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Taking Down his Walls
I stand with my feet planted firmly in the woodchips as laughing children run all around me. Two little girls in matching pink dresses chase each other, their blonde curls bobbing up and down with every movement. “You can’t catch me!” the taller one screeches, and the other speeds up in attempt to prove her friend wrong. Three skinny boys struggle with glittering purple hula-hoops as they try to make their bony hips sway in the same direction as their hoops.
I watch a little boy in his swimsuit running in wide circles around the wooden play structure. He’s a lanky four-year-old with a plump head and a premature six-pack that reveals every muscle in his stomach. His short brown hair sticks straight out from his forehead like a visor.
As he runs in circles, I’m reminded of the first day I saw him four weeks earlier - my first day as a summer teacher.
He had been running laps around the playground cackling wildly. No one was chasing him, but he didn’t seem to need anyone else. An almost malicious grin was stretched across his face as he ran around, shrill shrieks echoing after him.
A smaller boy with curly black hair tripped over his shoelace and bumped into him. “Ahhhhhh!” the first boy screamed. “Don’t! Hit! Me! Franco!” Every word was backed by all the force in his body. His tiny foot sprung forward, and he kicked Franco’s face as hard as he could. Teachers swarmed the scene immediately to comfort Franco and to restrain the child now swinging his fists at every inch of Franco he could reach. As soon as teachers made contact with him, he began hitting and punching them, too. Tears flooded out of his eyes as he was dragged to the bench.
“I think it was an accident, Jordan. He didn’t mean to bump into you.” The teacher’s voice reached my ears, but the boy called Jordan refused to listen.
“He hit me! He hit me!” Jordan screamed repeatedly. His fists began flying again, and he sunk his teeth into the teacher’s arm.
My jaw must have dropped because another summer teacher next to me said, “You must be new. You’ll get used to this.”
“Is he always like that?” I asked in disbelief.
“Pretty much,” he said indifferently. “Jordan’s a demon child. Your best bet is to just avoid him.”
So I stayed away. I chased all the other kids around the playground and pushed everyone else on the swings, but I avoided Jordan like the plague. I watched from a distance as he found himself in time-out over and over again, as he punched arms and pulled hair, as he ran away from his dad at the end of every day to avoid the inevitable. He would sprint to the end of the playground as the teachers told his dad what Jordan had done that day. Each day, he would pick a new hiding spot and pray that he could circumvent the unavoidable slap across the face that came at the end of every conference. But it was inescapable.
A few days later, I sat at the lunch table in the middle of the classroom. Large murals of sea animals covered the walls, and wooden blocks lay scattered across the floor. The room smelled of greasy french-fries and chicken fingers.
I listened to my table’s conversation about what kind of pony each kid wanted to be when he or she grew up. “I wanna be a pretty one,” the girl next to me said. “With purple polka-dots.” She shoved a large forkful of mashed potatoes into her mouth as every girl around her squealed, “Me too, me too!”
A sudden piercing scream interrupted their conversation, and all heads turned towards the other end of the room where Jordan’s fists and legs were flying into the girl nearest to him. “Don’t look at me like that!” he screamed. A teacher picked him up and carried him outside of the classroom while he wailed protests and flailed his arms.
“Told you you’d get used to it,” Anthony, the other summer teacher, whispered in my ear.
“Why is he like that?” I asked.
“Well his mom’s been in jail for drug abuse for his whole life, and his dad has a new girlfriend staying at the house every other week. And you’ve seen how his dad hits him. Violence is all he knows.”
“Wow,” I stammered completely lost for words. “Hasn’t anyone tried to do anything about it?”
“Yeah, there was a meeting about it the day before you came, and I think the teachers decided to contact Child Services.”
The classroom door opened, and Jordan walked back in, tears streaming down his face. He walked over to the table he’d been sitting at and asked the girl he’d hit, “Are you okay?”
“No,” she answered defiantly.
“What will make you feel better?” Jordan asked as if reading from a script. This was the automatic response teachers had taught him after he’d hurt someone.
“A hug,” the girl responded. Jordan bent down and wrapped his arms around the little girl. She ignored him and returned to laughing with her friends.
“Okay, Jordan. Clean up your lunch, please. Which teacher do you want to rest with you at naptime?” the teacher observing asked.
