“What do you do when things like that happen?”
“Cry. Sometimes for hours. And then you’re just depressed all the time because what else can you do?”
I had a student come visit after school today – we’ll call him Smiley. Smiley had missed class today for a dentist appointment, so he’d come to see what we’d done. I filled him on the speeches that had been presented and then gave him my end of the year assessment to fill out. I have kids answer a few simple questions, just to give me a sense of their perceptions: what did you like and why, what did you dislike and why, what did you do a good job with, what could you have done better with, what did I do a good job with, what could I have done better with. Content-wise, it helps me think about what I need to just tweak a bit and what I need to revamp dramatically, and me-wise, it both strokes my ego and keeps me humble.
After he finished, he stuck around to talk for a bit. He’s a chatty kid, and we get along well, though we’ve had some rough patches (he was the kid who said I wanted to get with him earlier this year, among other things – he has a temper and when he gets mad, it doesn’t go well, though he and I have worked hard on finding solutions to that). He had a friend with him (a kid I don’t have but know slightly), and DC and Oh Yes were also in the room.
I was messing around on my computer and he came to sit by me. I’m not even sure how we started talking about this, but he started telling me about all his family members who have been in jail, or been badly hurt, or have badly hurt someone else.
This is stuff I’ve heard from Smiley before to some extent. After we watched Freedom Writers, we did a Socratic seminar on it (more on that another time) and he talked a lot about his dad’s past as a gang member, and getting out, and the violence threatened against his family. When he talks about these issues, he speaks with a slight sense of importance, sort of a you’re-not-going-to-believe-the-shit-that’s-happened-to-ME quality, but mostly it just comes across as really honest with absolutely no filter.
So today he’s sharing more stories, and his friend is too, and I’m listening, and responding with comments like, “That sounds like a really hard thing to go through,” and, “I hope you’re not going to get involved in stuff like that,” and, “That’s really scary.” Because, really, what do you say to a twelve year old who’s telling you about how his uncle shot at a guy who was trying to steal the uncle’s car?
After fifteen minutes or so, Smiley started telling me about a cousin in jail. And then as I was listening, I noticed his eyes were looking a little watery. And then he started to cry.
He’s cried with me before, once when talking about his grandfather who lives in another state and whom he misses tremendously, once when I told him I was going to have to call home about a behavior issue. But I’ve never seen him cry in front of students.
This kid is cool. He’s athletic, funny, crazy, confident – pretty badass for a sixth grader. Crying is definitively not cool.
The other boys froze. Smiley was sitting on a desk with his feet on the seat. He hunched over and buried his face in his knees. I got up and put my arm around his shoulders, rubbed his back, told him how sorry I was and he was okay. After a minute, his friend moved around to stand next to him too. He collected himself after another minute, wiping his eyes and breathing heavily.
“You okay?” I asked.
He nodded, still a little teary.
“It’s hard to lose people you love. No matter how you lose them, to death or to jail or to someone else, it’s really hard, isn’t it.”
He nodded again, and started talking again. He talked about the man he’d seen die in a car accident. He talked about his uncle who’d punched through a window when angry with his aunt. He talked about another cousin who’d been in jail and had missed Smiley’s birthday.
It’s hard to know what to say in these situations…fuck hard, actually, it’s almost impossible at times. I want to be positive, I want to be supportive, I want to say the right thing, but….what IS the right thing? Here’s what I went with, after he talked about the cousin.
“Smiley, that’s why I hope you keep making the right choices. That’s why I hope you stay in school and get an education and do the right thing, because I would hate for the people who love you to feel the way you feel right now. It’s really hard for you to not have these people around you, and I would hate for anyone to feel like that about you.”
He nodded. “I just don’t want to go to any more funerals for the people I love.”
He left after that – mom was outside and he had to go. Before he left, DC came over to him and did a little fist pound thing. It clearly let Smiley know that DC heard him, and felt him, and they were together.
I managed to hold it together until Smiley left. DC and Oh Yes were playing pool (I have a mini pool table in my room – the kids love coming in before school or at lunch to play; it’s adorable), and I started tearing up. DC noticed after a minute. “It’s sad, isn’t it,” he said.
I tried to smile through my tears. “Yeah. It’s really sad. Um, do you guys have stories like that?” I know some of what DC’s been through, but not all. “You don’t have to tell me, but…I was just wondering.”
DC shrugged. “Not as bad as Smiley’s, I’ve never seen anyone die, but yeah. Some.”
Oh Yes was quiet for a minute. “Yeah, sort of.”
I nodded, they went back to playing and after several minutes and a quick trip out of the room to get through it, I managed to stop crying too.
A little later they were ready to go. It was late, so I gave DC bus fare (Oh Yes refused it). “Can I ask what kinds of things have happened to you guys?”
DC leaned on a desk. “It was really bad where I used to live. We heard gunshots a lot. Sirens all the time. Once there was a gang fight in front of my grandma’s house.”
I looked at him. “That just…I just don’t think kids should have to deal with that kind of stuff. It must be really scary. I mean, you’re 12. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”
He nodded. “And that was when I was like six or seven.” Oh Yes leaned on a counter and stared into space.
And that’s when I asked. “What do you do when things like that happen?”
DC shrugged again. “Cry. Sometimes for hours. And then you’re just depressed all the time because what else can you do?” I know it’s a cliché, but he seemed so much older than twelve. His eyes…my heart shuddered to see them.
“I just hope you have someone to talk to. Someone who will listen when you need them.” DC nodded to that too, but Oh Yes kept staring into space. I looked at him. “Do you have someone to talk to?”
No response for a minute, then, “No. Not really.”
My eyes filled again. I blinked rapidly. “You need to find someone. It’s important to have someone to talk to.”
They left, and I left a minute later. When I got outside, they were fifty feet away. “Oh Yes! C’mere for a sec!” He turned and trudged back. “I just wanted to say that if you ever do need someone to talk to, I’d be happy to talk to you. About anything. And if you ever need help with anything, I’d be happy to talk to you about it and try to help you.” He nodded. “Okay, see you tomorrow.”
“Bye,” and he walked away again.
I wept the whole way home.