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March 1999

It is hard for me to write about JW. I have put it off for over a year now. I had three vivid memories of him. They keep replaying in my mind. The tears are coming to my eyes already. Well, I got three sentences out, anyhow, before they started.

So I take a deep breath and tell myself to continue, even though I know this will hurt. The stories keep resurfacing, quietly beckoning me to tell them. But each time the scenes appear in my mind's eyes...

The tears form again. One drop runs down my left check. I stop to wipe my eyes and cover them with both of my hands. The scenes run together, they become one, even though they happened on three different visits to the school.

Well, I want to get through this. I have put it off for so long. There are so many things I would "rather" do right now. Go investigate the creek, wash my hands, shave, take a shower, go to the grocery store, read a book, clean out my car. But I feel a sense of determination to finish this right now. Partly out of a sense of responsibility, partly out of a sense of negligence for not telling these stories sooner, partly out of a sense of urgency in the thought that I might help one child somewhere. But that leads me back to the other reason I haven't written about JW.

I feel a complete sense of powerlessness to help him. I don't even know his last name. I just know he was called "JW." I decided not to change his initials. Somehow it seems unfair to him to do so. Perhaps one day when he is older he will happen upon this story and realize that it is him who I write about. I expect he will always have some memory of me. I feel almost shameful now when I think that I have perhaps abandoned him. Could I have been more help to him? Should I have reported what I saw? But to who? I tried talking to the directors of the school on more than one occasion, but I came to realize they weren't interested in my critique of their school. They felt defensive and I believe they realized that they weren't doing all they could to help the children. I believe they knew on some level that there were problems which they could have addressed, but which would have been difficult for them. They would have been inconvenienced if they would have had to, for example, fire one or two of the teachers. How could they have replaced them in the middle of the year? Who would take over the classrooms? Probably they would have to and this would mean they would have to leave the comfort and safety of their offices.

So I said nothing to them about what I witnessed. I have told only a few people the story. Mostly I have kept it inside. To me it is a case of extreme verbal and emotional abuse. But, you see, another dilemma is that most people would say, "Oh, that is not such a big deal. Things like that happen sometimes. The teacher was just having a bad day. JW probably did something to deserve it. He won't remember it. Children are resilient. The teacher needs to show who is in charge every once in a while. The teacher needs control in the classroom and blah, blah, blah."

It was on one of the last days which I visited the school. The school visits just got too painful for me. I blame myself for not being stronger, for not having more self-confidence. For allowing myself to feel discouraged and powerless. I just stood there and watched from a distance. Could I have walked over casually and said, "It looks like JW really didn't want to come inside today." Or, "It sounds like JW is a little scared of you. Is that right JW?" Or, "How are you feeling, JW? Scared? In trouble?"

Or could I have been more to the point and said, "Are you feeling a little abused JW? Emotionally and physically?"

This kind of minimizes the situation though. It makes it sound about as casual as asking, "Are you a little sleepy, JW?"

Threatened is probably an accurate word for how he was feeling. I am sure that is exactly what the teacher, though I hesitate to call her that, wanted him to feel.

I have to say a few words about this "teacher." She was hired because the school needed someone in a hurry. So they found a someone they knew from their church, a church widely known for its emphasis on authority, fear and punishment. This person was tired of her job as an office administrator and was available so this was all the qualification that was needed. I once asked this person what she liked about teaching. She said, "Because I can go home at 2:30," but I think she also liked it because it gave her a place to partially satisfy her unmet emotional need for feeling powerful and in control.

I will call this person X, because I really can't remember her name right now. Perhaps my mind tried to intentionally repress her name. I am sure I have her name in my journal notes, but I don't really care to remember it, to be honest. What I do remember is how she would go outside and smoke her cigarettes when the children were sleeping. And I remember the beat-up old car that she used to drive. It was one of those half-car, half pickup trucks. And I remember that her husband was a construction worker.

I don't have anything against people who drive beat up cars. In fact I admire some people for choosing not to spend their money on the appearance of their car when they give other values a higher priority. But in this case the car fit with the rest of the picture of this person: rough, uneducated, unenlightened, uncultured. I am not sure if she ever attended a university. To be a pre-school teacher in the US, that is not a requirement. Why the general public seems to believe that it takes less education, training, and skill to work with children than with high school or college students is a bit of a mystery to me. I tend to agree with the statement that we have things exactly backwards. The higher you go in education the more the teachers are paid. In other words, more value is assigned to university professors than to pre-school teachers. Yet it seems to me that if my natural desire and need for learning is fueled as a child; if this need and desire is nurtured and supported and encouraged, then it will become truly a love of learning. Then by the time I am a teenager, if not before, I will be an adept independent learner.

But back to the teacher, Ms. X.

I am not sure what her values were, really. Obedience seemed to be high on the list. Education certainly wasn't. Individuality certainly wasn't either. She herded the children around from one task and one place to another. And this was in a special, private school where they allegedly promoted individual instruction.

So, let me now turn to my first experience with JW.

