An intern appears in the doorway of what has become my makeshift office during these weeks of theatre camp. Looking frazzled, he holds up a hand, indicating that someone—presumably a student—should wait in the hall, before he crosses to the table I’ve claimed as my desk.
“Susie is here to see you,” he says in a hushed voice, as if Susie might overhear that she’s standing in the hallway waiting to see me. “She’s not following directions, she won’t go to the bathroom during our bathroom break, and she refuses to uncross her arms.”
Her real name isn’t Susie, but this is the third time in her two weeks here at camp that she’s been brought to me by interns who can’t handle her. I’ve become the principal. That wasn’t my intent when I dubbed myself camp director and hired a team of teaching artists and interns, but that’s what’s happened. I see Susie peeking around the door. I pat the seat of the chair next to meet. “Have a seat, kiddo,” I say, not unkindly, but with enough of an edge to let her know that all is not as it should be.
“Talk to me about today,” I say. And then I let her ramble for just two or three minutes and she goes on and on about a stepmother and a baby brother and a television in her room and not eating breakfast and going to bed really late and being rushed out the door in the morning. I don’t know how much of it’s true. That’s not the point. The point is that she needed someone’s undivided attention for two minutes, needed to vent for two minutes.
I interrupt her rambling to ask what’s going on in her classroom. She takes full responsibility for her actions. “I’m not listening to directions,” she says. “And I’m saying not nice things to other kids.”
“Are you having fun here at camp?” I ask.
She nods her head enthusiastically. “Yes!”
“And do we need to work together to make sure we can put on a super spectacular show for our parents?”
Again, she nods. “Yes.”
“So what are my expectations for you in the classroom upstairs? What do I expect you to do?”
“Do what the teachers and interns ask me to do.”
She pauses. She’s trying to come up with the other expectations I set for her, the ones we went through the first time she landed herself in my “office.” I bail her out, giving her the answers she’s looking for.
“I expect four things from you,” I tell her. “I expect you to follow the directions so that everyone can enjoy whatever game you’re playing. I expect you to listen to the teachers and interns. I expect you to treat the other students with respect, meaning you should use only your kindest words and voice when speaking to others. And–and this is a big one–I expect you to have fun.”
“So what are the four things I expect?”
She repeats them, almost verbatim.
“And what was that last one?”
“To have fun.”
“Think you can handle that?” I ask.
She nods. I walk her to the bathroom where she uses it quickly before we return to her classroom. Just outside the door to the classroom, I have her repeat my four expectations again. Then I offer my hand for a high-five. “Let’s do it,” I say as she gives me a gleeful smack and runs back into her classroom.
An hour later, my intern walks into my classroom-turned-office and shakes his head. “I don’t know what you said to Susie,” he says, “but thank you.”
“Better?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he says.
I forget how much I’ve learned. I forget that there was a time when I would have dragged a stubborn kid to my supervisor’s office because I just didn’t know how to deal with her. My intern didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sure he asked her what was wrong, I’m sure he asked her to participate in the activity, and I know he asked her to use the bathroom. I’ve only ever observed him using patient and appropriate words with the kids, so I can only assume that he did so on this occasion. But she resisted him. And I can take a stab at why.
I don’t have all the answers. I am neither a perfect parent nor a perfect teacher. But when I take the time to reflect on my own words and actions when dealing with kids—both my kids and other kids—the same conclusion almost always bubbles to the surface: Kids are people. They experience all of the same thoughts and feelings as adults, even if they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate them. If anything, their thoughts and emotions are bigger, and because they don’t have the language skills to communicate them, they resort to using their bodies. Folded arms and ignored directions are kid code for something else. I forget that I’ve learned to interpret the kid code. It’s only when a frustrated intern shows up at my door with a kid who is barely misbehaving that I am reminded that I am capable of breaking the kid code. I can’t always do it (I’m banging my head against the wall with my son right now because I just can’t break one of his current codes), but in most instances I can. And it is in those instances that I am thankful for all that I have learned, thankful that I am able to let the kids in my life feel important, feel respected, feel heard, feel like people, even if just for two minutes.