Today I had a great conversation, one that will stay with me for years, I think. It didn’t surprise me because I have meaningful talks with this guy often. He’s insightful, funny, tough, and intelligent. But today he messed up. More accurately, today is when I found out he messed up. Because of his positive reputation up to now, we spent lunch having what we call “a strong talk”, while the paperwork for a referral for either in-school suspension or lunch or after-school detention sat there as I asked his version of the story.

As usual, he told me the truth, as difficult as it was for him to do. Then he kept talking. He let me know why he’s starting to get angry—what’s happening around him and within him. He gave no excuses for his behavior.  He even said if he were the other boy involved how he would feel. There was no violence, just hateful words. He understands I feel as strongly about hate-filled words as I do physical violence. It was uncharacteristic, and that’s why it stood out. Boys will not just be boys all the time. That is a societal cop out. Not when it incites fear. Not when it’s disguised as a “joke”. And not when I find out the source of the anger and it’s fixable. I told him the consequences, part of which backfired. {Lunch detention doesn’t work when the kid wants to eat lunch with his teacher because school is almost over and he’s sad about that.}

There are hard days at this school, with this age. Nothing was harder than looking this child in his eyes and telling him I was disappointed in him. But it had to be said, and it had to be said by me. Nothing else made me realize more that I was made for this than when I could have this talk with him, and provide whatever discipline was necessary. It would mean more; it would hurt him in the right, fair way. No yelling, no accusations. A conversation.

I told him he is one of the very reasons I get up and teach every day. He helped me find my purpose in life, without ever trying. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but he does have to choose his friends wisely. I reminded him every child in that school deserves to feel as safe and cared for as he does by all of us, and the boy he was unkind to is a favorite of mine too, and it will be made right. That’s HIS job. We’ll see. I know I put a lot of trust in children, but only in the ones who have earned it. Damn it, it’s tough when they violate that trust. But it’s not personal; they’re trying to figure out who they are. And that’s an exact quote from a very wise 11 year old.

Soccer, family, girls, becoming somebody, and respect are the most important things to him. He asked me if I still respected him before we left.

I told him I never stopped.

s. Jensen