After more than three decades of working with kids from kindergarten to high school age, I have witnessed many a behavioral outburst. Occasionally, these incidents have been explosive, with a student striking out vocally and/or physically at his teacher or one of his peers in some attempt to openly rebel and assert his individual power. These types of outbursts can potentially cause more harm to the well-being of others than to the angry child himself.
A second type of meltdown is implosive in nature. The most vulnerable in these situations is the child himself. Feelings of depression, rejection, humiliation and hopelessness can lead a child to retreat into his own mind and melt from within.
Sometimes you face kids who are imploding and exploding at the same time.
I was just about to get in my car and head to my weekly administrator’s meeting, when my cell phone started ringing. I balanced my pile of data in one arm and clicked the phone’s green “accept” button with my free hand. “Yes?” I hollered.
“Mr. Ramsey,” our school secretary, Valerie, began, “Mrs. Larrabee needs you by the eighth grade boys’ restroom. She says Louie is pounding his head on the sidewalk and screaming.”
“Okay,” I said, releasing a heavy sigh. “Let her know I’m on the way.” Inwardly, I was quite pleased that I would miss this week’s four-hour district marathon. But, as usual with these types of behavior calls, I felt a slight bit of trepidation and a great surge of adrenaline as I trekked to the back of the campus.
Louie arrived at my school late in January after being removed from his family and then placed in the Winter Light Home for Boys, a group home facility within our attendance boundaries. Many of the children in the home had been placed there by the courts to address their poor behavior. However, there were others, like Louie, who had been taken away from parents who had criminal histories. Unwanted by other family members, these children found their way to Winter Light.
My journey from the front of the school to the junior high building at the back took less than thirty seconds. More than once I had traveled this route, and more than once I had reminded errant adolescents of how my superb speed as an old man far surpassed their own travels in the opposite direction with a referral in hand.
Louie was on his hands and knees outside of the boys’ restroom. He was hitting his head on the sidewalk, crying and screaming, “I can’t take this anymore! I can’t take it anymore!” The front of his pants was wet and, as I drew closer, I could smell the clear sign that he had probably, on two counts, not made it to the restroom in time.
Nonetheless, I crouched down near the boy and grabbed his shoulders pulling him up and away from the cement. He twisted about and continued to scream, but I held onto him tightly. I slipped down to the sidewalk and sat with my legs stretched out before me. Then I pulled Louie backward and down into a sitting position so that he was leaning against me. Quickly, I wrapped my arms around the feisty child so that he could not flee. Never in my entire administrative career had I ever received training regarding the “proper” restraint of a child, but what I was doing now with Louie seemed to be working.
Louie continued to yell, “I can’t take this anymore!” A few other students exited their classrooms and walked toward the restroom. I hollered, “No,” and motioned with my head toward the music building. “Use the one over there,” I blurted. Obediently, they quickly moved on.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Louie repeated for the fourteenth time. His eyes and nose were both pouring forth liquid, and a quickly-bruising lump was forming in the center of his forehead.
“Louie!” I shouted. “Try to calm down, kid. I know you’re upset. Please! I’m not going to hurt you. But I’m not going to let you hurt yourself either!”
The squirming subsided, but the tears continued to flow. Louie turned his head and wiped his eyes and nose on the sleeve of my shirt. His body shook and trembled as he tried to regain control. At last, he relaxed, and I eased my hold on him. “Okay, kid,” I soothed. “Why don’t you go on up to the nurse’s office and get cleaned up. She can get you a change of clothes. Then I want you to come to my office and talk with me before you go back to class.”
Louie wiped his eyes one last time on my sleeve and stood up. He began to walk to the office. “Hey!” I yelled, holding out my hand, “How ’bout helping this old guy up!”
I walked to the counselor’s office and asked her to join me as well in my office. A few minutes later, Louie, dressed in a pair of jeans and an Eddie Bauer t-shirt, knocked on my door. I invited him in, and he sat quietly with me and Mrs. Alexander.
“Good to see you all spruced up, Louie,” I began. “I hope you are feeling better.”
“A little bit,” he whispered.
“What a fine looking young man!” Mrs. Alexander exclaimed. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you!” She stretched out her hand, and Louie looked up long enough to shake it. Then, instantly, he lowered his gaze to his lap.
