Thursday, July 31, 2014

When Someone Else's Kid is Big-Time (In) Trouble

While I was writing my previous post about kids getting into trouble, I remembered two stories.

The first occurred the summer before college, when I babysat two brothers named Daniel and Marky. Daniel, age 8, was pretty good at fit-throwing and manipulating adults, but I intended to have as stress-free of a summer as possible, so for about 2 weeks I went to war and then he capitulated, quit throwing fits, listened when I spoke, and was generally a very pleasant intelligent boy. However, he had a friend from down the street who liked to come over and do whatever he'd been expressly forbidden to do (play in the attic, throw balls inside the house, etc.) and when I told them to knock it off would say to Daniel, "She's not your mother. You don't have to listen to her." Daniel's mother was actually inept at discipline; if she came home while I was attempting to impose basic rules she'd say things like, "Well, I don't like you playing in the attic--you know you're not supposed to--but maybe okay once," or, "Boys, if you want to throw a football in the house make sure you don't break anything." This drove me crazy. Daniel I could handle, fine, but the neighbor boy was too much. So, without consulting Daniel's wimpy mother, I told him, "You're not allowed to play inside here any more when Daniel's mom isn't home." I didn't tell him I thought he was the spawn of Satan. I didn't forbid him or Daniel from being part of the large outdoor neighborhood games. I just kept him out of the house. It worked out fine. It was even useful for Daniel, who could come inside whenever he wanted a break from the kid.

That's one story. The second happened several years ago, in Bristol. The bare facts are that a surly, overweight, low-achieving 14-year-old middle-school girl hauled off and punched her smart, bright, middle-class classmate, was suspended for it, and very nearly went to jail, as the punched girl's parents pressed charges every way possible.

The more elaborate facts are that the surly, overweight, low-achieving girl had been removed into foster care years previously because of severe abuse. She'd been shuttled among several homes and had finally ended up in a group home when no other foster parents would take her. She was smart but no one ever expected her to achieve anything. I knew her because when I brought books into her group home she would loom over the bookshelves, silently, angrily, and watch me. When I gave her a gift certificate for a book of her own, any title, she told me instantly what book she wanted--it was a novel about a girl conquering abuse that she'd already read several times. Eventually she started to speak to me more often. Once when I brought pizza to the house and stayed for dinner, one of the girls told me I should write about them. I made up a story on the spot. I told this large sullen broken child that she was actually a superhero, that she could survive anything, that in my book she would have a superhero's cape and be able to fly. "Yeah," she said, nodding, serious.

The smart bright classmate who got punched--punched hard, I believe there were damages--had spent the semester sneering at her fat unattractive poorly-dressed classmate. She called her Fatty. She said things like, "Where'd you get those clothes--Wal-Mart?" (That was where all the girls in the group home got their clothes.) Finally one day she said, "You know what--nobody likes you. Nobody cares about you--" and that's when she got punched.

The tragedy is that the girl who got punched never understood. In her mind, in her parents' mind, she was slugged by a psycho fat girl who probably shouldn't have been allowed in public school in the first place. The girl who got punched didn't see how harmful she'd been, couldn't fathom all the other girl had already had to endure.

Because of that punch, the other girl was expelled from the group home. I don't know where she went; I never saw or heard from her again. Some day, though, I'm going to write a book about her. I'll give her a superhero cape, I swear I will.

Which is why I think that sometimes, when another child is trouble, the answer is to pull them closer, if you dare. A thousand things go wrong in the darkness of children's lives. You may never know what they are, but sometimes you can pull a blanket around them, wrap them in a superhero's cape, and help them heal.