When I began a high school job waitressing at the local truck stop, I began to parrot language that mother said would “make a sailor blush”. I don’t know much about sailor’s, but I suspect that they have nothing on my young friend Oscar.
Oscar spent an entire recess a few days ago sitting beside me on a log for no apparent reason other than to name his frustrations in a series of expletive deletives. While I tried to listen only to the tenor and offer safe haven, I have to admit that I’ve rarely if ever heard such a graphic articulation of anger. In fairness, he has plenty to be angry about and the few words that I did offer were simply an affirmation that I believed him about the injustice. I do.
Oscar is the classic crusty marshmallow, with a heart too tender for the world in which he lives. His shell is feisty with fists barred and a stream of superlatives the likes that would make the proverbial sailor sit up and take notes. It’s all he has in a world where the adults have simply not been able to live up to their end of the bargain, a world that is not safe and nurturing for a child.
Oscar spent another day recently alternately swinging at me and running away from me. I wasn’t afraid of his fists, but I suspected that I was no match for his young legs and was more comfortable if I was between he and the open door. It was a very long day. The only time he seemed to hear me was when I was in his face telling him that I cared too much about him to let him get by with such awful behavior. He’s only nine, but I decided it was time for straight talk. And the straight talk is that his soul is too precious to lose in the wasteland broken hearts locked behind bravado.
For reasons that are unclear to me, Friday was a different kind of day for Oscar. From the very outset his demeanor was different. He kept to himself, which is his norm, but participated in all the activities and I even caught him smiling a time or two. He had a concern and politely asked for my attention. He asked if he could take a lead in an activity, and did so with grace. I asked for his help in another setting and again he rose to the challenge.
It was late in the day when I witnessed a miracle. Another child was frustrated with a direction that I gave and called me an “old lady”. Honestly, the words were just registering in my brain and a smile dancing on my lips when I heard Oscar’s nine year old voice with stern clarity: “Don’t call her an ‘old lady’. She’s a teacher and she deserves your respect.” There stood a defiant Oscar not only modeling but holding accountable. I was speechless.
A little while later I was doing daily point sheets and looked at Oscar’s. Two days ago he had a total of 0. Today it was a perfect 10. Not once was he disrespectful. Not once did he swing his fists or run off or threaten harm. “Oscar,” I said looking over at him with smile, “I’m doing point sheets and I can’t find a single point that you lost today. It looks like a perfect 10. Is that right?” He was silent, but smiling.
Monday may be a different story. His fists may clench, his feet may bolt, his words may make the sailor blush. But I will hold this perfect 10 close to my heart, and I know he will too. The truth is that bad days happen. The more important truth, though, is that good days happen too.