Kid Gloves

Rob Capriccioso
January 26, 2004
Courtesy of www.fetaweb.com
Courtesy of www.fetaweb.com

Some subjects require lots of sensitivity when talking to kids. Most of us are familiar with the ones rooted in the common experience of growing up, like periods, jock straps, and sex. But not everyone has experience with how to talk to kids after traumatic personal events.

In the course of their work, teachers are particularly likely to encounter situations that require special sensitivity. A child whose parent has died, or who has been taken into foster care, or has suffered through a parental split, feels not just sad but different. And often it's in school that he or she must "go public" in a painful, unwanted new role. Teachers can help—or hurt.

From my own experience, I know that some of them are getting it wrong.

A few weeks ago, an e-mail from my kid sister got me thinking about when I was in seventh grade in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It was a weird year. Sixth grade had been wonderful; I still remember my pride at being elected class vice president after a drawn out "battle."

At the beginning of seventh grade, I remember having a few good friends. I liked performing in school plays. I wanted to make the basketball team. Schoolwork was becoming more challenging, and I was intent on keeping up an "A" average in my special elective Spanish class.

Around Christmas of that year, Dad got us really excited: we were going to try our first family trip in the spring—to Disney World! Dad, a consummate planner, bought some book about which rides had the worst "queues" (in my house, we just call them lines). We therefore knew that when we entered the park, we would head left because everyone else would be enticed to go right. That way, we'd get the "fullest experience" from the likes of "It's a Small World." Sometimes Dad planned too much.

So, during spring break, Dad and Mom packed the three of us—7-year-old David, 5-year-old Jena and me—into a plane. And we had the journey of our lives—together—even while standing in queues for hours.

What we kids didn't know until after we got back from Orlando was that Dad had undergone some medical tests before the trip. With him being a Type 1 diabetic, this was not unusual. But these tests, we learned, were serious. He sat us down one night and told us that his heart had five tiny blockages in it. He showed us a picture of his heart that the doctors had taken. David asked if that could happen to his heart. Jena thought it was a pretty picture. I was scared.

On June 1, 1992, after open-heart surgery followed by almost two complicated weeks in the hospital, my dad passed away. It was the beginning of different lives for all of us.

With only a few days left in the semester, I didn't go back to school that year. But after that summer it was time to face the world again. Getting ready to go back to school, I needed to go to the orthodontist. I remember sitting in the chair as the dental assistant looked over my braces. "You have not been brushing," she said disgustedly.

By the time we got home, I was in tears. I asked Mom, "How could she say that? Doesn't she know Dad died?"

When I had to go get my photo ID taken before school started, the librarian stared at me and said, "You look good; you guys are doing so well." I went home and asked Mom if people were always going to talk about us like that.

It turns out that some of the people that I wished would ask me how I was doing, didn't. And some of the people that I didn't, did.

Getting back to my sister's e-mail—Jena was five when Dad died. Now she's 16, a funny and vibrant 11th grader. I knew it wasn't going to be good when I saw the subject: "Don't Mean to Rain on Your Parade." Ouch. Usually her correspondence has some form of a smiley face in the title.

I opened it up, wondering if she was still sad that Mom hadn't gotten her a cell phone. But it said a lot more than that. Reading it, I remembered the anger I felt at the dental assistant, the sadness that certain classroom questions would cause. I remembered that first year—the toughest 12 months—all over again.

What had happened was this: A substitute teacher in one of Jena's classes had once hired our dad as his attorney. After taking roll, the teacher asked Jena how she had been doing since Dad passed away. Seeing inquisitive looks from some of the other students, the teacher told the class that Jena's Dad had died a "sudden death."

This was information that some of Jena's friends and classmates had never heard before—and she felt uncomfortable having it brought out in public by a near-stranger.

Then the teacher made the situation worse, much worse. The subject for classroom discussion that day was the American class system. For some reason, the teacher thought his impressions of Jena's life would make a good example. He told the class that Jena had been "rich" until her father died, but now would be considered "middle class."

After reading Jena's e-mail, I was aghast. I called her right away, talked with her about my feelings and shared my own experiences. I also asked her if I could share some of her story so that we could maybe help other kids who deal with this kind of stuff, and she agreed.

I realize that a majority of kids—and the adults they grow into—have no idea how to behave towards someone who has suffered a traumatic loss. Most want to do and say the right thing, but have no idea what that might be.

Those who have lost a loved one have the right to tell people on their own terms about their loss; if they choose to tell them at all. Another tip: if you didn't know a child well before the loss, don't suddenly start acting buddy-buddy now.

Teachers—especially substitutes—are in a tough situation. They can't; and probably shouldn't—know the personal stories of each new face that enters the room. But they can and should check with parents and school guidance counselors if a child seems "off." If an educator already knows about a loss in a kids' life, it's important to tread lightly. No announcements in front of class about how sorry you are (say this in private, respectfully, and see how the child responds). And definitely no using the child's life as a lesson for the class.

As for Jena, she decided to go talk with her principal, and explained how hurt she had been by the substitute teacher's comments. She feels a little better, and maybe that teacher will treat another student with more care in the future.

Educators have an important job. Most I know have done theirs well, and only a few have not. But even one mistake can cause unnecessary pain. Being a kid today is hard enough.

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Rob Capriccioso is a former staff writer for Connect for Kids.