Gage took his glasses off, closed his eyes, and buried his face into his hands.
Pinching the bridge of his nose and asked seven year old Isaiah to repeat what he had just said.
“Jake said that he was going to poop in my hand!”
Gage sighed, disappointed that what he had originally thought he heard was correct.
“No, I know that you told me already but I just don’t understand why he would say that,” Gage said. You’re sure that you didn’t say anything unkind to him before he said this?”
“No, I didn’t say anything to him!”
Gage found it hard to believe that Jake would look at Isaiah and then threaten to defecate on him but right now, he only had Isaiah’s side of the story.
“Isaiah. You aren’t in trouble. But I need you to be honest. Did you say anything to Jake before he said that he wanted to…”
“Poop in my hand,” Isaiah finished for him
“You don’t have to keep saying it.”
“Don’t have to keep saying what? That Jake said that he wanted to poop in my hand?”
“But you asked me to say it again earlier like fifteen times.”
“Fifteen is an exaggeration. Regardless, I know what was said and we don’t have to keep saying it.”
Gage had been a school social worker for less than a year but with each family referred and with each child met, it felt like much longer. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. It was just that the more time he spent in this role, the more he heard and saw; and with the more that he heard and saw, the less surprised he was. However, with this came fatigue both mental and physical. But however tired he got, seeing the children succeed and thrive, whether he was directly involved or not, was worth a few bad days.
Gage cut his eyes over at the Star Wars mug he had filled with coffee earlier. Today was Friday and all that he wanted to do was log and record notes from the week and cruise into the weekend. But that possibility along with the coffee’s warmth were fading fast.
A knock on the door pulled Gage out of his thoughts but before he could say, “Don’t come in,” the door was open and another student, Jalen, stood and surveyed the room.
“Is Isaiah in trouble? What did he do?”
Isaiah jumped to his own defense. “I’m not in trouble. I didn’t do anything!”
“Jalen, why Isaiah is in here is none of…”
“Does he want to kill himself?”
“What? No. Jalen, please close the door. When I am done here, I will come and talk to you.”
It was difficult to explain to a child what exactly a social workers role was. Gage had tried to describe it a number of ways but the prevailing thought was that you went to see Mr. Gage when you were “crazy” or “wanted to kill yourself.” The unfortunate reality is that more and more young children were expressing desires to hurt themselves so while this was not untrue, it was not his primary function. In fact, Gage would not say that he had a primary function. He was there to help the school, its faculty and students, and their families however he could.
“But I have a joke to tell you,” Jalen said.
Isaiah, apparently no longer angry about being accused of being a troublemaker chimed in, “Oh, I wanna hear the joke.”
“No, we aren’t telling jokes right now. Jalen. Leave. Now.”
And as quickly as he appeared, he left.
“Okay. So I think that we are going to have to go and get Jake,” Gage said, turning back to Isaiah.
The seven year old's body coiled, ready to leap in objection but before he could speak, Gage held up his hand and explained that in order to get the full story, we needed to hear both sides. Gage asked that if the situation were reversed and Jake was here and Isaiah was back in class, wouldn’t he want a chance to explain himself? Isaiah, somewhat begrudgingly, agreed.
“It’s just like with that picture you helped me draw the other day. Do you remember that?”
“Well what would happen if we had left some of the spaces blank”
“Well, we need all the parts to make the picture make sense. And that is how it is with things like this. We need to fill in all of the spaces to get the full picture. Does that make sense?”
Isaiah nodded and now seemed eager to help Gage put the rest of the puzzle together, even if it likely meant that his lie about not saying anything to Jake would be exposed.
Jalen was standing just outside and almost fell into the office when Gage opened the door.
“Jalen, I asked you to go back to class.”
“I went back to my room and no one was there.”
“Okay, well isn’t this your activity time?”
“Yeah. It is.”
“So…what?” Jalen asked back, looking puzzled.
“So don’t you think that maybe they aren’t in the classroom because
they went to activity?”
“Oh. Yeah. Probably. But can I tell you this joke?”
“If I say yes will you go to activity?” Gage was thinking about his coffee again.
“Yes.” Jalen’s eyes lit up as he saw the tides turning in his favor.
“Okay, then yes. You can.”
A playful grin pulled at the corners of Jalen’s mouth. However, at that same moment, a kindergarten class walked by (loudly) and Gage missed most of the joke. Isaiah and Jalen apparently had heard it all and both of the boys were laughing so hard that they began to cough.
“Okay, I didn’t hear that but I don’t have time to hear it again. You can tell me later.”
Jalen, emboldened by Isaiah’s favorable response, loudly repeated his joke.
“WHAT DID ONE BOOB SAY TO THE OTHER”
Gage, unsure for the second time that morning whether he had heard a student correctly, asked, “Are you saying boot?”
“No, I’m saying boob.”
The kindergarten class was still close and still loud. Isaiah had decided that now would be a good time to defend himself again for the poop comment.
“Isaiah I can’t hear Jalen. Boot? What did one boot say to the other?”
