What Do You Want Tom to Remember?

This article was sent to me by Paul Leitch of Queensland, Australia. I share it with you with his permission. If you work with young people, this story will be worth reading.

Tom is a seven-year old who came from a family that has a lot of conflict and whose mother was often angry with him. The writer of this experience (hereafter referred to as “I”) asked the teacher what she wanted Tom to learn from an experience where Tom did not follow the rules—but instead took some “Easter eggs” when he was not supposed to.

The teacher said that she wanted Tom to learn to follow the rules. I asked the teacher what did she want Tom to REMEMBER. She looked at me with puzzled eyes. I asked her again what she wanted Tom to remember. Did she want him to remember that he took some eggs, broke the rules, and received a consequence but still went home with something? Or, did she want him to remember that she was the teacher that didn’t give him any eggs when all the other kids got something?

I then spoke about how adults remember a teacher when they were in grade two or three and how they still hurt because of some particular injustice that was dealt to them. I made the comment that I am sure they are not in therapy over it, but it still comes up in conversation all these years later along with a dull pain.

Tom’s teacher said she certainly knew of many adult stories of school injustice. She had a few herself. I repeated, “What do you want Tom to learn? What do you want him to remember?”

There was a pause and then the teacher told me that I was right. Tom’s teacher remarked that I “got her” when I asked what did she want him to remember. I also made the comment that as adults we can reflect and make changes to what we have said or done. That is part of adult responsibility. We are “big” enough to do that. I then said Tom could learn that you can negotiate in a difficult situation, you can accept your responsibilities and you can also accept a consequence. I asked the teacher if she wanted to do something that would bring her closer to Tom or drive him away. Again, she reflected. I received a reply that suggested she wanted to be closer to Tom but was concerned that the other children were expecting a certain consequence to be administered.

I explained that it wouldn’t just be giving Tom what he wanted. It would be giving him an opportunity to learn. Some more concerns were then raised. There was a teaching partner to consider. She also wanted Tom to receive no eggs—to go home empty handed—because he had broken the rules. Tom’s teacher suggested that her partner might not be so forgiving. Unfortunately for Tom’s teacher, I said that it would be her job to deal with her teaching partner, and I wished her luck.

I suggested that she could talk with Tom. She could ask him if he thought it was fair if all the kids were sent home with five eggs (for example) including Tom—even though he had eaten some already. It is my experience that most children, even difficult children, can be quite honest when it comes to fairness. Odds on, I was betting that Tom would concede. I suggested that maybe Tom could go home with three eggs if everyone else was going home with five.

I suggested she could alter the number of eggs to suit the negotiations. Tom may be just as happy with one egg as he would be with three. Was the number really relevant? Maybe. Maybe not!

Tom could learn that there are rules, that there are consequences when breaking a rule, and that his teacher was being fair. He could learn that you can negotiate. He could learn that sometimes adults change their minds after rethinking a decision. He could learn that his teachers care. He could have eggs in his basket and would have gone home with a smile on his face. He could learn about fairness, justice, and responsibility. He doesn’t get a free ride, and his teachers remain in authority.

I asked the teacher what she thought Tom’s reaction would be when he learned that he was going home with some eggs, even if he had fewer than the other students. Would his reaction be more difficult to deal with than if he realized he wasn’t receiving any? The teacher conceded that it would probably be a lot better if he went home with something. Again, I reinforced that we weren’t conceding to Tom. He was learning something.

I wished the teacher well with whatever she decided to do and said I would find out after the spring holidays how things transpired. She smiled and left for class.

After the holidays I returned to the school and met the teacher. I asked how things went with Tom on the last day before the vacation. She paused and told me that that was an interesting story. She was actually quite surprised by his reaction.

She had spoken to her teaching partner who still didn’t think Tom should get any eggs. Later, all the children were in two lines with one teacher facing a line of thirty girls and another facing a line of thirty boys—each child with a cardboard basket in hand. When Tom arrived at the front of the line he was asked, “What are you doing here?” He just dropped his head and walked out of the line. The teacher seemed quite pleased that Tom hadn’t gone off and that he had kept calm. It appeared that she thought things had gone well.

However, there was more to the story. Later in the afternoon the teacher spotted one egg in Tom’s basket. Her eyes told me that when she saw this she was not impressed. Tom had taken someone’s egg. She walked up to him and demanded, “How did you get that, Tom?”

Tom looked up at her with his brown eyes and said, “Sasha gave it to me, Miss.”

What did I think? I thought what a noble person Sasha was. I thought how wise Sasha was when compared to the adults she was under. I wondered if the teachers realized how Sasha’s approach compared to theirs.

I thought of what Tom would remember: his poor impulse control—or how he felt about his teachers?