“Can I borrow your cell phone?” she asked me.
“What grade are you in?” I asked.
“Fourth. I need to call my dad. It’s important.”
School had only started two days ago, and I didn’t know all of the students—especially the ones in the lower grades. “Ok. I’ll let you use it this time, but just for a moment.”
“Melanie! Come here!” another student shouted from across campus.
“Just a second,” she called back as she punched in the number. No one answered, and Melanie handed the phone back to me with a surly look. “Must be drunk already,” she muttered as she ran off to join her friend.
Each time I had playground duty I seemed to have a run in with Melanie. “I need to use your phone,” she demanded the next day.
“Is it an emergency?”
“Yes,” she snarled. “It’s payday and I need to tell my dad to buy me a phone.”
My hackles rose at her response. What fourth grader needs a phone? Wants, yes. But needs? Not an emergency in my book. “I’m sorry, Melanie,” I said. “You can use the dorm phone in about twenty minutes. I only let others use my phone for emergencies.”
“It’s an emergency,” she said as she threw her backpack on the ground and stalked away, “if I don’t call now he might drink too much and pass out.”
I shook my head but held my ground. As the first days turned into the first week and then the first month of school, it seemed that Melanie and I had one run in after the other.
“You can’t climb out that far on the tree branch, Melanie. It could break and you might fall and hurt yourself.” “You need to wipe down the table, Melanie, you were the last one there.” It didn’t matter that I’d given her the same warning 24 hours earlier—she continually needed reminding of the basic rules of safety for campus. Every interaction seemed to end on a whine with a side of attitude.
I hate it when I only interact with students in neutral or negative ways—but I spent so little time with the younger kids that didn’t know how to solve the problem. I desperately sought a positive shared experience so that we could see each other in a different light.
My opportunity arrived in the form of a mountain bike ride in the rain. Pedro had invited her to join the bike ride with a group of bigger students—but I worried that her inclusion on the outing would wend up in disaster. For one thing, she never seemed to follow instructions. For another, she didn’t look physically capable of handling the bicycle meant for a larger student: her skinny legs dangled on either side of the seat and her toes scarcely touched the ground. Her spiky hair stuck up through the holes in the helmet and her baggy shorts reached past her knobby knees. The metal tubes of the book looked larger than her frail arms.
“Have you ridden much before?” I asked her.
“I know how to ride a bike,” she assured me.
She surprised me by listening attentively to Pedro’s instructions and warnings before we started the ride. The newbie riders, Melanie included, ended up at the back of the pack, where Pedro and I rode so that we could coach and encourage them. I lost sight of Melanie a time or two as I stopped to help other kids who had jammed their chains whilst learning how to shift. I caught up with Melanie as we headed down the first big section of downhill. She walked beside her bike.
“I fell over,” she announced.
“Did you hurt anything?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I’m walking this part because Mr. Ojeda said to walk if it looked too scary,” she admitted.
“That’s a great choice,” I exclaimed. “You’re smart to take it easy on the hard parts until you have more experience.” For the remainder of the ride, I had ample opportunity to shout encouragement as she struggled up hills and wrestled with the slightly big bicycle. As rain started to fall, I hoped the trail wouldn’t get too muddy—it would only double the difficulty for the new riders.
At one point Melanie slid off the seat only to find herself suspended in the air with only the tips of her toes touching the ground. Somehow, her baggy shorts had become hopelessly tangled around the seat and post of the bicycle. I hurried to catch up with her and we laughed at her predicament and figured out how to free her from the now slippery seat post.
“You’re doing really well,” I assured her. “Even though your bike is wet you’re improving each time I see you.” She grinned and took off down the trail. And promptly collided with another student that she attempted to pass just as his bike tipped over.
It took a few minutes to untangle the two bikes, but once we had the situation under control, Melanie looked at the other student. “I’m sorry,” she said as she hopped back on her bike and rode off. She may have even smiled.
Two days later, when I saw her on the playground, I asked her how her legs felt. She admitted that they hurt a little, but she assured me that she wanted to go on another bike ride. I didn’t even have to remind her to stay out of the tree.
If you find yourself in a negative cycle with someone—whether it’s a student or your own child, these four tips might help you reset your troubled relationship.
1. Pray for an understanding heart. I knew that Melanie had a lot of negativity in her life, and so I started praying for her. I also prayed for myself—that I wouldn’t let my natural irritation make our interactions even more negative.
2. Seek situations where you can genuinely encourage and praise. Pedro, as principal, has insider knowledge of who needs positive reinforcement. The mountain biking expeditions give us ample opportunity to praise and encourage students in a non-academic setting.
3. Take time to build relationships. Kids, whether they are your own or someone else’s, have a deep desire to be accepted as is. If we’re willing to hang out with kids and listen and ask questions, they will know that we accept them.
4. Don’t be afraid to employ the power of the do-over. I haven’t used this with Melanie yet, but I know the power of stepping back from a tense situation and saying, “Hey, this isn’t going well. Why don’t we do this over again?”
What have you found to work when you seem to butt heads with a young person?