“Umm how ‘bout Biza?” Jordan asked.
Oh no. Why did he want me? I’d never spoken a word to him, and I certainly didn’t know how to handle him if he starting biting and punching me as he always did to the teacher accompanying him during naptime. I pretended to be engrossed in the conversation about ponies in hopes that Jordan would change his mind and go ask a different teacher.
He threw the remnants of his lunch away, walked over to the table I was sitting at, and asked, “Biza? Do you wanna lay with me?” His wide eyes looked up at me expectantly, but something in his face told me he was used to rejection. I did not want to “lay” with him. A large, male teacher usually stayed with him to hold his body down while he struggled through the supposed quiet hour. But what could I say? “Sure,” I told him.
When lunch had been cleaned up, nap mats put out, and lights turned off, I lay down next to Jordan, praying he would fall asleep quickly. He was stretched out across his blue nap mat, a large Superman blanket wrapping him up like a burrito. I supposed I should follow the example I’d seen other teachers set, but I didn’t feel right holding him down like he was some prisoner in a high security jail. There had to be a better way to take down his walls.
I put my arm around him in a kind of hug and laid my head down next to his. He began screaming and kicking as soon as he felt my arm around his body, but when he opened his eyes and saw that I was simply hugging him, he fell quiet. His big brown eyes looked up at me in amazement, and I realized for the first time that he was beautiful. He snaked his thin arm around me and began rubbing my back, as if he were the one putting me to sleep. He moved his hand upward and rested it on my face. His touch felt gentle and loving, characteristics I never would have imagined him capable of. His tiny fingers explored my cheek as he let his eyes close. I stroked his back as he fell asleep, and a fraction of a smile crept onto his face – the first genuine smile I had ever seen him wear.
In preparation for our next field trip a week later, each teacher was assigned to two children. We would make the ten block journey to the water park on foot, each of us holding the hands of our designated children. “Biza, you’ll take Carly and Devon,” Melissa read off her list.
“No!” Jordan screamed upon hearing this. “I wanna walk with Biza!”
“Jordan, if I let you walk with Biza, there’s not going to be any junk, right?”
“Uh huh,” Jordan agreed. He raced over to me and stretched his arm up to worm his hand into mine. His head only came up to my belly button. “I get to walk with you!” I couldn’t help smiling as his sweaty fingers gripped mine tightly.
We walked along busy streets and gray slate sidewalks as cars zoomed past us. Jordan rambled on and on, and half the time I had no idea what he was talking about. Once in a while, I would catch, “Dada took me there!” or “Did you know Superman can fly like those birds? He’s super fast!” I listened contently to his incomprehensible chatter, nodding my head and smiling when it seemed appropriate.
A few blocks into our walk, I heard a sharp gasp. I turned around just in time to see a kid walking behind us trip. He reached for anything he could to stop his fall and grabbed a fistful of Jordan’s shirt. “Ahhhhhh!” Jordan screamed. His face turned red as his arm sprung back in preparation to punch. I reached for his fist in mid air and said gently, “T, that was an accident. Devon didn’t mean to grab you.”
He stopped resisting my hand and asked incredulously, “Really?”
“Yeah, Jordan,” Devon responded innocently in his shrill voice. “I tripped.”
Jordan’s momentary struggle was written plainly on his face. His brown eyes looked from me to Devon and back to me again. “Oh, okay.” Jordan got up and reached for my hand to keep walking. The outline of a smile crept over my face as I filled with pride and admiration for the little boy standing next to me.
The sun glares down from above, and a soft summer breeze sweeps over me, nudging me out of my reminiscence. Peals of laughter permeate the playground as little feet trample the brown woodchips. Giggling children run all around me - chasing each other, singing, and twirling.
But I can’t take my eyes off the little boy running laps around the playground. His short brown hair blows slightly in the breeze as he throws his head back and laughs. He races around and around the large play structure. As he nears the spot where I am standing, he slows his pace and runs straight towards me. His knees bend, and he jumps into my arms. I catch him by the torso and lift him high above my head. A loud laugh escapes his lips, and I bring him back down to squeeze him in a tight hug. He wraps his small arms around my neck. “I love you!” he exclaims in his high-pitched voice and smiles.