There is more to this story of my first visit to the school where I am now chaplain, but I think you will get an idea of what it is like from this piece taken from a longer one that I have written. I am attempting to put this experience ‘on paper’ as I go through it, unlike that 21-year stint in an inner city high school where it was all after-thought to write the story.
The fifth grader was sitting slumped in the chair, brushing at his denim pants. He was upset that his new jeans had gotten dirty when the other boy had caused him to fall down. The other boy, unseen by me, must have been sequestered in another room. This boy was in a small conference room, waiting for the principal. I introduced myself, asked his name (George), and shook his hand. I asked if I could sit and chat with him. He immediately saw the police star on my uniform shirt and asked who I was and so I told him why I was there. Then I asked him why he was there.
The other boy had knocked him down on the playground and run away. George (not his real name) saw it as a taunt. Turns out, he’s new at the school, only his second week. The other boy saw him as an easy mark and decided to see how it would play out. George took it personally and retaliated because, and this is the main reason, his new jeans had gotten dirty when he fell. He was proud of those new jeans, maybe the first new clothes he had since school had started. See, the reason he was new to the school, in mid-October, was that he had been taken away from his father who lived in midtown and moved to live with his grandmother and mother on the west side of town. I knew it could not be a good story, but I didn’t pry as to what had actually happened. It’s hard to explain through tears.
Instead, I told George the story of denim, the fabric that makes jeans be tough. I told him about a man, Levi Strauss, who came to California to make his fortune in the diggings but instead made his fortune selling pants to the miners. Pants made of durable fabric. First tent fabric and eventually denim. I related to George how Levi Strauss saw all the miners with torn pants because they were wearing the clothes they brought with them from the east coast. Fancy duds, not work clothes. Jeans are made to get dirty, I told him, and the more they are worn, the better they become.
The tears were starting to dry up. There were a few smiles. I finished the story about Levi Strauss by telling George about the Levi factory in San Francisco and how, during the depression, when no one was buying pants, Mr. Strauss saved his workers by keeping them on at the factory building and having them refinish the hardwood floors in the entire building. Those gleaming floors, which I have seen, stood as a testament to Levi Strauss and his business acumen. George was now smiling, not crying.
Next we talked about his grandmother and how disappointed she would be if she learned he had been fighting as I too am a grandmother and it would hurt my heart to hear that my grandson had been involved in a schoolyard dustup. I, as a grandma, would want my grandson to make friends with the other boy. That may have been taking this talk a little too far because George said he had been told to stand up and defend himself. When later talking with the principal, she said they often heard families tell their children this as a solution.
I told George that any time another person touches him in a harmful way, to tell an adult. Don’t hesitate, go tell an adult. Then he wouldn’t be sitting in the office, awaiting punishment, he would be in class, learning. That’s why he comes to school, to learn. He said that he liked his teacher and his class. Since George is a fifth grader, it is unlikely I will see him again as I hang out with the lower grades. The office manager told me, though, when I checked out that afternoon, that George was in a much better mood when she got back to him.
“I don’t know what you said to him, but it worked to calm him down.”
It was a good start.