Dear After-school Teacher,
Tomorrow is my son’s sixth birthday. He’s pretty excited about that. See, he’s one of the youngest in his class, and he’s been looking forward to this day for a while. You probably don’t know this, but only two kids have RSVPed for his party this coming Sunday, and that’s been a little hard on him. He hasn’t had an easy week at school, because he can’t seem to remember when to use his brain and when to use his mouth. He’s poignantly aware of that shortcoming. He’s also a pretty cool kid (although don’t get me wrong; he can be a shit) who goes out of his way to be inclusive and kind.
You didn’t know any of that, because you’re not his teacher. So I’m telling you now. Stick with me.
I can understand that you may have just had a bad day today. I have them, too. Often. And you only see Cole after you corral a classroom of kindergartners all day. You pull double duty, and that must be exhausting. I also understand that your personal life is a mystery to me. I don’t know what you’re going through. Maybe you didn’t sleep last night. Maybe your cat ran away. Maybe your car wouldn’t start. Maybe your husband is sick. Maybe you are.
What’s not a “maybe” is how you hurt my son today. Tonight, I was helping him rinse his hair in the shower (sometimes he doesn’t get all the shampoo out; he’s still learning) when he told me how you hurt his feelings. He explained that he came to you during afterschool time, and he told you (with some animation, I’d wager) that tomorrow was his birthday. He explained that he was excited because he got to be a car rider (that’s a big deal to him, because I work, and normally he doesn’t get to go to the car line). Your response?
“I don’t care.”
Let’s just stop for a second and think about what that means. Let’s stop for a second and ask ourselves: Were he an adult, would you look him in the eye and say that you don’t care? When you say that, when you give those words life, you are demonstrating a thoughtless, irresponsible, and rude response to another human being.
I wonder if you achieved whatever it was you set out to do. I wonder how you felt when he turned, silent, and walked away. I wonder if you saw his shoulders slump. Did you see his expression change? Did you notice the bend of his head? Did you watch him walk away?
The thing is this: You probably don’t actually care. The other thing is this: That’s ok. Truth be told, I don’t much like other people’s children either. But then, I didn’t choose to be a teacher. And then again, I also wouldn’t treat anyone, particularly a kid, with such utter contempt.
Please do not make the mistake of thinking that I’m one of those parents who thinks her child can do no wrong. I’m not that woman. But I am one of those parents who believes that every interaction we make with a child—every disgusted glance or warm smile or gentle touch or dismissive wave—matters. And every moment is a choice in which we either guide or hurt. Today you failed. Today rather than build him up, you tore him down. You failed.
You know, sometimes with children, we have to pretend. And oftentimes with children, the pretending can get tiresome. Especially when you have an overeager, talkative child on your hands. You know, that’s why Cole thinks you were so ugly to him – because he talks too much. I explained that only someone who was sad or was having a bad day would be hateful like that. I also told him that when he sees you next he should walk up and declare, “You know, I wouldn’t much care if it were your birthday either.”
I failed too, there. But the thing about Cole is that he would never be unkind to you. He explained, somewhat aghast, that my suggestion was, “really mean.” He’s also asked me not to mention this to anyone because (and this is a direct quotation), “I don’t want her to get in trouble.”
He seems to have more insight on compassion than either you or I, because frankly, I’m fighting the urge to look you up, drive to your house, and tell you in person what a mean old bitch I think you are. I won’t, because I hope you were just having a bad day. Or a bad week. Or a bad life.
Though I wrote you this letter you’ll never see, unfortunately Cole’s father doesn’t feel the same kind of catharsis that my writing grants me. So tomorrow morning, you can expect him.