The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, February 05, 2007

Black Valentine

by Andrew Tibbetts

When I was a young child and youth worker one of the first jobs I had was working in a special needs classroom with students who were in ‘care, treatment and/or custody’. I was spectacularly untrained and inexperienced, but I did my best to do as my supervisors asked- which was: get those kids to behave. Good behaviour was something to be learned. We had rewards and punishments to the steer them in the right direction. The hope was they'd one day be able to ‘function in a normal setting.’

I actually liked the spirited kids I worked with very much. I’d always been a dutiful child, too anxious to misbehave, so I had a sneaking admiration for their antics. And so- I thought that I could ‘channel their energy’ in a more positive direction, which was different than ‘breaking their spirit.’

Nearing Valentine’s Day in any classroom out come the scissors and the sheets of red construction paper. In my special classroom these were locked up, but we hauled them out seasonally, just like the purple and yellow paper was released near Easter, the orange and black near Halloween, and the red and green near Christmas.

I had one student who refused to make a Valentine. Let’s call him Cody. He said he had a ‘cold, black heart’ and couldn’t possibly make a warm red one.

I saw this as an opportunity to teach Cody the trick of “giving unto Caesar”. This involves learning how to conform externally so that you can reap the benefits without giving up your individualism internally. Most successful students learn pretty quickly how to do what the teachers and principals ask without letting school get in the way of their education.

We talked for some time, or I should say, I lectured at him for some time: It’s possible to have a cold black heart and pick up a piece of red paper and cut it into a heart shape. You are not the assignment. You are making a craft. It’s not an autobiography. Do the assignment. Hate it, despise it, revile it, but do it.

Cody would pipe up every once in a while, ‘no.’ And there was nothing I could do to convince him.

I can’t remember what happened. He probably didn’t get a timbit and a hot chocolate that afternoon when the hearts were pinned to the bulletin board. He may very well have had to sit in his desk while the others munched, sipped and cavorted around the Valentine’s Day corner.

Now, I think of this every February. I wish I’d gone into the paper lock up and gotten him a sheet of black construction paper. I wish I’d let him make his cold, black valentine. I wish I’d sat beside him working away on my own valentine and asked him a few questions- ‘so how did you get your cold, black heart?’ And let him do the talking.

This is my official apology. And it’s also a valentine. Best wishes, Cody, wherever you are. I owe you a hot chocolate and a timbit.

12 Comments:

Blogger Tricia Dower said...

This is so sad, Andrew. My pale pink heart goes out to Cody.

Mon Feb 05, 11:42:00 AM EST  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I just read a children's story about a boy with an icy cold heart. The trick, apparently, is to melt it with hot salty tears.

Mon Feb 05, 12:03:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh AT, would that we were perfect people, but you're pretty close to it. I'm sure of one thing - you don't have a black heart. Diane, the Maple Room

Mon Feb 05, 03:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Joseph Young said...

Great post, Andrew. Sweet and sad. What the hell's a timbit?

Mon Feb 05, 03:10:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful black valentine, Andrew. I hope Cody eventually found the right shade. ~Jen

Mon Feb 05, 11:10:00 PM EST  
Blogger Patricia said...

oh andrew, you're so wonderful, you are, I too hope cody found the right shade, the same shade as you're red and deep and full of love..xoxo

Mon Feb 05, 11:37:00 PM EST  
Blogger H.E.Eigler said...

I loved this post Andrew. It is so truthful.

And when I think of the times (and there are many during each work day) where I "give unto Caeser" I'm disgusted to have been put in that position. It drains my energy. I lose a little of myself each time it happens. Kudos to you, for knowing the effect it has on people to just go with the flow.

Tue Feb 06, 04:43:00 PM EST  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I hope Cody reads this. Although I wonder if he still has a black heart? For what it's worth, you did the right thing, Andrew. For all you know he was just at the age where being different was his "thing." Conformity isn't always a bad thing, but it's always relative. Bah, I'm not making any sense...

Tue Feb 06, 09:28:00 PM EST  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

A timbit, for you non-Canadians, is a little ball of deep fried dough made from the punched out centre of a donut. Tim Hortons is like McDonalds in Canada, everywhere.

Wed Feb 07, 01:27:00 PM EST  
Blogger Lisa McMann said...

Do you put poutine on a timbit?

Oh wait! You mean, like from Tim Horton's? Those little doughnut thingies?

Very touching post, Andrew.

And a tidbit (not a timbit): some folks don't acknowledge St. Valentine's Day because of their religious beliefs. I didn't know that until a few years ago.

Sat Feb 10, 12:05:00 PM EST  
Blogger Lisa McMann said...

And I see you already explained timbits in the post I skimmed...oops. :)

Sat Feb 10, 12:06:00 PM EST  
Anonymous suzanne aubin said...

As an educator, I live this as a daily dilemma, the tug of war between what the kids want to do and what we think is best. The overriding rule remains: treat them like a caring parent would. Thanks for this, Andrew

Mon Feb 12, 11:28:00 PM EST  

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