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An Impractical Joke

  • Posted on November 25, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Willy was in one of his classes. Maybe it started as soon as he got there. Maybe it took a little while for things to get going. All I know is what little Willy was able to tell me.

Willy’s teacher accused him of stealing a girl’s cell phone. He didn’t do it and he was very upset that anyone thought he had. He didn’t know what to do about it. He said he didn’t do it and he was telling the truth. But the teacher didn’t believe him. The teacher kept saying that Willy took the girl’s cell phone.

Then, the teacher told the class that, because Willy took the girl’s cell phone, the teacher was going to take Willy’s birthday. Willy will be turning 15 in a month and he couldn’t let that happen. He had to make the teacher stop saying these things. But he didn’t know what to do!

Maybe it’s because we’re reading about Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card, which is the story of how Ender and Bean faced extraordinary circumstances and survived, even though they’re kids who are pitted against teachers. Maybe it was something else. All I know is that Willy’s reaction was extreme and out of character.

Willy just wanted to make his teacher stop saying these hurtful, false things. So, in a fit of anger, he put his hands on the teacher’s neck and “strangled” him to make him stop.

I don’t know what happened next, exactly. I know that Willy stopped. I know that the teacher reassured him that it was just a practical joke and gave Willy a warning not to do that. I know that Willy apologized and that the teacher promised never to play a practical joke on Willy again.

Willy was so confused by what happened and so ashamed about what he did that, when he went to bed that night, he didn’t even want a hug. He knew that strangling was wrong and we certainly reinforced that lesson. But it was also important that shame wasn’t the only thing he took away from this experience.

I wanted to make sure that Willy made better choices, that he apologized for his behavior, and that he didn’t make the same choice at some point in the future. But it was equally important that he not feel ashamed.

Time was on our side, because the next day was an appointment with his counselor. We talked about what the teacher had done and what Willy had done and what Willy could have done instead. Willy felt better.

“Most kids,” she said, “would realize by the time that the teacher said he was going to take Willy’s birthday that it was a joke.” Willy understands that now. But he didn’t at the time. This wasn’t a metaphor he was prepared to interpret. This wasn’t anything he was prepared to interpret.

My question was, “How could I have prepared him for this? What can I do so he gets it?”

The counselor told us that there would be things in life that Willy didn’t get at the time. The key was to prepare him to handle those things, even when he doesn’t get them. So, we talked together about what he could have done. Then, the two of them talked about what Willy could do in the future.

Willy doesn’t need to get practical jokes while he’s in them. He just needs to know that he can walk away, even when it’s a teacher, and get help from someone else.