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  • Because we are in South Africa, the Big-5 seemed a catchy way to package character education. We chose respect, responsibility, friendship, cooperation and perseverance. Throughout the year, we do a lot of work with the kids teaching them what it means to show the Big-5. In the classroom, on the playground, on the bus. We also do a series of all-school lessons on bullies, victims and bystanders.

    But even so, even in a small school, even with good kids, sometimes it’s serious.


    Like the Case of the Reluctant Cyrano.

    As I walked across campus that day I saw Ray an eighth grader standing alone. He looked lost and small by the little kid jungle gym. He paced back and forth. I walked over.

    What’s up Ray?

    What was up was his friends setting up an email account, pretending to be him, writing to the girl he liked.

    That took a day to talk with his friends, their parents, his parents, and him again. A day of reconciliation and looking for a path toward redemption and trust regained.

    Is it going to be like this Mr. Ben, he asked?

    I wanted to say some days, some times, but greater than sorrow the resounding joy. I wanted to say sometimes we see the ebb and sometimes the flow.
    What do you think, Ray, I asked?

    I guess it’s about perseverance. He looked up.

    Yeah, that too.




    Or the Case of Pay To Play

    Three third grade boys told the new boy he had to pay them if he wanted to be included in their games.

    That took three days with parents coming in denying everything, getting a timeline of communication and consequence from each grade three teacher, meeting with the kids and then the parents and then the kids again. All that to establish that:

    Some families really do not like each other.
    Public faces are not the faces revealed in private.
    Kids pick up and try on the attitudes their parents think they’ve tucked away in some bottom drawer.



    These and other times, along with the many and frequent variations on the theme of “if you play with him it means you don’t like me” or “three is unstable number for friends”, these times even when we make them learning experiences, even when parents are supportive, even then, they make me wonder how we can ever teach people to get along. They make me yearn for garden and sea and woods and a life alone.

    I deal with the parents who want an iron fisted justice system and no second chances, until it’s their kid. I deal with truths and half-truths, with jealousy and greed and all the variations of “I saw it and I wanted it and I had to have it”, with anger and frustration. And, sometimes, just plain mean spirited, deep-rooted prejudice. All learned and learned well before they ever came to my school.

    But, sometimes, just often enough to keep my spirits alive, just often enough to bring a smile instead of just a woeful sigh.

    Mr. Ben.
    Yes Krystal.
    Mr. Ben, I had a problem on the bus.

    Actually Krystal has a lot of problems on the bus. Almost every day, as soon as her bus gets to school there is a race to get to me first with the story.

    Joseph bullied me, Krystal told me stoutly.

    We sit down on the wall beside the sandbox.

    Tell me what happened, I said, looking carefully at nothing in particular.

    He didn’t keep his hands and feet to himself and he didn’t show cooperation or responsibility to Mr. William and he didn’t show me respect or friendship. He bullied me, Mr. Ben.

    She took a breath.

    I wondered if she was going to bring in all of the Big-5. She just needed to add perseverance for a perfect 5 out of 5.

    I see, I said. What happened first Krystal?

    He took what I brought from home and threw it. She nodded for emphasis.

    That’s pretty serious, I said. It’s dangerous to throw things on the bus.

    She smiled encouragingly at me. I was slow but I was getting it.

    So Krystal, what happened before Joseph threw what you brought from home. I nodded, just Mr. Ben tying up loose ends.

    Well, she said. I bringed the can of whipped cream. In my backpack and he asked could he see it. And then…..

    It was an interesting call home.

    Yes, sometimes, just often enough to keep hope alive, sometimes I get to play the great detective himself and put to right that which was done wrong.
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