Among the kids in our school there are two young girls who have always intrigued me with their strong wills, their individualism, their . . . I hate to say it, but . . . boyishness. Each one has her own mind and boy (!) does she ever speak it! Both are ready to do battle if the need arises. Neither of them have the stereotypical traits of a girl student. They are chaotic, messy, reluctant to even listen to instructions, much less follow them. If they don’t want to do a particular task, they say “I don’t want to do that.” Period. They have boundless energy and can’t sit in a chair for more than 10 minutes at a time. Each one presents a particular challenge to all the teachers and all the other students who go through the school day with them. They are two years apart in age and had never been in the same class. Until this year, that is.
A few weeks ago, they discovered one another. They formed a friendship and quickly started on a downward spiral. More and more of their classmates were coming to teachers with stories and complaints. The power girls were bossing them around, pushing their stuff off of tables, trampling their work left on the floor during breaks. They were jostling or bumping into others purposely and then tossing them a smirk and flippant “Sorry!” that was clearly ingenuous. They were always on the lookout for rules to break for the sole purpose of provocation. Some smaller kids admitted being afraid of them.
A week or so ago they formed their club of two – “The Pumpkins” – and made a big deal about their deliberations on who might be allowed to join (not that any of the others wanted to) and who would definitely be excluded. They started a “secret language” of nonsense hand signals and noises, and then pretended to have very interesting gossip sessions in front of the others. They gestured at this boy or that girl to give the impression that he or she was the topic of conversation. Then they giggled meanly. They came up with their club look – dark hoodie jackets – and of course, the hood had to be worn up at all times.
After five years of working with kids, I have learned to see it as warning sign when they suddenly start showing up to school wearing hoodies like that. They become technically present, but hidden and closed off from the others. They no longer look others in the eye and often don’t respond to statements or questions. They are little lumps of misery trying to be invisible and calling for help at the same time. In the case of our power girls, though, something else was going on and it pained me to see it.
The younger one, Lucy, is new to me this year and I have yet to develop a real relationship with her. The older one, though, has a special place in my heart. I’ll call her Dina. I have always liked her tenacity and strong personality. I like the way she sometimes runs up to me and gives me a big hug and then takes off again without a word. On our summer week in Carinthia, it was so fun watching our girls playing King of the Raft against a group of older boys from a different school. There was my power girl, Dina, standing her ground with most of the other girls shielding themselves behind her. She wasn’t going to let anyone push her around and she protected her pack at the same time.
Another time she witnessed my disappointment that someone had broken my little “If I Only Had a Brain” music box. A month or so later, she ran up to me in the morning and said “Here C. I got you this in Paris during vacation.” She put something in my hand – it was a new little music box that played “Are You Sleeping?”
“Sorry that it’s not the right song,” she said, and ran off.
Yesterday, I noticed her and her new hoodie pumpkin friend in a tense talk with my fellow teacher (I’ll call her Ann). A few minutes later, Ann walked into the kitchen upset, flustered. “What in the heck is going on with those two?!” she blurted out. She had asked them to put on shoes before they went out into the wet courtyard and they had refused, responding with one belligerent or sassy remark after another. Five minutes later I walked out of the kitchen and saw them out there again in socks. When they saw me, they ran into the girls’ bathroom where I naturally followed them.
It took several minutes to get them to come out of the stall and a few more before they stopped fooling around and giggling. All the while I just stood there, watching them. After another minute or so, Dina finally looked me in the eye. Lucy only looked at her friend, not at me.
“I would like to know if you two were intentionally provoking Ann,” I said as quietly as I could. That set off another torrent of nervous, giggling antics and silly comments. I waited till it was quiet again.
“So . . . what’s going on with you two?” I asked.
– “Nothing. Why?” Dina asked.
“I think you know why. I am hearing more and more stories about fights and people with hurt feelings. About problems . . .”
– “Who has been saying things to you? What problems?” Dina demanded.
– “I don’t have any problems!” added Lucy smugly. She was still looking at Dina.
“Lucy, I don’t know you very well yet, so I don’t really know what to say. But, Dina, I know you – that you’re a smart girl – and that you know what I am talking about. If you thought about it for a while, I bet you could come up with some problems of the past few weeks, with situations where you hurt or treated someone badly. I’d like to hear about those from you.”
– “You mean a list? Should we make a list?” said Lucy, looking again at her friend and not at me.
I kept my eyes on Dina and said “You know what I mean. I’d like you to think about how you are treating your classmates –any everyone in the school. After you do, we can talk again. Right now, I have to go to class.”
I found out later, that the two girls actually proceeded to make a list. They took it around and asked each classmate “Have I done anything mean to you? Huh? Have I?” Most of the kids could have answered yes, but many said no in this slightly threatening situation. When one or two did answer “yes”, the girls proudly gave themselves a point.
We teachers decided it was time for an intervention. We arranged for a group talk the next day (today) with our two power girls and all the kids who were having problems with them. We agreed it would be mediated by Ann and decided on what steps to take, depending on how it went. A lot of our plans turned out to be unnecessary.
Power girl didn’t show up today. Actually, Dina was there in school, but she arrived in a weepy, distraught state and promptly hid in the bathroom. Ann went to her and they had a private talk that lasted for almost an hour. A lot of what they talked about had nothing to do with the school. Then Ann showed up in my classroom and said “Dina is ready for our group talk now, so can I borrow some of your students?” Several of them got up and left for the discussion. Lucy stayed sitting and Ann had to insist somewhat that she come along too.
I wasn’t there, but apparently, Dina opened up and spoke honestly with her classmates. She listened to what they had to say. Lucy sat there hooded with crossed arms and her only statement was “You can’t force a person to apologize.” It seems the Pumpkin Club was disbanded and we now have only one hoodie left to contend with.
When my students came back to class, I asked them how the talk was. “It was cool!” – “It was great!” – “It helped a lot!” There were comments like that and smiles all around.
Dina walked in a few minutes later. She gave me a shy look.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She smiled a little.
“Good. I’m glad to hear it,” I said.
Dina walked up to me and gave me a big long forceful hug. Then she took off.
It’s time I got acquainted with Lucy. I assume that somewhere under that hoodie, there is a queen of the raft with a music box too.