A little guy, Michael, entered kindergarten looking harmless enough. It took about an hour to find out that he liked to pinch. In fact, he was a pinching specialist who knew how to pinch with his nails so that he could draw blood. He pinched without warning and didn’t let up over time.He also kicked. Shins, mostly. Grown-up shins made the slower, easier targets. He kicked his classmates, but they sometimes popped him in the mouth, so, by the end of the first month, he stuck to a grown-ups only policy. Big game was best. He took down a social worker assigned to observe him. Single toe-kick below her knee. She requested a revised assignment.I had to break this situation down in a different way.

What Michael had going for him included speed and a good sense of tactics. I needed to build on these things. My other choice – not a choice really – would include rushing around the building to find the two individuals with the right training to remove him when he next latched onto a teacher, librarian, or my secretary. I didn’t want our only recourse to be collaring him and hauling him to a separate room.

When indoor rules fail, time to take the child to the playground. I needed to get to know this boy. I needed to learn his A to B line. What made him smile? What did he want? Why had he learned this pinching and kicking stuff?

I brought a redball and a curious mind. Michael took my hand without pinching it, and we walked through the double doors onto the big-kid yard. He had not been here before. As we stepped out, he stopped, scanned left to right, and then he ran.

My playground has fences too high even for big kids to climb and during the school day, the gates don’t open. I stood and watched as he bolted from one end to the other, climbed half way up a fence, and then came to rest in the middle of a four square court.

I joined him there.

“Let’s play give-and-take. I bounce to you and call out ‘give.’ You catch the ball and call out ‘take.’ Got it?”

He looked me up and down, stood up, and took a corner on the square. We began.

Basic interaction, reciprocity, confrontation of a healthy kind. These things are more than kid stuff. Grace Lee Boggs, one of my heroes, calls on us to re-imagine how we engage with one another. This boy needed attention, I didn’t want to get pinched, but the rule book works only when you know why these rules matter. That’s where it seemed I’d have to begin with this boy.

Simple give and take.

I do get scared that I won’t find a way. That fear comes up each day. I do get backed into old-school answers to the gaps in the growth of young souls. I need to pause long enough to understand what’s going, to map out a plan, and to take on the task of righting imbalances. Or else the pinching and kicking can go on forever.

On the playground with Michael, I found a new way and a first day. May many such days follow on this one and may I find the magical words to keep my colleagues with me as we re-imagine how we engage one another. One day at a time.


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