When we started our program four years ago, most of the 16 children in our program had significant anger issues. Some children had thrown things at their teachers, had been involved in vandalism or frequent fights.
Initially New Hope’s strategy was merely to get the children to behave: “Sit down. Pay attention. Do your work.” Out of desperation we offered them Gummy Bears if they did all their homework. It worked. Eventually, Gummy Bears became our primary reward for good behavior. Unfortunately, we were more focused on modifying their behavior than understanding the reasons for it.
Jay was a first grader who was as precocious as he was angry. He was capable of doing his school work. He just prefered mischief. He was always taking someone’s pencil or tripping someone. When the adults were not paying attention, he would be in the middle of a playground fight.
When we were first starting out, we believed we could help every child. We realize now that we can only help those children who want help. Unfortunately, we wanted Jay to succeed more than he did. One day, after 20 minutes of non-cooperation, we decided that the most loving thing we could do for him and for the rest of the children in our tutoring program was to send him home for the day.
A little while later that day, Jay returned armed with a metal pipe in his hand. He threatened to strike Kris with it. She told Jay that she was not afraid of him or his pipe (a little white lie, but it seemed prudent at the time) and that he needed to put it down and go back home. Her composure disarmed him. Surprisingly, he complied. After that incident, we talked to Jay’s mom and told her that he would have to leave our program. He had become too disruptive. Jay became the first child we had ever expelled. Although we hated to give up on any child, after Jay was gone, many of our discipline problems disappeared and a general peace descended on our program.
Since that day, we have learned a few things about angry children. A turning point for me was a conversation that I had with one teenager. He told me, “You can love me. You can hate me. Just don’t ignore me.” I finally understood that many of these children are angry because they feel marginalized. They don’t feel loved. The next time I saw a teenager with sagging pants, those words echoed in my soul: “Just don’t ignore me.” Although, the young man with sagging pants wants to appear tough, the reality is that he puts on a tough-guy persona to hide and protect his wounded heart.
At his young age, Jay had no idea why he was angry. On the surface things appeared normal, but deep down he sensed that things were not right. Being raised in a fatherless home, growing up in a rough neighborhood and attending a failing school, he felt unvalued and unloved. In his heart what he longed for was attention. In his unconscious anger he would erupt and disrupt so he could not be ignored. He expressed himself with a pipe in his hands what he was unable to put into words.
Today, Kris and I make sure to tell all our students that we love them and that God loves them too. We tell them they are very special and God has plans for their lives.
This school year we were given a second chance to work with Jay. When Jay asked to rejoin our tutoring program, we were more than just a little skeptical that things would work out. Kris asked Jay what it would take for him to remain in tutoring. He told her, “I have to do all my homework, respect my tutors and other students and no hitting.” Kris let him come.
So far, Jay has made great progress, but not without occasional setbacks. This quarter he showed me his progress report. Almost all A’s. That was not surprising; grades were never his problem. Then Jay proudly pointed out his conduct grade: A+.
About a month ago Jay was walking to his mom’s car after tutoring. About half way to the parking lot he turned around and ran back into the center. This time he came back to the center with nothing in his hands. He came with his arms wide open and gave Kris a big hug.
Only love has power to transform an angry heart.