Last week, Mercedes’ teacher was away for a few days so the class had a relieving teacher. She told the class a story.
It was about a little girl in a class she teaches at another school. The little girl has cancer. She needed some special blood to get better, so her parents had another baby. But the new baby didn’t have the right blood. Luckily for the girl, her older brother had the right blood so he could help his sister. He had to have a needle in his back and it was very, very painful, but he was brave because he wanted to help his sister.
As Mercedes recounted the story to me on Friday afternoon, I felt my blood run cold. She’s made such amazing progress these past few weeks, and we’ve been working really hard to position school as a ‘safe’ place for her. A place away from all the horrible things she has to endure in the hospital. Like needles. And pain.
Although she seemed to recall the story in great detail, she was unclear about what had prompted the story to come up. I can’t for the life of me figure out what would possess someone to tell such a story – and in such graphic detail – to a class full of seven-year olds. Even for kids without the additional issues Mercedes has, it’s pretty confronting!
Fortunately, Mercedes seems to have taken it all in her stride, she wasn’t too upset when she was recounting the story, and when I asked her later if it made her feel worried, she shrugged her shoulders and said ‘not really’. I wondered if perhaps I was over thinking it (as I’m prone to do!), but when I mentioned it to my sister, a teacher, she was also rather horrified. And upon speaking to the school about it today, it became apparent that I’m not the only parent who was concerned about the appropriateness of the story. The school is looking into it.
I have to believe that the relief teacher meant well, that her intentions were good. She can’t possibly have known about Mercedes’ health issues, nor about her anxiety. She couldn’t have anticipated that her classroom audience would include a seven-year old with hospital-related PTSD. Perhaps there was another child in the class who has a sibling with cancer, or a parent. She couldn’t have known.
And therein lies a lesson not only for her, but for me, and for all of us. It’s like the old saying goes (the one that has been attributed to both Plato and Ian MacLaren):
This morning during one of her regular therapy sessions, I had some rather cross words with her clinician. It had been a long time coming, she’s been driving me a little nuts for weeks. But just as that relief teacher didn’t know she was potentially triggering Mercedes’ anxiety, I have no idea why the clinician is so antagonising. I don’t know her back story. I wasn’t unkind, but I was cool and abrupt. Conversely, the FedEx operator who answered this afternoon when I rang in tears because I’d missed a delivery by less than ten minutes? She didn’t know why that delivery was so important to me, but she sensed the urgency in my voice and contacted the driver who turned around and came back to deliver it.
Such is the lesson I’ve learned - choose your words carefully, because you never know the filters through which your audience will hear them.
And be kind. Always, always be kind.