Stan, Stan, the Popcorn Man
I always make it a rule to develop a fond connection with my fifth grade students, but I must admit, Stanley Lombowsky was one child whom it took some time to even accept.
Stanley was one of those children whom my colleagues and I wryly termed “popcorn.” He was in a different world most of the time, marching to the beat of his own drum. He was talking when he was supposed to be listening or working, his desk was always a cluttered mess, and he was never ready to dismiss or change lessons when everyone else was.
He must have picked up on my anxiety when I reprimanded him, for halfway through first term, I received a gracious phone call from his mother. “I am sure you are correcting Stanley just as you would any other student,” she said kindly. “But he thinks you hate him. Lately he’s been getting off the bus close to tears.”
After that, I made a concerted effort to communicate acceptance to this sensitive student. I started calling him by nicknames like “Stan the Man” and “Lombowsky.” This seemed to ease the tension.
I also tried to deal with his shenanigans with gentle humor rather than confrontation. So, when he hopped like a frog across the classroom chairs, I established eye contact with him and said, “Lombowsky, when I am old and shriveled, lying helpless in a nursing home bed, I don’t want to be haunted by the memory of one of my precious students having crushed his nose and cheek bones while he was in my class. So could you please refrain from playing Leap Frog across the chairs?”
That was a turning point for Stanley and me. We both relaxed more and established a friendly rapport.
But he continued to run into problems with school staff members outside my classroom. On one occasion, he took a handful of sugar packets from an off-campus sporting venue. In the process of showing off his spoils to his mates, the sugar ended up scattered all over the bus, causing him quite some grief with the bus driver and the supervising teacher.
Needless to say, he kept the Detention staff pretty busy, spending more lunch times on it than off. I felt sorry for him, because he was one of those students who really NEEDED to play and run off his energy between sessions.
The final straw came when we took the students away on an overnight camp. We were on a bush walk, when the exuberant Stanley, with a running start, grabbed a couple of his buddies and barreled down the steep descent. Visions of them crashing all the way to the bottom, breaking arms and legs along the way, pulling other students with them flashed through my mind, and I was scared.
But I tried to remain calm. “If there are any more problems,” I told that mob of imps, “we will have to call your parents.”
The calls were made later that evening after Stanley and his pack decided that it would be fun to kick some outdoor equipment at a gold mining museum.
After this, school policy said that Master Lombowsky should have gone on an after-school detention. I was concerned that he would be no more responsive to this than he had been to all the lunchtime detentions. So I opted instead to hold an after-school conference with Stanley and his parents.
I learned something important about Stanley in that meeting. True, he often acted impulsively, without considering potential consequences of his actions. But when adults reacted, his attention was consumed with HOW the adults expressed themselves, rather than the point they were trying to make. So, if he perceived rejection, there was no way he was going to learn from the discipline, no matter how fair it was.
I also learned from that conference that acceptance is much more than tolerance. Acceptance is empathetic understanding combined with unconditional love of the whole person—the good and the bad.
Understanding the way Stanley thought and felt and perceived, I was able to communicate with him lovingly, as we made plans for “how to keep him off detention.”
What happened several months later testified to the success of that conference. I was visiting Stanley’s sixth grade class to show the students my new baby, and my young friend blurted out, “Mrs. Rhee! I’ve stayed off detention for the entire year!”
My heart still smiles when I think of Stanley.