He used to hit me. And I used to bite him right back. As children, we fought about who got the bigger piece of candy, and as we grew older, we fought about who was ruining whose life more. This is my little brother. And at 20, he has only recently sort of become tolerable.
As I sat across from one of my students with emotional and behavioral disturbances today, I was swept back to the days when I would lecture and moan at my brother to behave and finish his homework so that Mom wouldn’t get mad. He never listened. He was always in trouble anyway.
It was the same thing this afternoon with “Corey.” I was the goody-two-shoes, know-it-all big sister talking to a wall again: Be good, behave, be respectful, blah blah blah... As I blah-blah’d on and on in my teacherly ways, which I have apparently honed since childhood, he found a pair of scissors and tried cutting his nose. So I took that away. Then he chewed on paperclips. I took those away too. Next, he tore at a scab on his palm, causing it to gush with blood. I got him a Band-Aid. I obviously wasn’t getting through. It was easier when Dennis behaved like this; I would just reach over and slap him. But now I am the teacher. I have to be good, behave, be respectful...
So I did what I thought the education textbooks would have advised me to do: I bribed the kid. We set up a behavior checklist with four short goals for him to follow, including being quiet and doing work. I would check in with him every 10 minutes to identify the goals he had reached in the 10 minute span. Each time he reached all 4 goals in a 10 minute period, he would earn a piece of fruit. (Grapes are his favorite. Next are oranges.)
After much moaning and deliberation, Corey and I developed a fruit-bribing behavior checklist for him to begin tomorrow. After it was done, I just sat there, staring at the 12-year old. And I just had to chuckle and say, “You know, my brother hated school too. He was so bad at it. He barely graduated high school. But then he discovered his passion for martial arts. Now he is in college.”
That peaked Corey’s interest. His head, which had been buried beneath a black sweatshirt the whole time, suddenly emerged. “How old is your brother?”
“He’s 20 now. He’s in college now, but before that, he was really bad in school. He had trouble with reading, writing and math-- just like you. But after he discovered Wushu in high school (and he’s on the U.S. National team now), he realized he could do things if he really, really tried. Which is good. Because he’ll be able to afford to take his girlfriend out after he has a good job.”
Corey keeps asking me questions about Dennis. I promise to bring in videos of my brother doing Wushu if I can find any. And that maybe I’ll bring him in for show-and-tell one day.
Suddenly, Corey’s head bops up from the desk where it’s been lying our whole conversation. He says, “I’m ready to go now. I feel a lot better. I’m not angry anymore.”
Timidly, I say, “I’m really glad you’re feeling better now. Mind if I ask what made you feel better?”His head goes back underneath his black sweatshirt. This time he shyly calls out, “Listening about your brother. That made me feel better.”
This one is for all the folks out there who didn’t have it easy throughout school. This is for all the big and little kids who struggled through academics, but made it through. Be forewarned: I’m going to exploit your stories. You are more than inspiration for my students; you are proof that it can all still be OK.
The opinions expressed in On the Reservation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.