I've been running after-school programming for over ten years. I've been an assistant, a site director, a teacher. I've wiped tears and braced broken arms from playground falls and had my hand hurt from high fives that turned out much more powerful than I anticipated.
I've also perfected the following standard 'teacher' phrases:
"Please don't touch that."
"We need to stay in our seat."
"We don't say that to our friends."
"Remember to raise your hand if you have a question."
"I've asked you ___ times to not do that. If I need to ask you again, we'll need to move where we're sitting."
Last week I used all of those sentences plus more on a little girl in my after-school program. It wasn't even my program, I was subbing for another instructor. Instead of the normal one-hour class, snow days had sent us into two-hour territory and while it was a long day for most of the kids, it seemed exceptionally long for *Bree.
Bree could not sit still. Group work was near impossible. We went outside to launch a rocket ... Bree was more interested in launching snow from a pile onto whatever unsuspecting classmate was standing nearby. Not many stood nearby for too long. I watched the other kids, listened to them. "She's so annoying." "She never shuts up. Shut up, Bree." "We don't want you to sit here." I pushed my irritation down and reminded myself I was only here for the day and then never had to come back again.
The class ended and everyone was picked up by smiling parents, all ready to see what they had created in science class that day. Soon Bree, a rushed custodian, and me were the only three left in the room. I sighed, "Come on, Bree. We'll go wait in the hall and I'll call mom."
We walked into the hall where Bree immediately flew the copter she made up to the ceiling. "Did you see it?!" she cried. "Yes, please don't hit the ceiling with it, okay?" She flung herself onto the floor, laying flat on her stomach while I left a message on her mom's voice mail. I tried calling our contact person only to discover her office was already closed. I resigned myself to the fact that we just had to wait it out at this point. "You've been here a million times before," I thought. "Moms always come back."
I took a deep breath and tried to take all the frustration out of my voice as I said, "Bree, can you stop rolling on the floor and just sit on the bench? I know your mom is twenty-five minutes late but she should be here soon."
Bree sat up and looked at me, her long brown hair swinging over her shoulders. She studied me with the same observation she made when she first walked in the room two and a half hours prior, sizing me up, calculating what she could get away with. It was a game I had played with dozens of kids and knew well. I braced myself for a meltdown.
Bree stood up. She walked over and sat down next to me. Eight years of wisdom and big eyes looked at me as she said, "I'm always the last one. I bet you would be a good mom. My mom always forgets me. I bet you wouldn't forget me if you were my mom."
I looked back at this little girl. The classmate annoyances, the seat jumping, the non-stop onslaught of questions hit me like a wall: This girl doesn't know she's irritating. She wants so badly to be heard, for someone to acknowledge they're listening to what she's saying with words and showing with actions.
I opened my mouth to tell her to fly her copter again, that I wanted to see how high it would go. As I did, mom breezed in through the front door with a list of excuses, none of which I cared about. I told her to have a good night and put my coat on as I listened to her tell Bree to put everything in her backpack and "you can show me at home, we have to go." I walked past them, desperately wanting to get to my car before my heart broke completely.
I turned around to find Bree barreling toward me. "Did you forget something?" I called.
She slammed into me with the kind of hug you have to prepare yourself for. "I had the most fun today. Thank you."
Thank you, Bree.
*Not her real name, obviously.