Seven-year-old Jake arrives at school on the bus, a storm brewing on his face. Watching him from the school bus zone, I recognize the pattern. It’s likely that a roar of family conflict began his morning rather than goodbye endearments and a mitten check.
He hesitates at the top of the bus steps before getting off, his chin pushed down to his chest. He’s pulled his hood tightly around his face, aiming for invisibility.
“Morning, Jake!” There’s no response. He plows down the steps and through the bus doors, dragging his gaping backpack along the ground. I try again. “See you at Readers’ Club.” I know he’s heard me—he hunches his head down even further as he lopes across the schoolyard.
The bell rings, and I scan the blur of dark, puffy ski jackets in the grade two line, looking for Jake. He’s already pushing. “I need a spot! Get out of my way!” he snarls.
The boy behind him pushes back. I hurry over to diffuse what is still only a squabble: “Take it easy, guys. You know the rule. Hands and feet to yourself.” I touch Jake’s shoulder. “Come on, Jake. I need you to hold the door for me.”
A few kids protest his entry privilege. “I’ll pick someone else tomorrow,” I improvise. Jake follows me, striding along as if he’s one step ahead in the battle. I stand beside him, our backs against the push-bars of the doors. I start a monologue about Pizza Lunch on Friday. He’s not talking to me yet, but at least he’s standing still.
Jake is a wounded child, both fierce and fragile in his anger and his sorrow. It’s going to be a tough day at school and I need to find just the right words to softly wrap around him. I notice the sprinkle of fading freckles on his nose. He pulls off his hood, leaving his chestnut hair standing up in silly-looking, innocent tufts.
* * *
Jake gets through first period in my resource room without incident. From bus drop-off until I send him off to his next class: forty-five minutes without a blow-up. “One step at a time,” I reassure myself, but I’m already thinking ahead to recess.
I’m not worried that Jake will get into a fight outside. That happened yesterday. Losing playground time today is part of the consequence: he has to spend recess in the office. I make a mental note to check on him before I get my coffee.
* * *
At 10:15, I head downstairs to the front office. Jake is already there, slouched on one of the two chairs, with a ballpoint pen in his hand. He’s clicking and clicking the pen. Anyone coming in can see Jake in his detention purgatory. So far no one has made a comment, but there’s a lot of traffic.
He begins to draw on the side of his sneaker, jabbing into the cracked rubber, going over and over the marks, jabbing and jabbing. The principal comes out from the inner office and observes his agitation. She addresses him privately; I can barely hear her. “Thank you Jake. You’ve found my pen for me.” She holds out her hand and waits.
He is not fooled by her effort to placate him. He turns away and jabs harder. The principal and I exchange glances, and I understand it’s my turn. She relies on my professional calmness. She’s unaware of my inner turmoil—the onrush of disaster scenarios and my confused litany of strategies.
‘Hi, Jake.” I plonk myself on the second chair. The click, jab, click, jab continues. I ignore the pen. “I want to ask you something.”
“What?” he shoots back at me.
“I have a bunch of books upstairs that I’m checking for torn pages. Come and help me for the rest of recess?”
I step into the hallway and wait. He accepts my offer of release and comes out, pen in hand. He explodes up the stairs. By the time I catch up, he is wandering around my room, scrawling little marks here and there. On a paper on my desk. On a wall poster. Issuing me a challenge.
I take out a bin of picture books and begin leafing through the pages. “You can help if you want,” I offer.
He responds with a burst of words. “I wanna go out for recess!”
“I know you do, Jake. But there’s a rule about fighting on the playground. You have three days of cool-down time inside. You can come here again tomorrow, if you like.”
“I’m not helping you!” He hurls himself onto a chair on the other side of the room, and begins to write on his hand. As he squirms around, his hoodie rides up at the waist, revealing a pale sliver of his back.
That’s how we spend the rest of recess: Jake making his point, and I pretending to carry out my recess job with the books.
* * *
Jake falls apart near the end of the day. A teacher’s aide comes to find me. Her message is fast, panicky, but I get the gist. Jake lost it in Mrs. K.’s room and tipped his desk over and fled to the washroom. He’s locked himself in a stall and he’s yelling. Would I go and deal with Jake? She’ll dismiss my group. She is almost pleading.
I know the team will meet after school to discuss this incident. Debrief. Problem-solve. Revise our plan. Right now, I have to figure out how to ease Jake out of melt-down mode.
I enter the boys’ washroom. I’m struggling to think of what I can say to help him abandon this territory. “Hey, Jake. Come out and talk to me.”
He bangs against the metal stall. I wait one, two, five more minutes. “I know you’re upset. Tell me what happened.” I pause. “We’ll figure something out for tomorrow.”
The dismissal bell rings.
“Jake, I don’t want you to miss the bus. Let’s get your coat and I’ll walk out with you.” It’s the only strategy I can think of at this point.
I hear the duty teacher in the hallway. “Last call for buses!” I lean out and signal a request for two more minutes.
Jake has heard her too and the stall door opens. He scowls at me, tears drying on his seven year-old cheeks. He slides down the hall, grabs his coat and shakes his arms into the sleeves. He scoops up his empty backpack and we head downstairs together.
When we get outside, he starts to run off to the bus. I call out. “Bye, Jake. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
It’s there in a flash, his moment of hesitation. He stops, spins around and runs back. Without a word, he grabs me around the waist in a quick, tight hug. My reaction happens just as fast—the breath-stopping catch in my throat at his affection and trust, and the simultaneous stab of despair in my stomach for his hurt-filled vulnerability.
I am frozen in the schoolyard while the team waits for me inside. With the easy energy of any child, Jake zips off to the bus and disappears through the narrow doors.
Karen Zey lives in la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. She is an emerging writer and member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation, who is appreciative of the encouragement and feedback she receives from a Montreal writers’ group. After thirty-five years as a teacher, consultant and administrator in the Quebec public school system, she now spends her time as a part-time educational consultant and full-time student of life. This is Karen’s second success at telling tales out of schools.