Thursday, April 29, 2010

where the wild things are

I have a student named Robert, the likes of whom I have never faced in my decade or so of teaching. Robert is a fairly adept reader, reading and comprehending at close to a 9th grade level, and he likes reading, so right there we seem to have two strikes in our favor, right?

Wrong. When Robert gets to my classroom door, he's accompanied by a one on one staff who's ready to apply restraint techniques at the drop of a hat. Or a pencil. Or my laptop. Or anything that Robert feels like flinging across my classroom. If we could see Robert biochemically, I think it would look something like a Jackson Pollock piece. He's all over the place. I think he's on a molotov cocktail of personality meds, and from what I can tell, no one can seem to find a good combination. One may not exist. Normally, a kid who's as much of a powder keg as Robert is would not last here at G House. He'd be shipped back to secure treatment, most likely. But Robert is going to age out in three weeks, at which point he'll become a ward of the Department of Mental Health. So here he will stay, until he turns 18.

How do you teach a kid like Robert? What are a reasonable set of goals and expectations? Two words: harm reduction. My goal is to reduce the possibility that Robert freaks out and hurts someone or something. I've decided to take this approach to Robert's remaining time here not so much to protect myself - although I'll admit that's part of it - but to offer this kid at least one 45-minute period each day during which he might be able to feel a little bit of calm, perhaps a touch of peace. I imagine it must be very, very hard to live inside this kid's body. I believe in empathizing with kids, but I would never want to walk in his shoes.

At one point Robert indicated that he liked Scrabble. So this is what we do during Robert's class time. I have Scrabble on my laptop, and we play together pretty much every day. We talk about words, we strategize, and maybe here and there I sneak in a little writing exercise (if he's having a good day, which are few and far between).

When Robert ages out next month and moves on to his next facility, I, along with many other teachers, staff and residents, will exhale loudly. You'll probably hear it. But in spite of the relief we're sure to feel, I hope Robert finds some of his own, some kind of peaceful plateau. We all deserve to have a slice of it.

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