Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Something That Always "Works"


A two-year-old was standing at the gate, his fingers through the slats, crying after his mommy who had left. The grandmother of another child was sitting with him. I wanted to go take her place, not because she was doing anything wrong, but it was the first day of a summer session, I imagined she was there to enjoy it with her own grandson, and I see it as a big part of my job to be with the kids when they struggle with the transition into their time with us. That said, there were some 30 other kids to be welcomed, along with their parents, and I had several other things to do to get things launched, so I left them there, knowing that at least the poor boy wasn't abandoned, even if he was feeling a bit that way.

It took about 10 minutes in order to carve out the time to get to them. He was still crying. This was the first time we had spoken, other than me saying, "I'm happy to see you," when he first arrived in his mother's arms. I sat beside him on the steps, used his name, and asked by way of confirmation, "Are you sad because your mommy left?"

He nodded.

Several of my old friends had followed me, excited to see me after a break, wanting to be in my sphere for a bit to start their days. "Why is he crying?" "What's wrong?" "Teacher Tom, I want to show you that I learned to pump myself on the swings." I told them that I was going to talk to this boy for awhile, using his name again, letting them know that I would be with them shortly, saying, "We'll come find you when he's finished with his cry."

As I'd managed our space in this way, he had turned away from the gate, still whimpering, but obviously listening. When they had gone he turned his face back to the gate and resumed his cry.

I said, "You're sad your mommy left. It's okay to be sad about that. I'm going to be with you while you're sad, but I want you to know that mommy's always come back. Your mommy will come back." I then verbally walked him through our daily schedule, ending with, "Then I'll read a story and mommy will come back." I had a passing thought about what I would do if this didn't "work," before remembering that the goal is not to end his crying, but to create a space in which he could finish his cry. Of course, it would "work," it always "works" when one person sits with another like this, calmly making statements of fact.

I asked if he wanted me to hold him. He nodded yes, but when I touched him, the recoil of his body said no. I asked if he wanted to sit beside me. He wanted to keep standing. I said, "Okay, then I'll sit here with you while you're sad about mommy leaving." After a couple minutes, one of my old friends raced up, demanding excitedly, "Teacher Tom, you have to come see our major overflow." "Major overflow" is the term the kids had coined for when they fill a 20 gallon tub with water using the the cast iron hand pump, then dump it down the hill, creating a river with a waterfall as it plunges from the upper level of the sandpit to the lower. I answered that I couldn't come right away because (and I used his name again) I was sitting with this boy who was missing his mommy. The older girl widened her eyes, looked at him, then said insistently, "He can come watch it too!"

I asked him if he wanted to see the major overflow. Still weeping, he nodded. I stood and said, "I will go with you. I can hold your hand." He took my proffered hand, and slowly we walked to the sandpit where we witnessed the promised event, which was accompanied by big kids cheering with the kind of joy that can only come from a collective accomplishment. "Did you see it, Teacher Tom?"

I answered that we had seen it, referring of course to the two-year-old who had, it seemed, finished his cry. Soon, he was engaged with the water, probably still missing mommy, but no longer incapacitated by the feelings it evoked.

This is my job. I'm not here to make things better, to end the crying, or to distract them from missing their mommies. I'm not even there to soothe them any more than I'm there to "good job" them: that is not my job. Becoming soothed is their job. Cheering for their own accomplishments is their job. My job is to be with them when they're crying and when they're cheering, speaking truth, and creating space for them to feel exactly how they feel for as long as they need to feel it. It "works" every time.

******

Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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