K.'s been having a hard time lately. Bullying didn't help.
Attending a small school, he's had been with the same core group of classmates since kindergarten. Not only do they accept him, but they think he's smarter (and, of course, cooler) than the teacher. I often get stopped in the hall by a kid from the grade 4/5 class, eager to tell me about K.'s latest invention, diagram, or scientific explanation. "Your son is a genius, Mrs. Schellenberg." When K. was staying for lunch, he couldn't manage the noise of the lunchroom, so he has his own "restaurant" (complete with personalized napkins, reservation list, and hand-written menus) at a table in the hall, and kids fought over the chance to eat with him.
But there are always kids in other grades, not privy to his ingenuity or hospitality, who only see quirks. A few weeks ago, as he was walking through his own yard pretending to be Hydro (his made-up superhero with powers over water and electricity)/Herman Hendricks (Hydro's mild-mannered alter ego) in a cape and trench coat, a kid called over the fence.
K. slunk into himself and into the house. That wasn't the only moment of ridicule that week, and it wasn't the only catalyst for his frustrating, anxious, overwhelming spring. But it didn't help.
I'm a big fan of Dawn Heubner's cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) workbooks for kids. G. and I have done a lot of work in What to do when you worry too much (featured in my next Christian Week column), and right now, K. and I are going through What to do when your temper flares. This week we were reading about realistic thinking, the great secret that most adults don't know: "The only thing that makes you angry is you." We talked about how we can't control what happens to us or what other people say and do, but we can control how we think about it. Think someone's being mean on purpose = mad. Think it was an accident = no big deal.
Then, I took a risk: "K., how would you feel if a kid walked up to you and said, 'You're an idiot.'?" His eyes widened, then squeezed tight, trying to hold in the tears. His head flopped onto the table. I was afraid I'd lost his focus, the conversation would end as cruel and unnecessary punishment, the lesson would be lost, and Huebner's book would be greeted with resistance for the rest of time.
"K.?" I had his eyes, but would he hear me? "I can see that would really hurt your feelings, but what would happen if I said, 'You are a rutabaga'?"
He stopped whimpering. "What's a rutabaga?"
"Some kind of vegetable that grows underground." I typed it into Google and pulled up a photo of some purple lumps. "Here, see? You are a rutabaga!"
He started to laugh. Not a little tee-hee but a hu-huu, throwing his head and bouncing on his seat. Once the ringing died down, I said, "You are not a rutabaga. You are also not an idiot, weirdo, or nutcase. If you believe that, you will find those names just as ridiculous as rutabagas. That's why it's so important to read the Bible and believe what God says about who we are. Not just to make God happy, but because God knows that what we believe will change how we feel and what we do."
"Oh, and K., you look really dumb...with all those eyeballs growing out of your hair!" We rolled with laughter together.
I gave him permission to tell name-callers, "No, I'm not stupid, and I'm no rutabaga." If it helps him stand tall and smile confidently before his mockers, rather than running out of the room in tears, I expect it will make him less of a target, not more. And laughter means the stinger can't stick. I warned him they would think, "That was weird!"
But we'd know the truth.