My first full-time job was working with toddlers at a child development center. It was only meant to be a summer job, so nothing felt permanent — we were here to eat, sleep, poop, and go home. Since I felt unable to positively contribute to others at the time, I didn’t feel capable of teaching, so I solely spent time with the children. Let me tell you, it’s a joy and a privilege to be a novice — my environment was entirely new to me, as it was for my kids. Learning without authority or a preconceived agenda opened our classroom for exploration, trial and error, and discovery. We developed security first, then trust. We felt safe to think, combine, and deconstruct our little, big world. We spent eight hours a day, five days a week together for two months. At the end of the summer, I stayed to continue our time together. Being with these little people was where I wanted to be.
I became serious about working with children and read “The Creativity Crisis” and “Stop Trying to be Creative,” both offering terminology for my new mindset. As a class, we actively explored a situation rather than experience it through the lens of expectations and desires (more). I also read Unconditional Love by Alfie Kohn, who presented strategies for loving people regardless of their volatile behaviors. He convinced me that shaming others (and myself) is absolutely wrong; he inspired me to believe I deserve to be loved undeterred by my pain (more).
When a student named Jordan started in our classroom in September, he sat in the window waiting for his dad to pick him up for eight hours every day. He crossed his fingers like a nervous tick and stuck them in his mouth. He never stopped crying. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep. He hated being touched and hated having his clothes off. Any time I encouraged him to feel better, he recoiled.
I met his parents once on separate occasions. Jordan came to school in a dirty diaper that hadn’t been changed all night. We had a few extra diapers and offered them to Jordan’s father, who took them but became angry with the “extra work” of changing so many diapers all the time. So when Jordan couldn’t breathe well, and we found a hair-tie with a bead shoved up his nostril, I was nervous for Jordan’s safety when his father said taking him to the ER was an inconvenience. Would he be mean to Jordan? Would he hurt him? I worried about Jordan all night until he came in the next morning, hair-tie free. His mother, on a separate occasion, legally couldn’t be in the same facility as Jordan. She came to my classroom anyway. She wanted to hug her son. All she wanted was a hug. Just a hug. But she was legally determined a threat to Jordan. It was painful and uncomfortable standing between her and her son.
Jordan meant a lot to me, and I wasn’t sure how to help him. One day, my co-teacher and I decided to give up on coaxing him out of his safe space. When something seemed to offer him security or comfort, I let him explore it. He felt safe sitting next to the window so he could watch the cars drive up, so I brought books and toys to him. If he wanted to eat in the window, I brought a small table and chair to him. If he wanted to sleep in the window, I set up pillows and blankets for him. Whatever made him feel better, it was his.
Some people might think this is favoritism. Before I became a preschool teacher, I would have agreed with that perspective. However, it’s wrong. What actually helped Jordan gain trust in me was the ability to have control over himself.
Allowing him self-control in a vulnerable situation is something I have rarely done for others. I’ve always taken the role of adviser and expected something in return: gratitude, praise, acts proving they listened to my advice. I helped people because I cared about their well-being, yes, but I also helped in order to be thanked.
(Yeah, I have some deeply rooted insecurity issues).
Working with young children doesn’t allow me to serve as the adviser or get praise. My advice won’t make a damn bit of difference when they need me. They will never be able to thank me for my help because they won’t remember me. I’ve never seen them as a means to gaining self-confidence; thus, I never took this little boy’s behavior personally, as if I’m a terrible teacher if I can’t get Jordan to be happy. I wasn’t seeking that security from him; instead, I truly wanted to help him because he was upset.
Over three months of feeling in control, Jordan chose to slowly bare himself. He stopped crying all day. Without any coaxing, he walked away from the window and sat at the table with his classmates and ate lunch. My co-teacher and I felt like we were witnessing a miracle. He eventually moved from falling asleep from violent exhaustion to falling asleep on a cot. He let us take off his shoes and jacket and put them in his cubby. We were always with him instead of where we wished him to be. Six months into his time with us, he hugged all of his classmates. He played with them and acted goofy. He became so happy and comfortable that on a bright, sunny afternoon, he took off all of his clothes, ran around the classroom in only a diaper, laughing, tumbling, and doing headstands. This memory will always be with me. My very favorite moment with Jordan, though, is when he began leading his classmates safely through the hallway by saying, “C’mon, buddies.” And when his buddies walked too fast in the hallway, Jordan ran ahead, turned around, stretched out his arms, and said, “Stop, buddies!” in order to keep them safe.
Our center had a contract with the Department of Human Services that offered free childcare to parents recovering from drug addiction. In April, my supervisor sent out an email saying our contract with DHS was placed on hold. Within four days, all contracted DHS students would be withdrawn from our program. Jordan came to us through DHS, and my heart ached with his coming absence. The thing about Jordan: although he gained security, friendship, and leadership with us, he had gained them so recently that I couldn’t know if they would stick with him.
In a panic, I offered to pay Jordan’s tuition. I felt we needed 2-3 more months with him before he would deeply embrace who he was and how he was with us. My director seemed to take me half-seriously, so I confessed to starting in my classroom feeling terrible about myself and my life, that I found patience, growth, and love through serving my kids, and that she could depend on me to follow through with my word.
Jordan would be taken care of.
Due to in-house politics and potential gossip, my offer was denied. I held Jordan as often as he would let me on our last day together. We played and painted (a new joy for him because he hates being messy). I told him that I love him, and I said goodbye.
It was an awful week and continued to be difficult.
I met my former supervisor for coffee to talk about Jordan. Victoria used to direct the Arts Program at a children’s hospital and used sand tray therapy to work with little ones who wouldn’t be with us much longer. She knows better than anyone I’ve met what it feels like to lose a child. She knew my love, fight, and heartache. And she told me that I needed to let Jordan go. I couldn’t do that, I said. She told me: “Jennifer, you cannot know what will happen to Jordan or to yourself, but you can trust that the time you shared is profound. Jordan may not remember what he achieved in your care, and he may still face serious issues, but he witnessed his feelings validated.”
She said, “Trust him.”
It was not easy to trust him. It took several days to truly accept I couldn’t help him anymore. I visited memories and reflected on his growth. I allowed him to own the successes we fostered. I trusted him regardless of my pain.
I let Jordan go.
I still carry aspects of the woman driven by conformity and the fear of failure. A part of me still craves control of the unknown. I still get anxiety from festering over past mistakes. But when Victoria asked me to trust Jordan, she was also asking me to trust what I learned with him. It reminds me that, similarly to how their (lack of) praise cannot feed my ego, I can still trust that Jordan will be okay without me witnessing or guiding it.