“I’m the school counselor,” she continued cheerfully with just a hint of a Southern drawl. “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. Mr. Ramsey was just worried about you. Both of us try our best to help every kid around here.”
I interjected, “Louie, is there anything I can do for you? I know you are fairly new around here. Coming to a new school is definitely not easy…especially when you are an eighth grader.
Louie sat with his head down and finally muttered, “I miss my Mom.”
Mrs. Alexander’s maternal instincts kicked in. She stood and walked over to the boy, embracing him in a tender hug. “Oh, honey,” she said, “I know you do. I have no control over the court’s decision, and that makes me feel just terrible. But I can be here to listen to you – Mr. Ramsey can too – and together, we can hopefully help you make it through each day until you can finally see your Mama again.”
“Louie,” I added, “you can come up to the office anytime you need to talk. Free pass! I’ll let your teachers know. I’ll stop everything I’m doing the minute you walk in! But, please, no more hurting yourself. That bruise you’ve got already makes you look like you’ve been through a war.”
“I have,” he mumbled.
“Well, hopefully we can bring a little peace into your life, kid. Why don’t you go with Mrs. Alexander to her room and talk a bit more while I call the home and let them know what’s going on?”
“No!” Louie screamed. “No! Don’t call!” For the first time in the conversation, his head was up.
I jumped from my seat and wrapped my arm around his shoulder in an attempt to calm him. “Hey, hey…I’m just going to tell them you had a rough start this morning and that you had a little accident. I’ll tell them that we got you cleaned up, that you’re calmer and that you really are a great kid.”
He shook his head and let out a deep sigh.
“You’re going to be okay, Louie. Talk to Mrs. Alexander. I’ll check in with you later today.” The two of them rose from their seats and headed for the door. “Hey, Louie!” I shouted. “I meant what I said…you are a great kid!”
The call to Winter Light Home yielded little information. Louie was a quiet, reserved child. His father left home when Louie was two. Mom had three other children from two other men who also felt no tie to the children they had helped to create. To feed her family, Mom started selling drugs and began using and abusing them herself. Mom was arrested the day before Christmas, and the four children were dispersed to group homes around the city.
All of this I had already read in the child’s file here at school.
Mrs. Alexander reported back to me about thirty minutes later. “All he would tell me is that he misses his mother. He must have said it at least ten times!” she explained.
“Thanks, Jana,” I replied. “Let’s just keep an eye on him for now.”
Nearly a week later, I was called to Mrs. Larrabee’s room to remove Louie. I could hear him screaming before I ever opened the classroom door.
“Louie!” I barked upon entering. “Outside! Now!” He kicked his chair to assert his power one last time before following me.
“What happened to coming to find me when you’re frustrated?” I implored. “Mrs. Larrabee knows about our agreement!”
“She was mad at me,” he replied sullenly. “She said I had to stay in at lunch because I didn’t do my homework.”
“Well, the homework is a little important,” I countered. “Why didn’t you do it?”
“Mr. Ramsey, do you know what it’s like in a group home?”
I had to admit that I had no clue.
“It’s filled with people I barely know,” he continued, “and noise…and…distractions…” He drifted into silence and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Okay,” I directed, “go get your book and come with me. You can complete your assignment in the office. When you are done, we’re going to practice the apology you’re going to give Mrs. Larrabee.”
The outbursts and meltdowns continued throughout the spring months but they became less intense as time wore on. In most cases, Louie’s teachers were capable of redirecting him or convincing him to visit with me. I tried to be proactive and made sure to check in with him nearly every day.
As we moved into the final month of school, I decided to take a personal day off – what teachers jokingly refer to as a mental health day. I had a doctor’s appointment and a few personal errands to attend to before the crazy last days of May were upon us.
I emerged from the doctor’s office at about two o’clock happy with my clean bill of health. I decided to go to Starbucks and celebrate with a venti frappuccino. As I turned the ignition key of my car, my cell phone began ringing with the school’s number boldly emblazoned across its screen. This is my day off, I thought. Surely, the school can manage one day without me.
After debating with myself for the first six rings, I finally decided that I would answer. The eighth grade math teacher, Mr. Flanders, was frantic. “Tim, I’m really sorry for bugging you on your day off. I really am. But Louie is out of control. He’s crying and screaming and hasn’t stopped for over thirty minutes now. I’m here with the rest of his teachers. This is our prep time. We’re trying to calm him down, but he keeps yelling, ‘I want Mr. Ramsey!’ No principal, no counselor this afternoon. They’re both off campus at some meeting. I’m really sorry, Tim!”
