I am totally advert to seeing children being slapped or beaten. Verbally or physically.
When I was 6yrs old my mother had to make the difficult decision to leave me behind while she sought to make her way illegally north into the US. We were living in a small “mesón” – row of rooms where families lived and shared a common courtyard and outside letrines. We were in El Puerto de La Libertad, El Salvador. It was during the time when El Salvador was engulfed in the worst part of a decade-old civil war. You can imagine the situation being so bad that she felt the best option was to leave her children and head into the unknown. One older brother was already living and working in NY, so she had a heading.
I was left under the care of an older sister. I have 3 brothers and 4 sisters. The 2 older sisters lived relatively close to each other in El Puerto de La Libertad. I lived with one of them. My father was never around when I was born so I just saw the man who was my biological father a couple of times in my life. So there I was, in the care of an older sister, father/motherless and, surely, behaving as bad as any 6-yr old would in that situation. The beatings did not take long to become routine. It got to a point that I behaved so badly that the sister I was under the care of had to enlist the help of the boyfriend of the other, also older, sister to beat the crap out of me. He was an army man, so they felt he was better qualified to turn me into a man. This went on for years, and all I can remember is how much I wanted to join to guerrillas so that I would have access to weapons. Crappy thought, I know.
Years later when I was already living in NY and reunited with my family, I remember I still behaved badly. My mother would beat me because I used to wet the bed up to when I was 13 years old or so. I did not do so well in school and was an all-around lazy student. By that time I was immune to the beatings. I was immune to the verbal attacks at school. Even when bullied, it didn’t affect me much.
The one experience that I do remember vividly to this day, and one that taught me the lessons all the beatings that came before it were supposed to. It involved one of my older brothers.
In school I fell in love with this one girl. I barely knew her name – one which I can’t recall now – but I was sure she was the one. Tall, thin, beautiful face and a nice smile. Of course I was too chicken to speak to her, so she did not know I existed. But I was determined to get her attention and win her love.
My older brother had just purchased yet another used car, but this one was really cool. It had tinted windows, was sporty, and even had one of those leather “bras” that runs across the front of the car and makes it look like it’s wearing the mask of Zorro. My brother would usually get home in the afternoon and lay on the sofa to take a nap. I was the official valet of the household and would always jump at the chance to go and park someone’s car in a better spot closer to the house. So it was no surprise to my brother that I would take his keys when he came in and laid down on the sofa. I took the keys, left the house and literally stole his car. The girl I was in love with lived more than an hour’s drive away, in one of the worst neighborhoods of NYC. I drove there; I didn’t care.
When I got to the girl’s block I decided to go around and park the car far enough that she did not spot me right away. I wanted to surprise her. Of course she lived in a massive co-op building. There was no way she was going to spot me from where she lived. As I was driving around the block, all of a sudden the car shut down. I had barely enough momentum to get the car to the side of the street so that it would not be blocking traffic. I tried to restart it and nothing. I was sure there was gas in it, so it was not a lack of gas that made it shut down. I tried and tried, and nothing. I popped the hood, and could not see a lose wire, anything smoking, or any other visual signal that indicated a fault on the engine. After tinkering around for about an hour with no success I got the courage to walk up to the girl’s apartment and say hello – and to ask for money because I knew I had to make my way back home and I did not have a cent on me. I went up the girl’s apartment and she was surprised to see me there. After the shock wore off I told her about my predicament and she gave me enough coins to get my butt into a city bus and go back home.
I must have been gone for 4 hours by the time I got home. One of my older sisters – not the same as in El Salvador – and my older brother (owner of the car) were home. My mother was home as well. She let me have it as soon as I walked into the house. After I told them where the car was my brother told me to join him for the ride so that we could go and rescue the car. He asked to borrow my sister’s car. I was certain he was going to dismember me as soon as we got into the car. He did not. We got into the car and started driving. He did not say a word. I led the way telling him where to turn. At one point during the ride he joked about a funny-dressed city girl we passed along the way. I just kept on waiting for the punches to start. Nothing.
When we arrived at the spot where I had left his sporty car it was already evening. There were all sorts of neighborhood noises, sires, traffic and even pot smell in the air. There were a lot of Jamaican men outside of their buildings just listening to music and smoking. My brother looked around, looked at me and smiled. Not a word. He popped open the hood and after a small wiggle of a cable the car started right up. “There’s a lose wire to the starter motor. Gotta get that fixed” he said. That was it. He got back into my sister’s borrowed car and told me to follow him home in his sporty car.
He never said a word about that incident. That sole episode sticks to me as the best lesson anyone has ever given me. Of course I’ve gone out and done worse things after that, but his response to the whole situation, as if telling me “I get it, I’ve done stupid things over girls, too”, made a huge impression on me. I think if he would have beat the crap out of me I would remember it, but not much more than any other beating I’ve received before.
This is what I do with students who misbehave when in my classroom. I let them know I care, and that in some way or another I’ve been there, in their shoes. I listen. I try to find out why they are doing what they are doing. I give them a second chance. I don’t send them to the principal’s office unless they have really gone out of their way to get me aggravated Usually I speak with them. I always tell them we all make mistakes, and that we can all learn from them. But I never attack them for acting like and being kids. God knows I was one, and one of the worst.
Whenever kids act up, cream, speak too loudly, run around like crazy, think about what it was like being a kid for you. They are still learning limits, their own capacity, and discovering a whole gamut of new emotions and feelings. No wonder they do so many things without first thinking about the effects on other people. Our jobs as adults is to pull them aside, and in private have a conversation with them about what is right and appropriate in the setting they are in.
Speak to kids.