Rashawn's birthday was tomorrow. We had class again on the following day. I offered to have a party like we did for Iyonna. Rashawn didn't want to do anything--for his birthday, in general. Something was going on with him.
He started out really well this semester. He was new and catching on quickly. To get the wheels turning for one of our classes during "product development," I brought in scraps of fabric to see what they'd come up with. Students picked at the fabric cautiously, maybe intimidated by a new material and the expectation of turning it into something "good."
Finding a couple pieces, though, Rashawn studied the material for a moment, made some folds, and then came over to tell me where and when to sew. Dictating ordered steps that would construct his design--which I questioned a couple times before realizing it was working in a way I hadn't understood at first--Rashawn was making a wallet, something he'd never done anything like before. He named it, "The Rashawn Pocket Wallet."
I watched Rashawn's hands and mind manipulate this material with the confidence and exhilaration of destined discovery. I saw someone find "the thing." You could feel it in the air. At 13, he was instinctively and efficiently making all these creative solutions that reminded me of times I was so proud of myself after hours of throwing spaghetti. He was doing it with 5 minutes left in class, and rushing me to finish.
Just when you think you took part in a miracle, though, that same student comes back the next day a different person, affected by something, or several things that I may only know insofar as seeing a tired and withdrawn expression, or having to handle disruptive and attention seeking behavior. I was seeing all of that with Rashawn before his birthday. I couldn't get him to sit down or listen or stop talking. He was in personality conflicts with other students. It certainly wasn't the kind of behavior you want to reward. You do want to understand it, though. Happy and loved kids who have most of their needs met don't act like this. Something was going on, and the job in a way, is to figure out to some degree what it is, or at least address it in some way that's helpful.
Despite or because of this behavior, I felt Rashawn needed celebration and really just some love. Trish, our new teaching assistant, wasn't so sure at first, but I had an instinct that was hard to explain and I insisted on "doing something nice for him." So we got a cake, decorated the room, and wrapped little gifts from the dollar store.
Rashawn finally walked in and we all sang happy birthday as we brought a candle lit cake over to him. He was surprised and happy but quiet afterwards. I thought maybe he was just a little shy and embarrassed but when I asked him how his actual birthday was the day before with his friends and family he just just kind of shook his head. "Not good," he said. No one showed up and his mom never even said happy birthday the whole day. He just spent it with his grandma. He went on to say that birthdays are stupid and he was done with them.
We all protested and then started having this conversation about how family is good for some things but not always everything, and sometime you have to look outside it and find those things with other people. It took awhile, but he started to warm up and relax, and he had some cake and snacks and opened up the gifts we got for him.
Anytime there's food, it gets messy, and we'd covered the table with paper to pre-empt the mess a little but also with the underlying intent of having a casual surface to draw and paint on. By the end of the class, they'd produced more in one session than they had the week before.
After class, Rashawn stayed after with Trish and opened up even more, telling her that his dog that he really loved had just died. My instincts aren't always right, but they were this time. He needed this, whatever it was we gave him. It wasn't the most elaborate birthday celebration, but it was at least something. His reaction was subdued, but we could all sense his appreciation.
Since then, one could argue his behavior has been worse. He's still defiant and disruptive. But maybe he's not used to being treated this way, and he's testing our trust--because his attendance is the most consistent in the class now and, oftentimes, he shows up early and stays late. We have his loyalty. And, the other day, he surprised us with snacks he bought for everyone.