Finn has spent a lot of time under tables lately.
Usually, it’s about math. Last week, though, the issue was not academic in nature. Last week, Finn, well, stepped in it, socially speaking.
His fourth grade class has been doing the culminating experience from their California History unit–individual “Passport Presentations” in which each student tells the rest of the class about their own family history of coming to this state. The teacher uses technology to make learning come alive for his students, and this activity is no exception–as students tell where their family members came from, Mr. K. uses GoogleMaps and other tools to show how a person might get from Point A to Point B. In the event that this did not hold young Finn’s rapt attention, we also worked on Active Listening Behaviors by setting timers, slipping him post-it reminder notes with little eyeballs drawn on them, and, at times, quietly wrestling books out of his desk when we caught him sneaking peeks during the presentations.
So, most of the time, Finn was paying pretty good attention while his classmates told their stories. Which sorta bit him in the ass on Tuesday.
It was Mei Li’s turn to present. She is a quiet, diligent child who likes to take up as little space as possible: she has perhaps only two real friends but is respected by all in her classroom for the simple fact that she has never been unkind, to anybody. Mei Li addressed the class, her voice soft and deferential; Mr. K., rather than prompting her to speak up, simply did what he did for the other shy kids–he adjusted the FM system he used to project his own voice, so that they could be heard without needing to self-modulate.
Next challenge: GoogleMapping Mei Li’s journey to California. Mei Lei identified the part of the country her mother had come from, but could not state a fixed point to start the map. Without thinking, Finn blurted out, “Your mother’s a hobo!!!”
There were so many levels on which this comment backfired, all at once, and Finn’s social blinders kept almost all of them from registering in the moment. First, of course, there is his unwitting participation in the ritual of maternal insult– among a decently sized subculture of Finn’s 4th grade classroom, YoMomma words are indeed fighting words. The fact that this insult was levied against the one child in this class who was universally recognized as never having said anything mean about anyone or their momma made Finn’s words doubly awful.
And then, take that awful and double it some more, because Finn is also blissfully oblivious to class and status markers which the rest of them can’t help noticing. At Greene Elementary, the children of doctors and executives rub elbows with the children of housekeepers and fast-food workers–it genuinely matters very very little in the interactions and bonds kids make with each other, but there is an awareness of difference all the same. Mei Li gets cafeteria lunch every day and doesn’t pay for it; her clothes are neat but threadbare, and she wears one pair of shoes. You do not call the mother of the poorest child in class a hobo without landing on the wrong side of righteous indignation.
Which came from the teachers as well as the kids. After first restoring order to a room full of ten year olds torn between angry yells, nervous giggling, and open-mouthed stares, Mr. K. read Finn a mini riot act of his own. “That is not appropriate and not acceptable. Do not EVER speak this way in class again.” He did not, in the moment, clarify any of “that” to Finn–the assumption, generally safe enough for most kids, was that Finn understood exactly what his error was. The assumption was that Finn had meant it to be hurtful.
The para supporting him had, while Mr. J got the class settled down, also been providing him with corrective feedback. “Finn, you can’t do that. You can’t say that word, or any other word, about people’s families. What were you thinking?” She, like the kids, like Mr. K., reacted to Finn’s words with the baggage it had for her: it was an understandably large amount of baggage, and an understandably strong response.
The challenge of that with Finn, though, is his tendency to match pace with the anger shown around him. When others respond to him with intensity, he intensifies his own reaction, which was already escalated by the unexpected-by-him stir his words caused in his classmates. End result–he hit the para, ran out of the room, and hid in the bathroom in my office, yelling towards the door that he hated us all.
Though, initially, not me, because I hadn’t actually been in the classroom when it happened. So my usual Pathways intervention was hampered, somewhat, by my lack of information.
“Finn, what happened?”
“I hate Mr. K. And I hate Ms. Amber. And I think they should both…” and here, gentle reader, I shall spare you the gruesome details, because Finn dreams pretty graphic when he dreams of revenge. Suffice to say that specific punishments were suggested, most of which involved either watching (but not actually participating in) the human defecation process and/ or being surrounded by truly awful smells.
“Okay, so basically, the pathway I’ve drawn so far is “Something happens. Finn gets very angry.”
“They were angry too.”
“I’m not telling you.”
“Hmm… Okay, so pathway is something happens, adults angry, Finn very angry, runs out of classroom and yells in the bathroom. Finn, that’s not enough to work with. I need to go check in with the adults.”
And here began the final physical conflict of Finn’s 2012-2013 school year (we ended up, I believe, in the single digits this year, which is a significant improvement over the 2nd Grade Experience…) I headed to the door of my office, to check with Ms. Amber who had been hovering outside. Finn saw her, and first attempted to physically block me from reaching her, then tried to pull me back into the office, then tried, repeatedly, to attack her as she spoke. She started to explain and stopped talking when he flew at us. “Finn, I can not let you hurt her. Ms. Amber, I will not let him hurt you. Keep going. Then what happened?” Somehow, between the screaming and the punching and the random bonus challenge of a teacher attempting, at that moment, to come in and use the staff bathroom, Ms. Amber filled me in.
