A Sad Wave From An Old Friend

lonely child on playground alone

One year ago, I was working with kids with autism — the last job I had in any form of childcare.  Over the course of earning my degree in Child Development, I slowly burned out on the idea of working with children in a scholastic setting.  That final job was my last shot at finding a way to still work in an education-related field, and with young people, but it was the most emotionally taxing role I’d had yet and was the final nail in the coffin of my at-the-time career goal.

So, I moved on to another path and have enjoyed the heck out of working in a warehouse, a figurative million miles away from retail-schlubery or childcare.  No regrets there, for sure.

Until yesterday.

I don’t work on Mondays, so when my pal Korkie invited me to the nearby park to hang out with her and the little girl she nannies, I happily joined.  This is the same park I exercise at, and it’s directly adjacent to an elementary school that I once spent a month working at a couple of years ago, interning in one of the classroooms for a college course.  In light of the end of the school year excitement, yesterday two classes from this school were apparently having a celebratory party at the park, so when I arrived to meet KB and her Little, the grounds were swarming with kids.

Pretty quickly, I started recognizing children — at least one of these partying classes just happened to have the same kids in it that I worked with at that school two years ago.  In child-terms, two years is a lot of time, so it’s always a little wild to see how much the kids I’ve worked with have grown over short periods of time.  There was one guy, in particular, though, who caught my interest.  He was actually the first one I spotted… and he’s the reason I’m writing today.

If you’ve spent any decent amount of time with children, especially in a school setting, you have likely met a variation of this kid: the class clown, eager to garner attention — usually at inappropriate times, a bit of a bully.  This was the student who was always in trouble, not because he was stabbing students or destroying things, but simply because he had a hard time cooperating with the social structure that is the classroom setting.  Even on the playground he was a little rough around the edges.  As I got to know him, I learned that he had older brothers, and while I never learned of it being an abusive home, it was definitely a little tough for him.  So, that came out at school.

The hard thing with kids like this is that, while it’s easy to feel sorry for them, they’re also a real pain in the neck at times.  Ultimately, though, they can break your heart.  During one of the days I was working in the classroom, this student was having a bad afternoon during circle-time reading and one of the girls he’d been bugging called him mean.  Somewhat surprisingly, this broke him down and he started to cry pretty hard.  I let him come outside with me and we talked a bit.  He really was a sweet kid (and smart), and that came through plenty, he just had some issues to work through.  He was sincerely hurt that his classmate called him mean.  I explained to him that when one does the things that he does, things that others don’t like, they begin to internally label him as a mean person.  Of course, I used slightly different language and it was more conversational, but that was the gist of it.

So, flash-forward a couple of years to yesterday, and I saw that little guy at the park playing with all of his friends — except, he wasn’t playing with friends.  He was alone.  I watched as he milled about by himself, slowly rocking along in a circle on a large spinning piece of playground equipment, and he looked so very sad.  I recognized him immediately, and then noticed a few of the other students I’d worked with, but as they all ran about in a hectic mess of childhood madness, I wasn’t acknowledged.  It made sense, as I had only been in the classroom a short time a couple of years ago, so I wasn’t hurt or anything.

Then it happened.  The sad, lonely little guy, lazily peddling himself along with one leg, looked right at me and offered a wave.  His demeanor lifted a little, as he offered a half-smirk, but he was certainly in a much lower place than the rest of the kids bustling around him.  I waved back and smiled, but inside my heart broke.

Eventually the classes went back inside, and eventually Korkie, her Little, and I did other fun things with our day, but I’ve been thinking of that boy ever since.  That’s not at all what I was hoping he’d have in his future, but it seemed like his behaviors had their natural effect in ostracizing him from the group.  On top of that, apparently I’d had enough of an impact on his little life that he still remembered my face two years later.

The whole thing has left my heart hurting.  Leaving my last job working with children was the right thing to do; my patience had been all but frayed to nothingness, and I wasn’t able to maintain my OWN health (emotional AND physical) under the stress of the job.  Still, though, I have a real passion for helping kids and I’m still pretty decent with them.  Even with that last job I had, as much as I wanted out, I was still almost a little teary to leave a couple of the little tykes behind.  It seems strange, to be sad about leaving something one wants to leave so badly, but the sadness stemmed from the fact that I knew I was a positive influence on these kids.  At least, I assumed I was, and I did care about their success.  I’m not considering a career-change again, by any stretch, but I know what I feel in my heart, and I’m stuck in a place where I’m unsure about how I can do my part to help.  I’m a great tutor, it’s merely the behavioral issues and wrangling a classroom that I fail with.  My current job schedule makes it hard to volunteer my time for after-school programs, such as a brilliant one I’d found years ago tutoring homeless children, but perhaps I can offer something else.  I’ve left behind a lot of kids over the years — some because I’ve left my job, others who have simply moved on from under my care — and as it is when one works with children, I often wonder what sort of impact I’ve been able to have on their lives.

Apparently, as yesterday’s friendly wave by a month-long student from years ago indicated, while the outcome isn’t always great, I may have had more impact than I realize… and that’s too valuable an option to squander by not working with kids anymore.

Now, if only I knew where to go with this…


About Mark Mushakian

Just a man who loves God, women, kids, dogs, movies, and every other lovely thing in life :)
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