These days, my artistic outlet consists of making lesson plans for my little kid’s yoga class. I love everything about the creative process, from choosing a theme, to designing the yoga sequence, and selecting an activity. Last week, I asked my daughter what the theme should be for next week’s class, and she said, “wind!”
I spent some time thinking about wind, and my attention automatically went to the children I work with on a weekly basis. I can tell which children are breezy; they have the playful quality of a leaf falling through the air, but are strong and rooted like the Oak tree. I can also identify the kids whose winds are picking up, preparing for a storm. It pains me to say that I also know a number of kids who are in the middle of a tornado.
My Tornado Kids are the ones who are consistently dysregulated. Unfortunately, they are also the ones who are labeled as “defiant” or some other negative word we attach to them out of frustration, separation, or pity.
We had a difficult student in my Middle School last year. Maddie rarely attended school and battled with a depression so severe it was almost tattooed on her face. As she walked into the lunchroom one afternoon, I greeted her with a smile and a kindness, “have a good lunch Maddie!” There was a teacher standing near me who walked over and said, “Why bother? She is going to drop out just like her older sister did.”
My heart sank as my adrenaline rose and I thought, did you really just say that? I took a long, deep breath (okay, it was a sigh of dissatisfaction), and replied, “maybe we can work together on a plan for her?” The teacher was expecting a different reaction, as evidenced by the confused look on her face. She said, “it’s impossible to help a child who comes from that kind of home. I have pity on her, but the situation is hopeless.”
In the beginning of my police career, the amplification of “other people’s problems” caused me great anxiety. I was devastated to see broken homes, suicides, neglected children, and substance abuse. For someone like me (who is empathic in nature), this disrupted my positive mindset and skewed my worldview on a very deep level. I felt sad for these struggling families, yet maintained a feeling of hopelessness, much like the teacher I referenced above.
After some personal growth as the years went on, I realized something truly important; empathy was too passive. It wasn’t enough to just feel sorry for someone. With that being said, I also knew I couldn’t solve everyone’s problems, nor would I want to create that type of co-dependent relationship. Instead, I decided to look at problems and situations through a lens of compassion. In doing so, I was able to see the truth and wholeness of the human condition; we are connected because we all suffer. Once I learned that I suffer, and the people I serve suffer, I was able to see our relationships as authentically human. Unfortunate for many, a mindset of disconnection cultivates broken and often detrimental relationships with others. “Us and them” can be the most dangerous combination of words in the human language.
I put my realizations into practice each day that I work as a public servant. In the case of Maddie, I began focusing the lens on her home life. I made an unannounced visit when she didn’t come to school one day. Mom greeted me at the door in her bathrobe. I learned she has been recovering from back surgery for over two years, and is undoubtedly addicted to her pain medication. Her eyes told the story of a woman who was broken, both physically and emotionally.
I learned Dad is working two jobs to make ends meet and it’s still not enough. I learned their already tired home was badly damaged during a winter Nor’Easter, and Maddie and her brother were too embarrassed of the home’s condition to invite friends over. I suspected Maddie’s depression had everything to do with her collective environment; the home, the arguing, and the physical and emotional absence of her parents.
Maddie’s a Tornado Kid. The Nor’Easter that destroyed their home years ago set off a series of damaging winds that swirled around her until she crumbled.
How do we help pick up the pieces for our Tornado Kids?
I knew what I needed to do to help Maddie. I needed to build a community around her, and I needed to get her into school. I would have to do my job, and muster up all of the creative flair I could to get her there. She would have to do the work, but I would be the vehicle.
I drove her into school when she ditched (she didn’t like this). I talked to her during those rides even though I was sure she wasn’t listening. I coordinated support for her in school with my awesome team of school administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors. Maddie is not perfect, but she is managing. She attends school more frequently now, but more importantly, I see her smiling.
Tornado Kids need more. Investigate their lives with compassionate curiosity, because that’s where you create the connection! Never forget that you can do a whole lot of good for a child in the seven hours they are in your school building. These kids often come in from challenging environments, to the predictable and consistent school atmosphere. Children want structure. They want out of that Tornado. And most importantly, they want connection with people who register experiences that are positive and promote their dignity. In this space, they are empowered to create lasting change, setting sail into the winds of their own lives.