“No, BOOB. What did one BOOB say to the other?”
Both boys were now doubled over at hearing the word boob for the fifth time in less than a minute.
“Okay. We are done here. Jalen, don’t say boob anymore. Go to class
or I will tell the principal what you said.”
“Don’t you want to hear the end?” Jalen looked surprised.
“No, I don’t. Now GO.”
“You’re my BREAST friend.”
“JALEN GO FIND YOUR CLASS”
Jalen half skipped, half ran down the hallway to the music room and Gage walked towards the opposite hallway. He saw that Isaiah had fallen behind. Gage sighed loudly and could feel his shoulders starting to tense and a headache coming on.
“Isaiah, come on buddy. We need to go.”
“Mr. Gage come look at this. It’s so gross. It's a squished bug.”
“If it’s gross then I don’t want to see it. I really do have a lot I have to get done today and we still need to talk to Jake. Now let’s go.”
Gage felt guilty for lying about the amount of work he had to do but he wanted this all to be over. He went back and took Isaiah’s hand to keep him close and avoid another distraction.
“Did you have pancakes or something for breakfast? Your hands are sticky.”
“No,” Isaiah replied nonchalantly.
“Then why are your hands sticky? What did you eat?”
“I don’t know. What did I eat?”
“No, Isaiah, I am ASKING you what you ate. What’s on your hands? They’re sticky.”
“Oh I haven’t eaten anything today.”
Gage, not wanting to press the issue, kept moving and eventually had both Isaiah and Jake in his office. His patience was dangerously thin and he was close to just sending both boys to the office and let them sort it out. However, he knew that that would not be in anyone’s best interest. There was likely something else happening here other than boys hurling insults, the office was already overwhelmed, and as much as he may not have wanted it to be right now, this was very much a part of Gage’s job.
Isaiah was perched on the edge of his chair ready to offer up the same defense of ignorance and innocence as he had fifteen minutes ago. Jake sat stoically and looked straight ahead.
After convincing Isaiah to sit back, Gage turned his attention to Jake.
“Jake, do you know why you and Isaiah are in here?”
Jake folded his arms and turned to the side.
“Jake, I need you to look at me, please.”
Jake pulled his legs up to his chest and buried his head in between his knees. He looked like he was trying to make himself smaller and harder to be seen.
“Jake, I know that you said something that was unkind to Isaiah. You aren’t here because either of you are in trouble but need to talk to you both so that no one gets their feelings hurt in the future. Is it okay if I help you?”
Jake nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Okay, thank you Jake. But I may need some help from you too. Can you tell me what exactly happened that made you feel like you needed to say…”
Isaiah opened his mouth, ready to repeat exactly what was said. Gage cut him a look and Isaiah sat back and listened.
“Why did you feel like you needed to say something like that to Isaiah?”
A small, muffled voice said, “He said something about my dad.”
Isaiah looked down at the floor.
Jake’s dad wasn’t currently a part of his life and Gage wasn’t sure that he ever had been. He looked over at Isaiah and asked why he had said something like that.
The boy looked up with tears in his eyes. “Mr. Gage, I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t. I am just so hungry. I had my head down and was sleeping on my desk while Mrs. Rainey was doing the roll call and Jake bumped the desk and woke me up. I just said it before I could stop it.” His tiny shoulders began to shake as the tears came faster and the sobs got louder. Gage knew enough about Isaiah’s home life to know that it was possible that the last meal he had eaten was yesterday’s school lunch.
“Okay, guys. Look at me,” Gage rolled his chair out from behind the desk so that now there was nothing between him and the boys.
They both met Gage’s eyes and he could see the pain and fear on both faces.
“Isaiah, the next time that you need something to eat or a quick nap, just let Mrs. Rainey know. I have snacks in here and you can sleep at the activity table. But we need to do these things first before they make us feel grumpy and mean. Can you do that?” Isaiah nodded. “I will call my boss and your parents later to see what we can do about food at home.”
Gage now turned his attention to Jake.
“Isaiah should not have said those things to you. I know that they hurt your feelings and I know that you miss your dad. But saying something unkind to a friend is never okay. I can talk to Mrs. Rainey and call your mom to see if you and I can meet more regularly and talk about positive ways to experience and express our emotions. Would that be okay with you?”
Jake hesitated briefly and also nodded.
“Now this is the most important part,” Gage was speaking to both of the boys now. “Sometimes when we get angry or sad, we do things that we probably wish that we could take back. And that’s okay. We make mistakes sometimes and can learn to do better. But after we do these things, we have to take responsibility. Can you two apologize to one another?”
The boys looked at each other and apologized.
As they were leaving, Jake asked Isaiah if he would like to play with his Legos at free time. Isaiah’s eyes lit up at the mention of the plastic bricks and the two boys opened the door.
Jalen was standing in the hall again.
“Mr. Gage,” he asked, “If you don’t have any kids and you aren’t married, they how are you so tall?”
“Jalen, please go back to class.”