This morning, I stood on the edge of the playground, watching kids interact. Recess flowed and children’s voices wafted in ways that gave me an inkling of a harmony arising from the middle of the earth. Seamless alignment between above and below.
Then, a colleague of mine named Jacqueline, a principal from a school down the hill showed up. She waved as she came through the gate and crossed the yard. Glad to see her, but this couldn’t be good news.
“Sister J? What brings you here?”
“I’m in a spot, principal. You got a minute?”
“For you, I’m all ears.”
And with that, she unfurled a doozy – how she had stood in a classroom two hours earlier, observing a teacher named Ms. Jennings, who, in her view, was “on something.” This teacher stood at the front of her classroom as paper airplanes flew, children wrestled, and most had their backs turned away.
Then, through the noise and flying objects, Principal Jacqueline spotted Felipe, a black-haired eight year-old who shuffled army-style along the carpeted floor. She and this child went way back as this principal had intervened in his playground scuffles a half dozen times. This wiry eight year-old, on this day, had a mission.
Blue jeans sagging and elbows dragging, he crawled closer to his teacher, one tug at a time. Pull, pull, pause. Wait, watch, repeat. One final tug brought him to her feet, but because of where and how she stood behind her big table, Ms. Jennings could not see him there. My colleague leaned forward as if to intevene, but the next sequence moved too fast. The boy pulled a big pencil from his back pocket, rubbed the eraser on the carpet to create heat with friction, and them bam! He stuck the hot eraser into the puffy flesh on the top of her foot.
Of course she screamed – a burst of sound cut through and brought the chaotic classroom to a silent stop. “Get him out of here!” was the only complete sentence Ms. Jennings managed to form.
Jacqueline did contact Felipe’s parents, met with the father on the playground, spoke to him about what had happened, and watched as the two left the yard. The part that she did not share was Felipe’s answer to this principal’s question: Why did you put the hot eraser on your teacher’s foot?
“Because I wanted to burn her.” But why did you want to burn your teacher? “Because I wanted to see if she was alive.”
So, Jacqueline came to my playground because she could find no solace on hers. How could things have come to this point? How could a child have questioned something so basic? I suggested to her that the ability to stand up did not equate to proof of living.
“A teacher has to bring more than that.” I said.
I didn’t know this kid, but I found myself asking what I always ask. How do we find ourselves sometimes so far apart? What makes a child or a grown up drop back from the pack as both teacher and child had done?
My colleague guessed that today would be Ms. Jennings’ last as a result of this boy’s action. I guessed that Felipe’s journey, for the near term, might continue as a shift between extremes – hard left then a sharp right – zig zagging down pathways where, even with an eraser’s smudge, a child can get wiped out by nothing more profound than his second to last mistake.
Dedicated to Ana, fellow principal, who brought me this tale from her playground.