Feral Children

We all know who they are.

They're the children whose names we learn first. Sometimes it's on the first day, when they're wearing stickers to identify them. Sometimes it's not until we're on bus duty, and they've got a special tag on their backpacks because that's how we distinguish kindergartners from the rest of the school and make sure they get on the right buses or in the right cars. Sometimes we get it from a classmate of the child who pulls on our shirt to tattle: "Brian's hitting." If it's just an off day, that may not be enough to sear Brian's name into our memory bank. But if it's par for Brian's course, if we're going to be repeatedly using his name and not to praise him for what a lovely child he's being, then that's a name we'll remember for a good long time.

These are the standout children, the children who, years after I've moved on from whatever school they were at, a still remember with a shutter. They're children who, for some reason that is beyond my ability as a music teacher with 500 students to even begin to know, view every situation as an opportunity to be destructive, rebellious, aggressive, hyperactive, unsafe. They're the children who are on behavior plans within the first month of school and come into my classroom with a clipboard, hoping to earn points for acting safely, respectfully, and responsibly. For some this works. For others, it's pointless--literally, as I'm supposed to award 0, 1, or 2 points for each category, points that can be exchanged at the end of the day for a special treat from the school counselor, but some children seem incapable of helping themselves, get a steady string of zeros, and never graduate from the clipboard to "self-manager" status. These are the children I call feral.

Never to their parents, of course. Never to my principal. I use the word "feral" discretely, mostly at home, occasionally with a fellow teacher who is throwing her hands up in the air, just as furious as I am at yet another infraction, another referral, perhaps even a suspension that will be no more effective than any of the previous dozen negative consequences this child seems to prefer to all the rewards that will come with even the slightest improvement.

Feral children never get the rules. Repeating them, rephrasing them, acting them out, writing them down, teaching and reteaching ad nauseum to the point that the rest of the class is bored to tears with having to hear them yet again since they already know every one of them and know exactly who it is who's keeping them from moving on with the lesson--none of this makes a difference. We're talking Dennis the Menace, Calvin, Ramona the Pest, children who isolate themselves from the rest of the school through their problematic behavior, children who run in the halls, write on the walls, destroy school property, painfully twist other children's arms, straighten paper clips to turn them into shivs, turn xylophone mallets into bludgeons, pencils into spears, trip and shove and punch other children until they themselves are barred from riding the bus,

Today, I dealt with several of these children. Most were in kindergarten or first grade, but a few were in second grade. Third grade this year appears to be blissfully free of them, but there are fourth and even fifth graders who remain feral, going out of their way to disrupt class and make everything be about them, not because they want to, but because they can't help it.

Thankfully, most feral children eventually outgrow the worst of their behavior issues. This year there are several lovely third graders who were extremely difficult as second graders. This year's first grade class, on the other hand, is overflowing with them, in large part because the first grade classes are so huge (30-32); but also because they were extraordinarily difficult as first graders.

Those that outgrow their issues can be delightfully surprising. There's a first grade boy who, as a kindergartner, was the bane of my existence. He's clever, disarmingly cute, and understands far more English than he lets on. His misbehavior last year was centered on getting the attention of his peers and making them laugh, which he did brilliantly. This year, he started out a bit rough, but has quickly moderated his activity until now he often gives me reasons to praise him.

The thing about feral children, as pejorative as that adjective may seem, is that they are, at heart, children. They want the same things as other children: praise, approval, affection, entertainment, activity, knowledge. What sets them apart from those other children is that they lack the social graces to obtain their desires appropriately. Rather than get the teacher's attention by working hard or asking good questions, they get the principal's attention by harming their classmates or disrupting class. They get their peers' attention by clowning, turn lessons into roller coaster rides, and as for knowledge, their heads are often filled with the age-inappropriate fare they're exposed to at home. Last year's pole-dancing kindergartners probably have parents who are sex workers and drug dealers.

But not all of them do. Some just have some growing to do. And for all of them, there are moments when they surprise me with how sweet they can be.

Last week, I was doing my kindergarten-shepherding duty, walking a class out to the buses. Buses were delayed, and we were waiting by a fence for several minutes. Brian (see above), a tiny but hyper little boy, kept scooting around to the wrong side of the fence until I moved him up in the line, away from the opening he was exploiting. Then he began climbing the fence. I touched him lightly on the shoulder again and again, getting him back down on the sidewalk, until suddenly he let out a squeal: he'd spotted his mother. He gave him permission to check out with his teacher and cross the lawn to her. He ran across the grass, then stopped in his tracks and, bending over, picked a dandelion which he proudly presented her with.

This blew me away. This barely verbal powerhouse of activity had just displayed a tender side I'd never have imagined was there.

That's why I don't throw around the "feral" word very much. I realize most of the littles (as we call them at Orff trainings) who act this way are really just demonstrating how new they are to a school environment. They're in need of some civilizing. As they learn the ways of school, most of them will grow out of their wildness, and by the time they're well into second grade, almost all of them will be as manageable as the next child.

Most of them. As I said, I have several older students at Margaret Scott who still manifest quirks that can be extremely disruptive. These are the children who really seem unable to control themselves. There are far fewer of them than one would suspect from the drug companies' literature on psychoactive medications for children, but there are still enough of them to warrant greater concern. Some are on behavior plans, which gives me an opportunity to talk with them about why today wasn't a stellar day for them in music. The others will not surprise me when they, too, get behavior plans (some were on them last year).

The ones that concern me most are the fifth graders who act out in new ways that seem much more dangerous than the misbehavior of six-year-olds. I haven't seen many fifth graders on behavior plans, and I suspect the reason is that they've figured out the system and blow it off on principle. Give up clowning for a treat? Don't be ridiculous! The peer rewards of acting out in fifth grade are far more satisfying than they were in first grade. First graders want desperately to be able to play instruments, learn songs, play musical games with each other; for fifth graders, what matters most is who is being impressed. Did my buddies laugh when I made fun of that song? That matters to me much more than getting the teacher to smile, so I'll do it again, even if it means my parents get called--a consequence that may just make me even more of a bad boy in my friends' eyes.

These are the kids who will continue to be the first to have their names memorized, year after year, for as far through high school as they make it, and for all the wrong reasons. They will be the ones who most earn the title "feral," and some will carry it with them into the wild places beyond the walls of school, perhaps never to fully embrace the benefits of civilized life we, their teachers, so badly want for them. Seeing them disappear into the underworld, we will not be able to help wondering if somehow, sometime, we failed them, let them down.

The cynic in me says I have 500 children to teach, and I can't expect to reach all of them. The humanist, the part of me who cannot help loving every child I work with for any amount of time, aches at this truth, and hopes that in some small way, the hour a week they spend with me may take the edge off their wildness just enough, may plant just a seed of civilization in them so that someday they may choose truth and beauty over violence and destruction.


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