I could hear Louie’s shrieks loud and clear in the background. I sighed and turned off the ignition. My afternoon shot of caffeine would have to wait. I took a breath and finally said, “Okay. No problem. Put him on the phone.”
Too many tears had poured from this child’s eyes in the short time since he had been removed from his mother. But more were flowing as he tried to talk to me now.
“Louie,” I pleaded, “I need you to calm down. Are your teachers still there with you?”
“Uh..huh..,” he gasped between sobs.
“Okay, then. You need to calm down. You are scaring them, and all they want to do is to help you right now. They need to see that you can pull yourself together. Can you do that?”
“I’m trying, but I can’t,” he sobbed into the phone.
“Okay, okay. Just keep trying while we talk. I’m really sorry that I am not there to talk to you in person, but this is going to have to do. Tell me, kid, what is bothering you?”
“I can’t take this anymore, Mr. Ramsey! I don’t know what is wrong with me! I miss my Mom!”
You know you have reached the core of an adolescent boy’s soul when he publicly admits wanting to be with his mother. I thought for a moment and then replied. “I know you do, Louie. I bet she’s missing you like crazy as well. But there is nothing I can do about that. I wish there was. All your teachers and I can do is to show you that we care and to let you cry out the pain whenever you need to.”
Louie sniffed back the fluid flowing from his nose and continued to cry. Finally, he whispered, “I’m not mad at them, Mr. Ramsey. I’m not mad at you. I’m just mad! My life sucks!”
“Louie,” I continued, “I can’t even imagine the pain you are going through. I don’t know when, but there is bound to be some sort of light at the end of this horrible tunnel you are in. Your teachers and I will try our best to listen to you and to even be that light for you.”
“I know,” he muttered.
“Louie, what is bothering you? Is there something else?”
“I am just so tired, Mr. Ramsey. I’m tired.”
“Alright, Louie. This is what I want you to do. I want you to go to the nurse’s office and take a nap before school is out. Tomorrow morning, I will check in with you during first hour and then we can talk some more. Okay?”
Louie sobbed but managed to thank me. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Ramsey.” He handed the phone back to Mr. Flanders. I explained the nap idea and asked him to talk to our school nurse.
After disconnecting, I started the engine again, but immediately shut it down. I called back to the school office and asked Valerie to get the number for Winter Light for me. A few minutes later I was speaking to the home manager.
“Oh, that boy didn’t get much sleep last night,” he explained. “We had to give him his medicine around three a.m. to get him to relax.”
I thanked the man for his information and decided to set up a meeting with the counselor, nurse and school psychologist the next day. I turned the ignition on once more and drove home, no longer in the mood for a frappuccino.
The following morning, as I pulled into the school’s parking lot, my cell phone started ringing. The school’s number was shining brightly. Valerie didn’t even say hello as I picked up.
“Tim, where are you? Oh, never mind. I see your car. Have you heard about Winter Light?” she shouted.
Before I could answer, she blurted, “Sorry, got another call. Just come in. I’ll tell you in your office.”
I hurried into the building, dropped my bag on the floor and waited for the secretary. She stepped into my office and closed the door behind her. Door closed. Great. That is never a good sign.
“Winter Light Home for Boys was shut down last night,” she blurted.
“What?” I shouted. “What happened?”
“The manager was arrested. They say he was molesting the boys. The place was closed down. All the boys were removed by the State and relocated.”
Her final words echoed in my head: “All the boys…removed by the State…relocated.”
“Thank you, Valerie. That is terrible news. I appreciate you letting me know. So horrible.” Valerie turned to leave.
“Door opened or closed?” she asked.
“Closed,” I answered. She obliged and went back to her busy morning work. A wave of nausea suddenly engulfed me.
I sunk into my chair and slammed my fist on the top of my desk, angry at the monster that dared to lay his hands on innocent children…on Louie…angry that he had forever damaged the boy’s soul…angry that his mother and the authorities had so badly altered his life’s course…and angry at myself for not being able to save him from it all.
I slammed my fist down once again and stared out the tiny window in my office.
I never saw Louie again.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey.