One of them wore a black biker jacket; another, a bitty brown mohawk. Several could not hold still if you paid them. They were third-grade rebels, and they sat in a circle, governed by a pink-and-yellow beach ball.

The rules were simple: Whoever held the ball could expect our collective attention as he shared a piece of news, and when he was done, he’d (lightly!) toss the ball to his chosen successor. Everyone would have a turn.

That simple ritual might be familiar to those in the school counseling world—and, for that matter, to teachers—but I was an intern, and justifiably impressed by my supervisor’s brilliance in coordinating it. Her energy normally ran as high as the boys’—she’d rather do calisthenics than sit at a desk—but she instinctively tempered herself to lead by example.

As with all positive interactions, this one worked on many levels, some subtler than others. For one thing, in a general classroom situation, attention tends to be divided six ways from Sunday, and it’s easy for kids to feel less included than they might wish to be—regardless of adult perceptions as to how much time and energy they’re getting. (If attention is like a beam of sunshine, kids are like mobile plants, jockeying for space, spreading their leaves, and reaching—in whatever way they know how—toward the light.) Clear turn-taking is more valuable than it might appear to you or me, especially with boys quickly learning from the world to play it cool, be disaffected.

So the beach ball gave the boys a chance to get what they privately, deeply needed, without having to fight for it. It also gave each boy brief control—over the ball, over what he offered up, and over whose turn would come next—and subconsciously encouraged the sharing of power. Additionally, as Lawrence J. Cohen discusses in Playful Parenting, “catch” is a way of bridging the distance between males in our culture—even, I think, when played out so briefly.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this activity, as participant-observer, was that, before sharing, each boy was asked to instruct us as to how he would like his news received. Applause? Silence? “Freestyle”? Several chose the last option, of course, and everyone was duly silly, crawling like crocodiles or shimmying or jumping like participants in some goofy Olympics. But the majority of the boys—referred to the group for their disruptive behaviors—requested silence. Heroic little men-to-be, I think they wanted to be taken more seriously.

5 thoughts on “UNRULY, STOIC, HEROIC

  1. Back in the 1950s I was academically above average, but socially very awkward. I tried to make myself as invisible as possible to escape being teased. Looking back on it now, I wonder if I would have benefited from life skills coaching (if such a thing existed in those days).

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are certainly those kids who don’t seek attention, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, I think much of the time those reasons have to do with fear or shame (“the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another”). When adults can’t see or contend with a child’s vulnerability and the aggressive behaviors of peers – what it sounds like happened in your case – it makes sense for that child to work at invisibility. My guess is that it would have helped for young Barry to have been given regular, special, supportive adult attention in a safe environment (from at least one non-related adult, in addition to family); to have had access to membership in a group formed around a shared skill or interest, whether in or out of school; and to have been put in a school group situation designed to foreground strengths of the type you possessed, such that, perhaps, more athletic and less intellectual kids would have needed your contribution and rooted for you as a valued member of the team. Team games based on knowledge or strategy, and the like. In addition to this, it surely would have helped for your school to implement a social-skills curriculum to teach, and encourage the development of, empathy for others. What do you think? This has come up in your own writing, and again I would say that I’m sorry you experienced teasing (and worse) growing up.

      Liked by 2 people

      • From what I remember, I didn’t have any sense of fear or shame. I knew I was loved by my whanau (extended family), although thought of somewhat odd outside my immediate family. I think that back then, being bullied by peers (within certain limits) was considered “Character building”.

        “High functioning” autism and Aspergers were not recognised back then, and it would be more than 50 years later before I discovered I was on the spectrum. Those were the days when the ruler or leather strap was used to “correct” such “errors” as stammering, left handedness and speaking Maori at school.

        No-one knew I was 90% deaf and had very poor eyesight. I had developed skills to compensate, and in fact I didn’t realise that others didn’t see and hear as I did. Eye tests using various sized letters on a chart were conducted regularly, and I always passed with flying colours. I was able to pass simply due to the fact that the test was conducted in the classroom with all the students present. We were tested one by one, and by the time it was my turn, I had memorised most of the chart. I was twelve when my music teacher realised I couldn’t read a new musical score from a distance of one metre.

        I had learnt to lip read accidentally. I was always being chastised for not making appropriate eye contact, and I discovered that by watching a speakers lips, he/she didn’t notice the lack of direct eye contact, and I was able to use my eyes to filter out all the extraneous noise my ears couldn’t. Although I can’t lip read in silence, it’s still my primary means of filtering out background noise in social situations – especially other voices.

        I had learnt most of the rules for appropriate social interaction, but that was what they were – rules. I had to apply them consciously and that can become exhausting after a very short while. The more people in any given situation, the more complex and difficult the rules became. That’s still the situation today. Even in family situation where there’s a dozen or so members present, I frequently have to excuse myself and find somewhere quite for a few minutes to avoid exhaustion.

        Liked by 1 person

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