Pre-Teen Tricksters

For April Fools’ Day, a trickster tale from my days teaching an after school cooking class in the Bronx …

It was a full moon last night, and all week my kids have been amped up, especially the middle schoolers, throwing spices in each others’ eyes and pouring cayenne pepper into their hands and daring to see who will lick it off. My boss is as equally exasperated as I am – “It’s hard,” he said. “They don’t respond to discipline or intimidation. You just have to be smarter than they are, one step ahead of them all the time.” I laughed outright and said “I don’t think I’m smarter than them.”

And it’s true – there’s no way I can compete with these wily pre-teens at their own game.  I physically cannot yell louder than all the noise they make, nor can I command the kind of drill sergeant authority that makes them stop in their tracks and pay attention. I can’t outsmart them at their own tricks – the story-spinning and outright lying, the disappearing act, the subtle theft I suspect has left so many of my supplies missing.

But they’re the ones about to be taken off guard if that’s the only game they know how to play (which is sad, by the way). There are other kinds of tricks, other kinds of tricksters. I can use the tools of charm, bribe, flattery, and most surprising of all, genuine compassion. The trick I’ve had to use the most is patience. Patience and gentle firmness and solid persistence and faith in small victories. Like when a basketball suddenly materialized during one of my classes and flew across the room knocking over  brand new jars of spices. I gave a dramatic sigh and said “Can you please clean that up?”  The guilty young man looked contrite and said “Sorry” and actually got a paper towel  and knelt down on the floor to sweep it up. The loss of half a jar of cinnamon wasn’t nearly as great as the victory of a boy apologizing and correcting his mistake.

When my boss advised me to “kill them with kindness,” I had wanted to respond, “What planet do you live on?” Now I see that it is not about winning a battle or gaining the upper hand – it is about casting a spell. Like a patient spider I seek to spin a web they don’t wish to escape – a home they want to be held in.