Wednesday, September 22, 2010
"I Hate Me"
"TJ" was a child with many, many problems. I got to know his mom pretty well. She was a single mom and I never heard a word about his dad. I'm not sure if he was just out of the picture or if TJ even knew who his dad was. (I've had plenty of kids where the blank for "father" on their birth certificate just says "unknown." Others just have a first name because the last name is unknown.)
TJ's mom often alluded to a former drug problem. She was in her mid-20s and had two kids at home and was also taking care of a sick mother and a bipolar developmentally delayed brother. She was understandably overwhelmed and didn't know how to deal with a kid with so many special needs as well as overwhelming anger and self-hatred.
TJ was a smart kid but had the shortest fuse I have ever seen. He had absolutely no tolerance for frustration and would completely melt down. The minute he couldn't understand something, he would fall on the floor, cry, scream, wail, hit other kids, flail his body wildly and basically shut down the classroom. He had to be sent out of class most days and was suspended at least once a month, driving the administration crazy because statistics for black boys and suspensions are already so bad without TJ making them worse.
I tried to teach him some coping strategies but he just had nothing to start with. He did see a therapist (intern) at school but it was on Mondays and there are a lot of Monday holidays so it was really inconsistent. Also, she went on maternity leave, so I think it may actually have done more harm than good, getting comfortable with someone who left as soon as he began to trust her. We worked on the word "frustrated" so that he could tell me how he was feeling and not just have temper tantrums; it was a huge accomplishment when he could just say the word "frustrated" before he lost control. We made a list of 10 things we like about him (that will get another post because it was a very emotional process that I've only done with two children) and called his mom every time he did something right because I wanted him to get positive reinforcement.
The problem, of course, was that I had 19 other students who were all extremely challenging themselves and I just couldn't give him what he needed. At home, his mom was similarly overwhelmed and couldn't do what she needed to. He adored his mother and would talk about how he was going to make lots of money so that she never had to worry again. She said that sometimes she'd wake up and he'd have dragged his pillow and blanket to her doorway so that he could sleep just inside her room to be close to her.
TJ got much better at identifying his feelings and I'd often get notes like the one in the picture. It broke my heart but I'd say something like "Thank you for telling me. I'm so sorry that you feel so bad about yourself. I don't hate you - I think you're very special and I am so glad you're in my class. You can keep telling me how you feel about yourself. I know it feels really bad to hate yourself." Or "I know you're feeling bad about yourself right now and that is really hard. I think you're doing a good job telling me your feelings and I think you're one of my favorite kids." Totally inadequate, but what else do you say? All I knew was to let him say it and not answer with "Oh, you don't really hate yourself." Because he did.
The year after I had him (or maybe in 5th grade, I'm not sure), he was sent home to be suspended. I think he had hurt another kid. He never meant to hurt them, he just had so much anger and self-hatred that he didn't know what else to do, and then he'd hate himself more because he had hurt someone else, usually younger. The administration called his mother to come get him and when she came, he was out of control, flailing around. She looked at him and said something like, "That's enough, TJ, I don't want you any more," and walked out. While it was the worst thing possible that she could do, I honestly don't think she knew what else to do. But for TJ, who would do anything for his mother, I think it probably seemed like the world was ending. The administration had to call the police because that's child abandonment.
TJ loved the movie Cars, and Pixar Animation in general. That year, I had a friend who had worked on Cars come into the class. The kids assumed he was famous and had them sign their Happy Meals and draw pictures of Mater, the character he had worked on. TJ talked about him constantly. When that friend gave me a Cars t-shirt later that summer, I sent it to TJ. It wasn't sent back to me, so I'm hoping I had the right address and that he got it. If he did, I imagine he wore it until it wore out. I hope it did a tiny bit to show him that I think he's worthy of special attention. I still pray for this kid because wherever he is, I think it's probably still really hard to be TJ.