An Ode to Keeping Your Promise: J.R.W.’s Story

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Transitions can be tough. Be it starting at a new school, getting a new teacher, or experiencing the change in seasons, going from the familiar to the unknown can yield uncertainty, confusion, and strife. For the third graders at the Indianapolis Academy of Excellence, one of the toughest transitions of the day was going back inside at the end of recess. In the midst of cut-throat competitions for first place in line, students convinced that recess would continue all day due to their sheer will power, and attitudes surprisingly and impressively well developed for third graders, it appeared that getting them to cool down at the end of recess would be my biggest challenge as a coach this year. Some days it would take nearly four minutes to get the class lined up, quiet, and ready to engage in lessons about amphibians and ancient Romans. This transition seemed particularly daunting to J.R.W., who would frequently throw himself to the ground and refuse to stand up, let alone go inside pondering the mysteries of Julius Caesar.

As I blew my whistle twice one day, signaling the end of recess and the beginning of the third graders’ time to collect all the equipment, I wondered how the transition would go. That day was, unfortunately, no exception to the norm. I turned around to find J.R.W. laying on his stomach on the ground in between others awkwardly attempting to line up around him. He was kicking his feet and banging his fists on the ground, shouting something unintelligible with such force that it quieted even the most talkative in the bunch. After several unsuccessful attempts to encourage him to stand up and join us in a cheer, the screaming took on a new decibel. I tried my best to lead a rousing chorus of “Little Red Wagon” over him. Despite the catchy rhythms of the exclusive red wagon, J.R.W.’s screaming had transformed into a mixture of yelling, wailing, and shouting. I lead the class through some deep breathing and then walked over to stand beside J.R.W., who was still laying on the ground.

“Which tactic to use…” I wondered, “Empathy? Authoritative? Apathy?” I had tried all three with him before, and still hadn’t quite figured out which would be successful with him. I chose silence. I knelt by him as the class walked around him and headed across the street with their teacher. I waited and took a few deep breaths, noisily, so he could hear and join in on my rhythm. It only took a few leading breaths to get him to join in. As we breathed together, his transformation was visible: his shoulders relaxed, his jaw unclenched, his fists were no longer balled up. He was, in effect, a third grader again, who was just having a hard time.

“J.R.,” I asked him (I chose empathy). “What would get you excited about lining up at the end of recess?”

He was quiet for a few moments. “I wrote a cheer,” he said quietly. His voice was small.

I was shocked. This was a kid that would come up to me afterschool and say, “I don’t like you.” This was a kid who would roll his eyes during every cheer (or worse). This was a kid whose favorite adjective to describe my game choices was “stupid.” This was now, apparently, a kid who wrote his own cheer? Come again?

“You wrote a cheer?! That’s great, J.R.! I’d love to hear it. Can you teach it to me afterschool today, so we can do it after recess tomorrow?”

Immediately, he clenched his fists and started beating the ground again. The open, vulnerable third grader was gone and in his place emerged a kid who has probably had his heart broken from people (adults) breaking promises to him more times than he can count.

“You’re lying! You won’t do that. You’re just saying that to get me to go inside so you don’t have to deal with me anymore. You don’t actually care,” he shouted before screaming “you hate me!”

I gave him a second to breathe and then responded (shifting to firm, borderline authoritative voice at this point): “J.R., I’m coming to your classroom afterschool today to learn your cheer. We’ll do it tomorrow after recess. I promise.”

It took us a few more backandforths of him not believing I would actually go, and me telling him I would be there, that I don’t break promises. I told him that I cared about him, and that I would show him that by keeping my promise. He still seemed doubtful when we met up with the rest of his class (they had crossed the street). I felt his protective instincts and previous experiences screaming at him not to trust me, but I also saw a spark of hope, and curiosity, in his eyes. He went inside, and I sent his teacher, Miss Evans, a text message (how the teachers and administration communicate at my school), asking her if I could come in at the end of the day and for what purpose. She was on board immediately.

When the principal announced the day’s end via the intercom that afternoon, I grabbed my clipboard and headed to the third grade class. J.R.W. was looking down when I walked in, and I will never forget his expression when he saw I had come for him. His eyes lit up, his smile stretched across his whole face, and in a squeaky third grade voice he exclaimed, “you came!” To which I replied, “I told you I would. Come teach me that cheer?”

We sat down together in their classroom while the other students were packing up their backpacks and asking last minute questions about homework due the next day.

His cheer was amazing:

We are third grade we are proud
We are third grade sing it loud
1-2 We will focus!
3-4 We will listen!
When it’s time to go inside
We will get in line
Sound off, we will focus!
Sound off, we will listen!
We will put our bubbles* in (*they put “bubbles in their mouths” to keep them from talking)
Then we’ll go right on in

I was blown away. I gave him high fives and told him how impressed with him I was. I thanked him for being so involved. I told him he was awesome, and that I couldn’t wait to do his cheer the next day at recess, once everyone was lined up and quiet. He was ecstatic: “really? We can actually do my cheer? You actually think it’s good?” He seemed incredulous. “Yes, J.R., it’s amazing. And yes we can do it at recess tomorrow. Do you believe me?” He nodded his head yes.

Everyday afterschool I go outside and say goodbye to the students and their families, offering high 5s and telling the parents when their children go above and beyond during recess or class game time. I had rewritten J.R.W.’s cheer on a nice sheet of colored paper and mounted it to give to his mom, and I was extremely excited. So excited, in fact, that I told the principal about it (he also stands outside to greet the parents at the end of the day). When J.R.W. and his mom passed us, Mr. Burleson congratulated and high5’d J.R.W. I explained his accomplishment to his mom and gave her the copy of the cheer. She wanted J.R. to do the cheer for Mr. Burleson and her. He was feeling shy and asked me to join in. We sang his cheer then and there for the two of them, who clapped and congratulated him. Then I got to hear my favorite words from a parent’s mouth: “I am so proud of you, J.R.” She was beaming. She looked at me and said, “it’s so nice to hear good news from teachers!”

When I greeted the third graders the following day before their recess began, I told them about J.R.W.’s cheer and challenged them to line up as quickly as possible so they could experience it. They lined up in less than 30 seconds that day. Unprecedented.

Transitions can be tough. Yet as we begin to break down the barriers that kids put up to protect themselves from disappointment, we begin to see transformation. As kids come to realize that you’ve got their back, that you’re rooting for them, and that you see their gifts and talents, they start to let you in. That’s where the magic happens. Writing a cheer means taking ownership of your recess, engaging with your classmates in a situation where everyone can be successful, and it means going out of your comfort zone. A student that feels safe taking healthy risks like these begins to take healthy risks in other areas of life: speaking up in class, inviting a new friend to play, asking for help when needed. Confidence is a game changer. These life skills learned at recess transcend the playground and infiltrate all areas of a student’s life, from the classroom to the kitchen table, and beyond.

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