Anatomy of a choice

February 07,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

At my son's school recently there was an incident, involving the theft from the library of a stuffed animal purchased expressly for a school raffle. The perpetrator had been seen hanging around the display case in the morning, and when his backpack was searched, the missing animal was found. To add further to the scandal, this student was not only a second-grader, but a child in L.'s class.

The horror!

At the walk-up line after school the other day there were many whispered conversations about this. The student's name, C., could be heard on the lips of many of the parents as they relayed the news of this theft (it's a small school; scandalous acts like that one don't happen very often) and the utterance of his name was always accompanied by a knowing nod and glance, as if to confirm that yes, it certainly couldn't have been anyone other than C. who had stolen the stuffed dog. C., alas, is the class Troublemaker, the kid who is constantly being disciplined, the one who can't pay attention, the one who just can't seem to get anything right. He's like a poster-child for people inclined to label: he comes from a difficult background and a less-than-stable home life, he's part of the free-and-reduced lunch program, his breakfast everyday is from McDonald's and is consumed noisily in the classroom each morning, much to L.'s disgust--he's privileged-challenged, to use a phrase one of my students so aptly coined one day.

Even L., who is often completely oblivious to the social dynamics in his classroom, picked up on some of this.

Do you think C. feels badly about what he did? I asked L. in the car on the way home from school the other day, after we had discussed the ins and outs of it all.

Probably not, L. replied offhandedly.

How do you know?

Well, he said. C. is just always getting into trouble.

We talked with L. about how sometimes those who get the most in trouble are the ones who especially need our kindness; that a seven-year old boy can't possible be held accountable, for the rest of his school-life, for a very wrong choice made in a few split seconds in a school library one rainy morning. We found, though, that it is often hard to explain to a child (and to some adults) the importance of seeing past wrong choices; of not falling into the trap of always seeing what the person did, and where they came from, instead of the possibilities lying ahead, way beyond the wrong choice. These are hard lessons to teach; as a parent, you dole them out, putting the spin on them when you can, gently nudging when you need to.

But I feel badly for the boy; stealing the stuffed dog was wrong, of course, but I hope he can find a way to pull himself out of the role he's creating for himself, so that those whispers and nods don't follow him everywhere he goes, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy swooshing along behind him like an ominous echo.