369. Nelson and Cornelius

Nelson was a boy who didn’t think much of himself. To underscore his poor self-image, he did things that bothered other people, and got them to back him up on his view of himself. Teachers in the teachers’ room referred to Nelson as “needy,” and he was needy, but “needy” is sometimes used as a euphemism in the teachers’ room; teachers are reticent to admit that they, themselves, have needs, and sometimes have trouble dealing with some children’s needs.
When Nelson was in my class, he found Cornelius, another “needy” child, and started to make a friend. The two of them did annoying things together, and in some ways, that made things worse, but that was all right. For the time being, at least, for these two children, friendship was more important than good behavior. Once they believed that they were likable, we could work on refining and expanding that likability.
But one day, as Cornelius was about to sit down, Nelson pulled away the chair, and Cornelius fell. It was supposed to be a joke. Cornelius was supposed to get up, smiling a slightly embarrassed smile, and later get Nelson back for the trick. I don’t like that kind of manifestation of friendship, but I recognize that it still counts as friendship. Some friends have fun insulting each other and playing practical jokes on each other.
Cornelius was really hurt, though. I don’t mean emotionally hurt, although there was probably some of that, too. I mean he was taken to the nurse’s office, and then home. If someone falls wrong, it can cause real problems, and if the fall is not at all predictable, it’s harder to fall right. So the incident didn’t turn out the way Nelson had intended it to.
I approached Nelson the way most teachers would have, intending to severely reprimand him for what he’d done to Cornelius. If Cornelius hadn’t actually gotten hurt, or if Nelson hadn’t seemed to mind that he’d hurt Cornelius, I probably would have yelled, punished, and maybe even said some things I’d later regret. But one look at Nelson’s face told me that he needed something else. Of course, he was worried about what I’d do or say, but more than that, he was already doing the hard work of reprimanding himself – telling himself that he had blown his one chance to have a friend, and had done it because he was actually just as bad a person as he’d always thought he was.
As angry as I was that Nelson’s “practical joke” had hurt Cornelius, and as worried as I was that Cornelius was going to have serious medical problems, it was clear to me that my immediate task was to give Nelson’s self-image some first aid. I told Nelson that I knew he hadn’t meant to hurt Cornelius – that he’d only meant to play a joke. I told him that I knew he was afraid – afraid that Cornelius had been seriously hurt, and maybe afraid that the incident was no
accident – that he’d meant to hurt Cornelius. I did my best to reassure him that he’d had no intention of hurting Cornelius. Yelling and punishing might have taken care of my needs a little faster, but I’m convinced that such behavior would have been counterproductive.

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