“Some responsibility will build his confidence.”

“A little responsibility will teach him discipline.”

“He needs to accept responsibility.”

“We have to provide responsibility to allow him to have ownership….take initiative… understand the consequences.”

Responsibility; accountability, blame, control, required, duty, obligation, just the right thing to do. It’s one of those chameleon words.

My first school job was in a Middle School. I worked in the Resource Room as a one-on-one aide with an emotionally disturbed boy. He had patched jeans that hung an inch or two above the top of his socks, soft brown eyes and a protruding lower lip. His lank brown hair was long in front and when he didn’t want to work he hung his head so it fell like a curtain between us. I could see the wet glint of his eyes peering out behind it. He chewed his pencils and picked at the dirt under his nails. He had learned to vanish somewhere inside himself and when he left, nobody even knew he was gone.

He had goals to learn math facts and sight words, write a series of sentences about a topic of personal interest. They were easy. We wrote about food, practiced math problems I made up, played counting games with cards, played Concentration with his reading words, read stories. We measured those goals with graphs and charts and samples. He had other goals that were harder to measure. They were about self-image and confidence. The resource teacher had me take him out to the farm on Fridays.

“Don’t worry about school work,” she said. “He just needs to be a kid for a little while.”

The social worker called a meeting. We sat around one of the tables in the resource room. The consulting psychiatrist passed around reports, the latest assessments.

“I wonder, if perhaps, you,” said the consulting psychiatrist patting his pockets like he forgot he was in a school and was feeling for his pipe, “If you could provide him with some responsibility (opportunity).”

The resource teacher looked at the budget file on her desk.

I thought about the five-ton Bible on the stand in the front room of his mother’s trailer. I thought about the row of cigarette burns on his arms. I thought about his father in prison and the way he hid behind his hair. I figured he’d had a lifetime of responsibilities (burdens).

“He really gets excited when we go to the farm on Fridays,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s about responsibility (obligation).”

“The cafeteria is missing a lot of silverware. A lot of students just dump their trays and throw the silverware away with everything else,” piped up the assistant principal. “Maybe he could remind other students of their responsibilities (common sense). The responsibility (authority) would give him confidence.”

The resource teacher rolled her eyes.

I thought about way he always asked if we could eat in the resource room and I would read a story. I thought about the way he walked close to the lockers in the hallway. I thought the assistant principal spent too many hours in his office.

“He likes to play with the balls at recess,” I said. “Maybe he could bring the balls out and take them in afterwards. It would feel like extra recess and he’d always get a ball.” I wasn’t thinking responsibility.

The resource room teacher looked around the table. I knew what she was thinking: ‘Silverware! PhD! Responsibility! Jeezum Crow!’

“We’ll try both,” was all she said.

We tried the silverware thing. Stood by the trash bins in the lunchroom and reminded kids to be responsible and sort. He was good at being invisible, no one noticed him at all, but I became the trash can man. It didn’t make a difference; the same number of forks and spoons went missing. He still asked to eat in the resource room, hid behind his fringe. When we gave it up no one noticed. It wasn’t anyone’s responsibility.

We brought the balls out every recess, handed them out, collected them in the blue mesh bag after the whistle blew. Got him five minutes of extra recess while the other kids lined up. On Friday’s we went out to the farm and he played on the swings and followed me around the gardens and woods. When he leaned out the truck window as we drove to collect sap or firewood, his fringe of hair blew back and the wind pulled his mouth into a smile.

Some responsibilities sit light enough they feel more like opportunities.

Writer, walker, poet, educator. Commercial fisherman, builder, donut maker, organic grower. Boston, U. City, Maine, South Africa, Madrid.

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