Sunday, January 3, 2010
I returned to the classroom after six years of writing grants and working in the district office. It was a wonderful feeling having my own space again where I created the environment and worked with children once more. My fifteen years of experience came rushing back to me but I was frequently surprised by some of the new challenges I now faced.
“Benji, can you read next?” I said to a young boy sitting in the back row of my second grade classroom. There was no response. I could see his eyes looking up to the ceiling, totally oblivious to the classroom activities.
“Earth to Benji, Earth to Benji, come in Benji,” I called out again.
He lost that faraway look and then said, “What?”
“Where were you?”
Without hesitation he replied, “I was pretending to be a serial killer.”
“We’re on page 247, please read from the top of the page,” I said in a calm voice trying to refocus his mind on the task at hand and not to call attention to what he just said.
My brain was racing though. What should I do? The events at Columbine were recent and I didn’t want to take his comments lightly. I knew I couldn’t ignore this but how should I handle it? Was the counselor even here today? By the time the bell rang for recess my heart was pounding.
“Jenny, you’re the leader today,” I said to my most reliable student, “and I want you to walk the students out to the playground.” Next I called Ryan the biggest student and said, “Ryan you follow in back of the line and if anyone doesn’t listen to Jenny you tell me when recess is over.” I looked at Benji and said, “You stay with me, we need to talk.”
The students filed out of the classroom and Benji and I watched from the door to see the students walk in a semi-orderly line in step with other classes as they headed out to the playground. Then I turned to Benji. “Tell me a little bit about you pretending to be a serial killer,” I said ushering him to the kidney shaped table in the reading area.
We could hear the sounds of children playing on the playground and see them running on the grass through the large picture window facing the field.
“What do you want to know?” he said climbing on to the large teacher chair with wheels.
I sat on the edge of the table and started in, “Where did you get the idea to be a serial killer?”
While I waited I looked into his almond shaped eyes and noticed he had two front teeth missing. I saw his shoelaces were untied and his feet didn’t quite touch the floor. I could smell soap, hair gel and maple syrup. His hands were folded respectfully in front of him.
“I heard it on the news and I thought it would be cool,” he said as a matter of fact.
“What do you do as a serial killer?” I asked, looking into his small face topped with black spiked hair.
“I kill them,” he said puffing out his chest.
“Who do you kill?” I asked dreading the answer.
“I kill them all,” he said raising his arms in an obvious victory.
“How do you kill them?” I continued afraid of what I would hear next.
He jumped off the chair and said, “I stomp on the Cheerios” and then he kicked his left foot out to the side, “and then I smash the Cornflakes,” swinging his arms he continued, “then I grab the Wheaties and throw them to the ground.” He stopped talking and walked up to me putting his hand on my shoulder drawing his face close to mine as he stared into my eyes, “Mrs. Reese, are you crying?”
I wiped my tears and gave him a hug, “You’re just a kid aren’t you?” I said letting out a long sigh. He looked confused. “Thanks for talking to me Benji, you’ve got a lot on your mind don’t you?” He nodded and then I said, “When you’re in class you’ve got to pay attention. Do you understand?”
He nodded again. “You can go out and play.” Without hesitation he sprang to the door and ran out of the room.
After school I met with his mother to tell her about our conversation. I recognized her right away because she was always so well dressed. She was a working mom and Benji was her only child. She got that uncomfortable look parents get when teachers call them over to talk about their child.
I told her the story about Benji. When I got to the part about him wanting to be a serial killer, she covered her mouth and backed away from me her eyes darting about to see who might overhear our conversation. She interrupted me, “I know, I’ve heard him say it at home,” her hands fluttered in front of her like she was trying to keep a buzzing hornet away, “I’ve told him it was bad, and he shouldn’t say it.”
When I completed the rest of my story she leaned against me laughing and crying. “Oh my goodness, I didn’t ask enough questions did I?”
“Believe me, I was glad that I didn’t overreact in these crazy times,” I said shaking my head.”
I’ve discovered that working in schools these days requires teachers to listen so carefully. Nothing can be overlooked and parents need to be kept informed. It is in that partnership that we can keep kids safe and nurture their greatest potential.
Benji continued using his lively imagination, combining what he knew with what he was learning. He ended up being identified as Gifted before he finished second grade. He moved at the end of the year and I’ve lost track of him. Now that I think about it he should be starting his second year in high school. I wonder how he is doing?