(*All names changed, of course. These were first graders.)
He stank of cat urine, and the rips in his one pair of jeans were held together with curling duct tape. Dirt was caked behind his ears and under his collar, easily visible beneath hair shaved to curb head lice. He had deep brown eyes and a pretty smile, but the smile was only visible when he spoke about his beloved cat, Chalupa or his brother. Otherwise, he was a Bad Kid.
RC had a habit of placing his foot on the edge of his desk, leaning back, and kicking it over, sending his few belongings onto the floor. Books were thrown at my head, or torn into shreds. Worksheets were shredded and flung like confetti. He would walk by classmates’ desks and scribble across their work or tear their art in two. Unfed at home, he raided their lunchboxes and devoured their snacks. Brutally abused, he had no working memory and struggled with simple tasks. He did not understand the concept of profanity; I had to sit down with him and explicitly explain which words he could not say at school. He was genuinely surprised; after all, his nickname at home was “stupid little fuck.”
No discipline I could think of worked. Suspensions did nothing, and he reveled in being the bad kid. I once heard his father yell at him on the playground to “be sure to beat all the nigger kids.” CPS didn’t have the resources to help. Months went on and on like this.
One day in winter, I found him sitting in the hall at lunchtime, covered in mashed potatoes and sobbing. Apparently he had jumped on the back of a third grader who he thought was picking on his brother. Said third grader had pinned RC down and beaten him with his lunchtray. I admit, at first I was amused. But as I stood there, I noticed how empty the hall was, and how tiny RC looked. How big his eyes were.
The next day he tore his workbook and started to push the desk over. I caught it and said, “RC, why are you doing this?”
RC replied, “I want to go home. If I get suspended, I get to go to the park ’cause I have a day off.”
I smiled. “Oh, really? Thanks for letting me know. I won’t do that anymore.” Instead, I sent him to another teacher to redo all the work he’d torn up until he did it right. The desk remained upright after that. He couldn’t follow the lessons, but he stopped ripping the papers. Instead, he drew and endless series of little rainbows, though he made me promise never to let his dad see them.
Having no working memory meant RC could not learn letters. He cried through reading. The only thing that he liked int he room was a fat little hamster named Jazz. I made a deal with RC; if he’d work with me, he could play with Jazz. He worked hard, and then took Jazz out and rubbed her soft fur against his cheek. “I’m proud of how gentle you are with her,” I commented.
RC kissed her head. “Don’t you see how beautiful she is?” He asked softly. “People ain’t beautiful, but she is. She’s soft and small and warm. And…I know what it’s like to be little and scared. I don’t hurt no animals ever. They’re nice to me.”
“Tell you what,” I said. “Would you be in charge of Jazz? Make sure she always has food and water?”
He nodded, giving me a shy smile. Every day after, he checked on her several times a day. He helped clean her cage at recess and made her toys from tissue boxes. Jazz rode on his shoulder, and the one time she nibbled his finger too hard, he kissed her and said, “I know you didn’t mean it, but I ain’t food!”
He made the decision to try to write one day, but he needed to copy the words. Deciding on classmates’ names, he went from desk to desk, trying to write them down.
The class, usually so gentle and kind, took the opportunity to turn on him. Too many ripped papers, broken crayons, stolen snacks and shoves on the playground bubbled up. They bent down over their name tags, clapping their arms over them so he couldn’t see. “Go away! I’m not your friend! Leave me alone! You can’t touch my tag!” It spread like a wave before I could stop them. I could see the vengeance in their normally kind eyes and so could he. He stopped in the middle of the room, dropped the pencil, threw back his head, and let out a sound the was half sob, half scream, and wailed.
I gave him a hug and sent him to the office with an important note (“Keep RC busy”) and a promise that he could play with Jazz. He walked out howling, and the class looked warily at each other. I pointed silently to the carpet where they gathered for stories, and they came up. I choked back fury but I knew they could see it.
“Do you see what you did?” I asked. “Do you see how he cried? I get that he’s been mean to you. I understand how angry you are. You don’t have to be his best friend. You don’t have to invite him to your slumber parties or share your favorite toy. But you DO have to be civil and treat people with kindness and respect. You have to be polite. He was trying to learn, trying to reach out to you. Did it occur to you that maybe he just doesn’t know how?”
“He’s so sad all the time,” whispered one of the girls. The kids eyes were welling with tears.
One of the boys, another victim of brutal abuse, kicked the floor and muttered, “His dad’s probably a bastard like mine.”
“I hated school,” I told them. I told them about how I was bullied, and how I couldn’t learn math due to dyscalculia, and how stupid I felt. I told them how my classmates drove me away. “I get that he’s mean,” I said. “I understand he’s hurt you and me, too. But…maybe we can turn it around. Your job is to apologize, and think of at least one nice thing to say to him.” They nodded and sniffled.
The room was very quiet for the rest of the day.
The next day, one of the girls, Staci, arrived early. She looked exhausted. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” she whispered, and burst into tears. “I couldn’t sleep at all! I kept thinking about RC and what you said. I was never mean to him, but I wasn’t nice either. I just ignored him. Lots of us just ignored him and let other kids be mean and it wasn’t right! No wonder he doesn’t like us!” I hugged her and calmed her down. She added, “So, I’m going to help him, I decided.”
That day, in the morning, Staci passed RC’s desk and said, “Wow, RC. You draw the most beautiful rainbows! You’re a talented artist.”
He looked at her with suspicion.
She added, “Would you draw one for me?”
Slowly, he draw one on a paper scrap and handed it to her. She taped it to her nametag.
Christine whispered, “Me, too?”
Another rainbow. And another and another. Soon every nametag had one. My desk had one too. RC smiled, his hands clasped over his mouth.
The next day, I was loading the children’s home folders. In RC’s mailbox was a card, decorated with rainbows and flowers and happy faces. We’re sorry. You draw such nice rainbows. We like it when you are nice to us. You are nice to Jazz. Love… Well over half the class had signed it. I don’t know when they did it or who started it; I never said a word. RC peeked in his folder and stood gaping, smiling, and the other kids elbowed each other and smiled back.
That little drop of kindness washed over RC and in the next few weeks, he grew calmer. He drew more rainbows. He stopped me in the hall and asked, “Ma’am, can I carry that for you?” He took on jobs in the classroom; while reading remained beyond his reach, he could do physical work. He emptied, cleaned and rearranged bookshelves. He organized boxes and repaired broken books, sharpened pencils, washed boards, picked up coats, and bleached tables. The children read him stories and drew pictures, and his little rainbows adorned worksheets and book covers.
The end of the year came and the kids went home. RC kissed Jazz goodbye before he went.
We had to write postcards to the kids over the summer. Initially I grumbled about the workload, but once I started, it was fun. We sent them off and I went home.
The next fall, on the first day, I saw RC’s older teenage brother. He waved me over. “They’re going to another school,” he muttered, looking down. “But I wanted to say thank you for the card. It’s the first mail he ever got, and he sleeps with it under his pillow. So yeah. Thanks.”
In the wake of Columbine, schools focus more on bullying. their are programs to stand up to bullies, and to punish bullies. But I wonder if we wouldn’t be better served creating programs to treat the bullies, rather than punish them. I still remember those bright stripes of marker and all those precious little rainbows, and the smile of a lonely child and a fuzzy little hamster.