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What is essential?

A teacher wrote to me with a question: What if you’ve done everything to help a kid who is bullying others, but he still does it? What if he seems so filled with anger that you’re worried about what he’ll be like when he’s sixteen?
I wish I had the answers to that one.
I do have one answer. I remember clearly the ironic laugh that a PVUSD music teacher had when she described her job as “non-essential,” like PE teachers, drama teachers, and you guessed it, school counselors.
We live in a pretty scary world. Part of the scariness, I feel it important to point out, stems simply from the fact that we know what is going on. When someone was murdered two hundred years ago, people in the same town would know; perhaps people in the next few towns. But the whole world wouldn’t hear about it.
The year that O.J. Simpson (“allegedly”) murdered his wife and her friend, I was traveling with a choral group across Germany. I clearly remember the scene: I was sitting in the bus, trying to read. The woman in the seat ahead of me was reading out loud from U.S.A. Today. I had no idea what she was reading about, but the gorey details caught my attention. I didn’t want them to catch my attention, but there they were, insinuating their way into that part of the human brain that loves such details.
“Not everyone on this bus wants to hear that,” I said, leaning over the seat. The woman who was reading and her seatmates shot me looks like I’d said something inexcusable.
Not want to hear gorey details? Not want to hear about celebrities AND gorey details? What was wrong with me?
In this modern life we hear about everything. How can you know whether child abduction is unusual, when every one that happens is not only trumpeted on TV and in our newspapers, but even on highway signs? I cringed just a few weeks ago as we passed the sign at 41st Avenue that blared, CHILD ABDUCTION!! I was hoping my six-year-old, who can read just about anything, would choose not to read that and ask what it means.
We don’t need all this information. But we have it, and for some reason our brains crave it like a drug. So of course, when faced with an angry young child, we think of all the things he might do…later. If not sooner.
I wonder, though, if there’s any way to predict what unpredictable humans will do. Is there, in fact, a statistical correlation between kids who would have been described as angry when they were kids, and adults who commit heinous crimes? Another question that can’t be answered.
But my heart goes out to the teacher dealing with her young bully, especially in this time of cutting out “non-essential” personnel.
I remember when Tipper Gore was Second Lady. I remember how dismissive I and my friends were of her, largely because of her stance on labeling popular music. (Funny how our point of view changes as we age, eh?) I also remember how I just simply didn’t understand why she was crusading to have mental health considered an essential part of health services in this country. It just didn’t seem important to me.
Flash forward to the 21st century, and I’m a mom. If we go to see a family therapist to help us understand better how to deal with our children, we have to pay. Once upon a time our health insurance “covered” mental health. They paid $25/hour…for well-educated professionals who charge at least $100/hr. Occupational therapy, which for children is located somewhere at the intersection of physical and mental health, is seldom covered. Parenting classes? No way.
On the other hand, if one of us commits a crime, all of a sudden the government is very interested in us. But when we need help, before we get desperate? Forget it.
It’s not clear that every angry child will become dangerous. But it is clear that a teacher’s instinct is precious, and we have to take it seriously. But who will be left to take it seriously and act on it when all the budgets are cut? Every special interest group in this country can tell you what should be cut from the budget so that their project doesn’t get cut. But is there any group of people who could sit down and figure out what “essential” means? Essential in the context of a school means teaching, of course. But children who are too angry to be taught, too scared, too hungry? Suddenly other services become essential. And on down the line.
My husband likes to joke that I should run for office, because I have so many opinions. The problem is, I also have too many feelings. I feel for everyone whose needs have been declared non-essential. I feel for that teacher. And for that child. I hope that someone helps him with his anger, and helps his parents, and helps his teacher. I hope we all figure out a way to get through this. Before anger morphs into something more dangerous.

Posted in Parenting.


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