it easier to look at homeless people and think they got that way because they didn’t work hard enough…. But sometimes we talk about bootstraps to people who don’t have boots. Imagine the bleakness of the prayer “May we all get what we deserve.” Here is a different prayer I am praying tonight: “May any concerns I might have about ‘personal responsibility’ be of my own.” How much of my reactions and my insecurities are hardwired into me? What trauma am I feeling the effects of without even knowing about it? What do I need to let go of? Who do I need to forgive? Which things can I control? Which things can I change? I spend a lot less time being offended when I’m focused on those sorts of questions. This is not to say that we don’t try to convince other folks why it’s not okay to shove dirty toilet paper down floor vents…. It just makes it easier to love them while they still don’t get it.