It's almost recess and I am urging the children to put away their snacks so as to ready for the recess bell. The students start slowly stowing their lunch boxes inside their backpacks and heading for the door. All except for one, that is. The same one who, day after day, has persisted in waiting until the last possible minute to head out the door. The same one who made us all late for school-wide outside activities. The same one who has been persistently and consistently slow to dress for outdoor recess the whole year. He can't get his boots on. Can't zipper up his coat. Can't find his mittens. Doesn't know how to do the button on his pants.
And it has not been for lack of me trying to help him. I've investigated this situation extensively. From the very first of the year, I knew that this student would be special. No, there would not be a diagnosis for this exceptionality. There would be no underlying medical or psychological reason to offer as explanation. And truthfully, this student is otherwise happy and carefree. But in the aspect of self-care skills and independence, he has exhibited an obvious lagging behind the others. It is something I have worked with him on continuously throughout the year, as well as tried to understand through ongoing conversations with family around what we could do as a team to support this student in his personal growth.
But today, we are no father ahead than we've ever been.
Right now, it is recess. And I have umpteen dozen things to do, the first of which is use the bathroom. And I want this little guy to "hurry up" and get himself out the door to join all the other children in the school for a refreshing run around the snow-covered playground. Goodness knows, after weeks of indoor recess, we all need some fresh air and room to move. And in my head, I know there is no reason why he can't get ready as quickly as all the other children.
"C'mon, T," I urge. "Everyone else is out there. You need to get moving. The bell has rung."
T is not moving. In fact, he is sprawled out on the floor, his clothing and footwear spread out in disarray. I feel the irritation welling up inside me. I really want to say, "Look Buddy. It's March. Every other one of your classmates can dress themselves without much assistance or urging- why can't you? And don't you know- I have better things to do than stand here walking you through each step of your dressing process? Besides, it's my Break too- and I have to go the bathroom!"
As it turns out, T finally gets the last piece of clothing on just a minute or two before the bell rings to call everyone back in. I tell T. that he will be in with me for lunch for having wasted the entire recess. We'll have a chat together then, but first- I need the cushion time to bring my irritation levels down. It's a good thing we have an hour and a half.
The lunch bell eventually rings, and I send T to the classroom gathering rug with every last article of his clothing, including his boots, while I supervise the others. Who, by the way, are quickly out the door with only minimal help from me with a few zippers and mittens. I take a deep breath and start to wonder. What am I going to do/say to T. that will make a lasting impression? My first instinct is to lecture about all the reasons why dressing independently and quickly is something he should be interested in: all his friends are doing it on their own, he is missing a great deal of his recess time each and every day -- and furthermore, doesn't he care that his teacher can't get to the bathroom? But I know that none of these reasons really matter a great deal to T. I am going to have to get a little more creative.
At some point, between the door and joining T on the rug, I realize something. It is something profound and mind-altering. Perspective-changing. I realize this: something is missing in the way I am dealing with T, particularly in this situation I find myself in. Right now. It is a kind of a lagging skill of my own, to be truthful. For I realize that I am not showing T the utmost of kindness and love that I know I have within me to give. I am not choosing care. Not choosing LOVE. I am instead finding him inconvenient to my own wants and desires. A bother. So at some point between the door and the rug, I make a choice: I choose love over irritation. I choose kindness over frustration. I choose to CARE.
I choose love.
And when love is the choice we make, everybody wins. Every.Single.Time.
I still realized I had some teaching to do with T before I could send him flying out the door to join the others. I still had some fences to mend. And I still had a few words of my own to say. Here's what happened next.
I slowly walked over to T thinking fast on my feet as I made it the twenty short steps to my little chair by the big, blue rug. I didn't want to waste this opportunity because I knew T was listening to me for perhaps the first time that morning. I had his undivided attention.
"T, how old are you now," I asked.
"Six," he said quietly.
"Six!" I said with awe and wonder. "Wow, T! You are so big. You are growing so fast! Tell me, what are some things you can do, now that you've turned six?" I asked, looking expectantly at him, supporting him with my tone of voice and my constant eye contact. I lean my body towards his.
"Um, I can get dressed on my own..." he mumbles, still not sure where this conversation is going, but he thinks he might be on the right track.
"Yes," I say, "but what ELSE can you do -- you must be able to do so many things, now that you are six! What kinds of things can six-year-olds do?" I inquire again, looking more curious this second time I pose the question.
He thinks for a moment and then brightens. Then, he starts to make a list. I look at him encouragingly, nodding my head to show him I think his list is absolutely amazing.
After he finishes, I hold his eye contact for a moment. And I tell him I am impressed with his prowess at so many six-year-old accomplishments. Then I ask, still supporting him with my choice of tone and body language, "Do you think now that you are six you might be able to get dressed all by yourself?"
At this point in the conversation, he realizes this is not going to be a detention conversation any longer- this is a real conversation now. Between two people- on an equal playing field. He no longer feels any pressure. No shame weighs him down.
He looks up at me and eagerly nods his head in agreement.
"Well," I say with a wide smile, "I wonder -- could you ever show me how fast you can get dressed -- I bet you are super-quick now that you are six!"
He looks excited for the challenge. With the vigor of an Olympic athlete, he starts tearing into the pile of clothing. Then he comes over to me for help with a button; to which, I show him how the two ends fit together and he promptly does it himself. Two minutes later, he is completely dressed.
I smile at him proudly. In fact, I beam. So does he.
"Look at you!" I marvel. "You are all dressed and you did it yourself! Go on outside and have fun!"
T turns on his heels and is out the door in two seconds flat.
And I am left sitting on a little green chair in an empty elementary classroom with the hopeful realization: that love is a choice. And when we choose love, we all win.
And this I am starting to understand as well about love and life and learning. That love supports. Love lifts. And love lets us fly with the wings of an eagle.
All we have to do is choose.