Tuesday is my favorite day of the week. I have Systems Centered Therapy training group on Tuesday. Then tennis. And then my absolute favorite, I tutor. I support an inner city all boy’s school. Forty-five young men chosen for 6th, 7th and 8th grade because they are in need, financially and academically, but quite intelligent. Full scholarships to middle school, then the high school of their choice and last to college. What the schools don’t provide, the Board of Directors will. Get in, stay in and go places but with an overarching theme of returning to your home community and giving back. They boast an 80% graduation rate from college in a population that would be closer to 25% if they stayed in public school. These boys are earnest, grateful and so polite. I love the mission and vision of the school and I love the boys too.
Today when I was tutoring, I noticed a crumpled page in my student’s planner. Remembering the time long ago, I had torn off my “one star” performance from a piano lesson book. Afraid for my Momma to see that I had not gotten my usual “three stars,” I ripped it off in frustration. Bad I know, but then I lied about it. Lied repeatedly. Perseverating to both my Mom and piano teacher that it must have fallen off, that I didn’t know what could have happened, that maybe since I biked to my lesson… and on and on the lies got bigger and bigger. Until one night, I was supposed to be practicing, when I heard her arguing with my teacher! My Mom’s bedroom and the private telephone were right next to the living room with the piano, so I heard her challenging Mrs. Reynolds that if she knew one thing about her daughter, it was that she was NOT a liar. That if I said the star fell off, then she believed it did. Momma never challenged a teacher or took my side against an adult, so why this story, this time, this teacher. Mrs. Reynolds and I both knew I was making it up because I was angry. Angry at her, scared of Momma and afraid of not being perfect. Who knows? But I can tell you one thing. Momma went to her grave thinking that the star actually fell off, not that I ripped it off and then told a big story to cover myself. I never admitted the truth to anyone. I was that afraid.
When parents bring me a story about their child lying, I remind them of what I now know and wish I had known then. That the good thing about your child making something up so they look good is that they care. They care a lot, they care about you and what you think. If they didn’t care then they would just admit whatever naughty deed you caught them in and go about their business. Fabrications or alterations are about pride in self and desire for approval in others. In other words, I remind them your child cares more about what you think of them than the truth. Your job is to commend the one while shaping the other. Harsh judgments and recriminations won’t help them find their voice when they make a mistake.
This brings me back to my student and why I love Tuesdays. “Why is this page torn and wrinkled?” I asked. Sitting up very straight and averting his gaze, he answered, “I am anger management.” Trying not to laugh, I repeated, “What? How did your planner get so crumpled?” “I am anger management,” he repeated. “Sorry but I don’t understand. That doesn’t make sense?” And he sat up even straighter, looking even more ashamed and rigid and said, “I am anger management.” “:Look, John,” I answered, “do you mean you went to anger management class or do you mean you were angry? And as you already guessed, he still thought he WAS anger management. So I asked him if he got angry and he said yes that he got mad at a teacher and tore his planner. Then I told him that he was normal. That every student probably gets angry at a teacher once and a while. Anger is a feeling and it gives you information about what’s happening to you and how you might react. Feeling angry is normal. Tearing up your planner is a behavior and that’s where anger management comes in. Letting yourself be angry without tearing your homework is the ticket. He looked at me like I was a space alien from Mars but respectfully. I don’t think he bought the concept that anger is a feeling that informs. I’m guessing that with the contract he and his parents signed in order for him to attend school that the “I am anger management” story was one he’d be sticking to for quite a while, with his teachers, parents, guidance counselor and social worker. Doubtful that he’d play the “but Dr. Burns said anger is normal” card any time soon.
But knowing John as I know him, he’s the one who lost breath and motion on the stairwell when I told him I missed a month because my Momma died, he will get it eventually. He’ll remember my promise that he can’t be anger management but that when he gets angry, if he listens hard and respectfully to himself he can practice it. That’s not a lesson I learned from my parents or my piano teacher. But it is one I’m learning from my training group. God bless John for having me as his tutor. I don’t remember too much Algebra, I never had world geography and today when we were diagraming convection molecules, density and air pressures, all I could really comment on was his lettering and colors. But when he said he “was anger management,” he hit my strong suit. And together we covered something that wasn’t in the homework guide. I don’t think he’ll ever forget the lesson though. I know he appreciated it because after our little discussion about normal and everybody feels that way sometimes, he gave me the whole semester schedule of his soccer games and choral performances. Where do you think I’ll be next Sunday afternoon at three o’clock?