I was inside the building when I heard one boy crying loudly. I asked Ms. X what happened. She said, "That one bit this one on the playground." I looked over to see who the perpetrator was. I saw a blond-haired blue eyed, somewhat roundfaced boy sitting alone by the wall. His look was a mixture of stunned, quizzical, and, anxious.

I walked over to him and asked if I could sit down. His eyes fixed on me, but he remained silent. I interpreted this as tacit permission. When children are upset, I always try to ask if I may approach them. I have never yet been turned away. It is a small gesture of empowering them and respecting them. I believe they understand and appreciate this on an almost subconscious level, partly because it is so rarely done to them.

Looking back, I imagine JW was feeling apprehensive, yet in need of comfort. If he could have expressed himself he might have said, "I don't know you. Who are you? Well, okay, it doesn't matter. You can sit here as you aren't going to yell at me or hit me."

The thought that JW might have been hit at home, brings tears to my eyes again. I have no idea what his homelife was like. I never met his parents and never heard anything about them. I had very few interactions with him, as you will see, but yet he will always be with me, and I believe the bond we formed will always be there between us. I wonder if I could find him now if I tried. Probably I could contact the school and they would give me his name. There is still some trust left in the United States, not everyone is completely ruled by fear. But it would probably be "illegal" to give out his name or his parents' phone number. I'd say there is about a 50-50 chance I would get it if I asked for it. If I were persistent, maybe I could convince the school directors to call the family for me.

But then, would the parents want to talk to me? Would they feel suspicious? Who knows in the United States today. And would they understand what I had to say? And if they did, what would they do about it? Would they try to sue the school? Would they spend a little more time with JW and find out what is really happening at school? Would they talk to his teachers? Would they go find Susan? (I checked my journal and this is the name of the teacher.) Would they ask her on what occasions did she ever use force on JW? When did she ever scream at him? But would she remember? To her I am sure there is nothing unusual or memorable about using force or screaming at a child. Would she even try to answer their questions? Would she say, "I want to talk to a lawyer?"

So to continue the story of our first meeting... I don't remember exactly what I said to JW. It was the first time I had been in a situation like that. I felt ignorant myself of what to do or what to say. I tried to remember my own guidelines. These were, more or less, 1) Ask how the child is feeling, 2) Validate the feelings, 3) Ask what would help them feel better, 4) Express your own feelings.

I am not even sure I had those guidelines in such a succinct form. They look simple and straightforward now, but at the time I was fumbling around. Whatever guidelines or model I did use seemed to help me find something to start the conversation with, though it never turned out to be a conversation, actually.

I think I said something like, "How are you feeling about what happened?" Or, "You must have felt pretty upset to bite the other boy." Whatever I said, I got the same face in response. So I kept talking. Next I tried something like, "You probably feel pretty bad now that you see him crying and realize how much you hurt him." Still, no visible reaction from JW.

Then I somehow said something about whether a hug would help him feel better. He face changed and he moved towards me ever so slightly, so I put my arm out and gave him a small, light hug. But quickly he indicated he had had enough. I don't know how I knew this, but it was clear enough at the time. These are the subtleties that are hard to teach. They are perhaps part of our innate emotional intelligence, a part which is difficult to measure, but of incalculable value. For if I had held JW too long or too tightly, if I had made assumptions about him rather than responding to his individual nature at that moment, then perhaps the second experience, which I will describe shortly, might never have occurred.

But to continue with this encounter, I also remember saying, "Well, when I do something I feel bad about I feel better when I apologize. Do you think you would feel better if you apologized?" Still nothing.

I was feeling very unsure of myself by now. And a little frustrated. But mostly I felt empathy for JW. The other boy was getting lots of attention. One thing which stands out in my memory is "We will have to write a report." But no one was comforting JW, whose name I think I overheard while the other boy was being treated. JW had been sitting there completely alone, and I am sure feeling both alone and afraid of punishment.

I don't know what happened to him before he came inside. From what I learned about Susan later, she may have shaken him up quite severely when she first saw what he had done. Who knows what she might have said to him. Perhaps that is why he was sitting there with a stunned look on his face. I am sure that she didn't follow Norma Spurlock's guideline of always validate the feeling first before addressing the behavior.

I myself was afraid he was going to get yelled at or "disciplined" (ie punished) for his instinctive response. I felt protective of him and wanted to help him, not hurt him further with lectures, shame, disapproval or punishment.

I told him I felt bad for both him and the other child. Still there was no outward sign of how he was taking all of this in. As he sat there in silence I wondered what to say next and felt more and more uncomfortable and unhelpful. I looked at the time and started feeling a little impatient. I said something like, "I am going to go now. I am sorry this happened. I hope you feel better later on."

I got up and left, wondering what, if any impact I had on him.

It wasn't till the next visit to the school, maybe three or four days later that I received my answer.

I was sitting on a table (one of the many things I did which was disapproved of by the directors and staff) watching some children in the front of the school room. I noticed a boy walking towards me. He was walking as if in a trance. His eyes were fixed on me as if they were glued in place. He had his arms out as if he were reaching towards me, as steady as a statue. Only his legs were moving, and this they were doing in a kind of robotic way, as if being pulled towards me with a giant magnet. I noticed how unusual it was for someone to walk this way. JW was about three years old, by the way, so perhaps some of this was partly his newness in walking.

At first, I didn't recognize him as being the boy I had comforted the other day. Then, I did. When he sensed that I recognized him, his face lit up with beaming eyes and a huge smile. He stayed on his course which was aimed straight at me. I held out my arms and he reached up to meet me. I lifted him and gave him a big hug. I am sure I asked how he was or said something or other to him, and he may or may not have said anything in reply. I really don't remember. But the message was unmistakable: I was his friend now. I understood him. I tried to help him. I cared about him. And he was showing me in no uncertain terms that he remembered me and appreciated me. I had this "wow" feeling...a memory which fills me with emotion again and waters my eyes. It is one of those feelings I suppose everyone who works with children gets every now and then.

I felt affirmed. I knew that whatever I did that earlier day, even in my state of feeling ignorant and helpless, it did have an impact, more than I ever expected.

From that moment on, JW and I were buddies. We had a special relationship. I didn't see him often, but when I did, there was a closeness between us. I saw that he was a bright child, a curious child, and generally a happy child. But he was also a strong willed child. This is what his authoritarian teacher could not handle. Before I recount my last memory of JW I will just mention one small thing. One day Susan forced all the children to sit at a table to cut out paper dolls or something. This was of no interest to JW. So he soon got up and found something more interesting to do. When he returned, another child had taken his place at the table. When he protested, Susan said "It serves you right for getting out of your chair."

So this is the kind of person who was entrusted with the emotional lives of JW and his classmates. Now we will see another example of her teaching style.

One of the last days, perhaps even the last day, I was outside in the playground not watching anything in particular. I heard Susan scream, "JW!"

I looked over to see her stomping across the playground. I saw JW sticking his head out from a large pipe, the kind which are made for kids to play in, but it this case JW wasn't using it for play, but for protection.

I saw Susan storming over to the pipe, looking ready to explode. She reached in and grabbed JW by the arm. She yanked him out of the pipe.

She started dragging him across the playground and screamed at him, "DON'T YOU EVER HIDE FROM ME AGAIN!"

She was like an animal, nearly completely out of control. If it were her own child, I expect she would have beaten him viciously. I am quite sure she would have liked to.

I don't think anyone else saw or heard this. If they did, they did nothing. Perhaps this was "normal" for Susan, so it wasn't thought of as anything to be concerned with. After all, she didn't actually hit JW, did she? She didn't do anything "illegal" so why worry about it?

But me, I stood there paralyzed. I wondered how anyone could be so brutal, so miserably unhappy and emotionally needy as to punish a child for hiding from you. The most natural instinct of a child is to run and hide from a threat. Yet here was this teacher, this role model of children, teaching... no, demanding... that he not obey his instincts, but to obey her, the voice of authority.

There is something terribly wrong in a society which permits such people to be teachers. And in society which thinks this is not that big of a deal, which rationalizes that "worse things happen all the time." Yes, worse things do happen, but is that any reason to allow any abuse to continue?

I don't know what it will take in America before they see the cause effect relationships between all of their problems and their parenting, educational and religious systems. Apparently not even children killing one another with guns is enough to make much of an impression on a society which numbs itself with the worlds most extensive and expensive assortment of tranquilizers and distractors.

But it is not just America. All around the world, children like JW are punished and frightened rather than comforted and understood. They are pushed away from empathy and security and pushed towards defensiveness and insecurity.

What I did for JW that first day was partly instinctive, but mostly it was self-taught. It certainly wasn't the way I was taught to handle children. Yet because of the steps I took, JW not only did not feel a need to hide from me, but he willingly embraced me. Was it partly because I was someone new to JW, and because I never had to take the role of the "heavy" with him? Perhaps so, but the authoritarian ways of the past is dying a slow, but certain death.

The old days of beating children in school and in public as a means of controlling them are fading quickly in many countries. In some countries like Sweden, it is now also illegal to beat your children in the privacy of your home.

Abuse of all sorts is being more and more exposed and, I hope, less tolerated in most societies. Emotional abuse may be harder to show with photographs in court, but research continues to convince more people of the long term consequences of emotional abuse and dysfunction.

As we look for new ways to address social problems on a deeper lever, and even beyond that modest goal, to actually search for the elusive state of happiness, aren't the methods I advocate and employ at least worth a try?

S. Hein
March, 1999


This took place at Belaire Montessori school near Clearwater, Florida. The school which was run by a Catholic mother and daughter. From my knowledge of her beliefs, Maria Montessori would never have allowed this type of abuse to have occured in one of her schools. Because the Montessori name is not legally protected, anyone can use it, even if they do not adhere to all of the Montessori principles. This example of abuse is not, then, any indictment against the Montessori schools in general. In fact, I strongly support the basic Montessori system as, in theory, it allows for much more freedom, choice and individuality than traditional schools.

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