And I found myself sitting with Finn through the end of the tantrum and towards post-crisis depression, as he gradually returned to his more reasonable self. It was interspersed with bits of yelling and excretory threats and little journeys below the table when anyone else entered the room (again, I do my finest psychoanalyzing in the second-floor staff bathroom): we established that he hadn’t hated me before but he did, a little bit, now, because before I didn’t know what had happened and now I did, but he hadn’t really meant to hurt me–I was just in the way.
“You were really angry at Mr. K. and Ms. Amber, and usually, when you have a strong response like this, I’ve noticed that it connects to someone else having ALSO had a strong response. It sounds like you were angry at them, because it felt like they were angry at you.”
From there, we discussed the whole situation–how Finn had, in his own words, “over-reacted”, because he felt like THEY were over-reacting, because all he had meant was, they couldn’t plot the mother’s house.
“Finn, I think there’s a new term we need to understand here. Have you ever heard of a Social Accident?”
“Well, I think I understand what happened. I think there’s two different ways that things get said that can hurt people’s feelings. See, one way is deliberate. It’s teasing people on purpose, saying things you know will upset them, using words like ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’ when you know, exactly, what they mean to people. The deliberate way, you think about how you want to make someone upset, and you pick the words that do that, and then you say the words. Sometimes, Finn, you do that. But do you do that all the time?”
“Were you doing that, to Mei Li?”
“NO!!!” His outrage, there, was exactly what I wanted it to be–the clear recognition that I’d hoped he shared with his peers, that there is simply no good reason to be mean to Mei Li.
“Exactly. I didn’t think you would have done that. But Finn, the other way that people’s feelings get hurt is the not-on-purpose way. It’s when people say something, but they maybe didn’t think first, and it causes a problem that they didn’t mean to cause. It isn’t deliberate, but people might still get angry. And I think that’s what happened, with what you said, this time.”
“So, Finn, you didn’t mean to have this big a problem, but I’ll be honest here–we do have a decently-sized problem. And before the day is over, we need to do some clean-up.”
I did not explain to Finn exactly where he’d gone wrong with the hobo remark–it was enough for him to know that it had not gone over well. What mattered was less the specific insult, and more whether he understood another way to react, instead of escalating when he saw that his words were problematic. Usually, at Greene Elementary, student behavior which causes a significant amount of whole-class disruption merits a whole-class apology. I honestly couldn’t trust Finn to succeed at that the traditional way. We settled on him writing his apology on a piece of paper, which we would flash on the document camera so the whole class could read it after lunch.
Sometimes, I might say something without thinking first how people might feel about it. That’s what happened earlier. Sorry about that.
We got as far as the doorway before stage fright kicked in. End result: I delivered the message, with Finn under yet another table, but my help was contingent on him watching his peers as they read it. “I’m going to ask them a question, and I want you to see exactly how they respond.”
I got the class’s attention, told them, “Finn has a message for you, but he’s feeling a bit shy about it, so I’ll help.” I flashed the words on the document camera, read them out loud as the kids followed along.
“Finn and I talked earlier about what happened: we realized it was kind of a Social Accident. The kind of thing when something pops into your mind, and you say it, right there, and then suddenly you realize that wasn’t a good idea. You might have made someone upset, without really meaning to, or just said something you then feel embarrassed about. Who here can relate to that? Has it happened to you?”
From under the table, Finn craned his neck and saw almost every hand raised in the classroom around him. Adults too. My hand up there with the rest of them.
“Okay, hands down for a second. And…lift them again, please, if you’re the kind of person who’s willing to forgive a social accident.” Again with the hands up–unanimous vote.
“All right then. Cool. I think we’re done here, for now.” Later, I will arrange a positive encounter between Mei Li and Finn; later, Finn will apologize for hitting Ms. Amber. Again and again, I imagine, Finn will step in it, and now at least his classmates will understand that we know this about him–will hopefully remember that they said they could forgive.
I remember my own social accidents as a child–the words I used improperly, the codes I didn’t know. I remember my own social accidents from last week, and all the stewing I often do about how people perceive me. Initially, when I was processing with Finn, I bluntly told him, “Remember how we talked about Asperger’s Syndrome, and how for you it means that some things are easier, and some things are hard? It might be hard for you to avoid this kind of social accident, sometimes; that’s why it’s important to find other reactions to have.” He rightly called me out on that, though: “But everyone has them. That’s not Asperger’s; it’s just being a human.” Shivers went up my spine as I heartily agreed.
There is a song I love by a band called Elizabeth and the Catapult, the chorus of which is the line, “In the end, we’re all just taller children.” It’s been a pretty long time since I hit someone in anger–I think I was younger than Finn, the child in question had made fun of my elbow, and my weapon of choice was a backpack full of schoolbooks. But I can empathize with him on the under-the-table. I hope for Finn what I hope, ultimately, for all of us–a better ability to navigate an increasingly gentler and more understanding world.