It can be daunting to deal with the level of competing for love or attention that arises with students during the day. One little kindergarten boy, Eric, was particularly insistent on being first in line for a headcount before and after recess. Eric would feel hurt and cry big crocodile tears whenever he did not get his way. There was a quality of desperation in his craving to be first.
Eric’s mother had left the family 18 months before, when Eric was four years old, and she was no longer part of his life. It’s worth noting that his siblings were handling the same situation with more resilience. As Ellen Tadd frequently reminds us in her philosophy classes, we are most liable to react to life circumstances when they trigger our sensitive spots--and these are not the same for each of us. In Eric’s case, he had taken his mother’s departure as evidence that he was not loveable. His heart was aching and he was experiencing feelings of abandonment.
It’s also noteworthy that the solution to Eric’s upset came to me quite suddenly, in the middle of dealing with all the kids, and was accomplished in about 30 seconds, when I was focused, clear and in good balance myself. I was in the zone, seeing from the wise view. This is a primary strategy in Ellen Tadd's Framework for Wise Education, something the Creative Lives team practices daily.
Me: kneeling to talk to him quietly as he cried. “Eric, do you like to be first in this line because it makes you feel special?”
Eric: looking surprised and relieved “Yes!”
Me: looking into his eyes and taking his hand. “Well, here’s what I need you to know. You are always special to me. I will always care about you. No matter what. I care about you are when you are 6th in line, or last in line, or holding the door for the other kids. You are always just special to me because you are you. Even when you are not here with me, I think about you, and I know you are special. There is nothing you can do that will ever change that.”
Eric: Even when you can’t see me, you still know I’m special?
Eric: I didn’t know that. Eric got in line behind his friends.
At staff meeting that week, I shared the story and one of our Dartmouth interns, Suzanne, shared something further.
“Yesterday I watched Eric walk to line without running, and get behind his friends. I’ve never seen him do it before! When I asked him about it, he told me, ‘Ms. B. says I’m special no matter what, even if I’m not in the front of the line.’”
We had learned that “being first” for Eric was symbolic for him of being special in his mother’s heart—a sensation he was longing for. It gave me pause. Eric had been struggling with this issue since he had started in our after school lab program a month before. We had tried to reason with him, discussed the principle of taking turns, and even meditated on him in our staff meetings—but we had all missed getting to the bottom of this particular behavior. Nevertheless, our efforts and practice paid off. After this simple, short interaction with Eric, the issue of being first in line never arose again.