The “Special Pass” hung on a hook by the door of Mrs. Applegate’s fifth grade classroom. The policy was that anyone was allowed to use it, one person at a time, pretty-much as needed. Lord knows, everybody needs a mental-health moment from time to time. The expectation was that no one, except in exceptional circumstances known to the teacher, should need to use it more than several times a week. It was a great system — appreciated and respected by all.
The thing about the Special Pass was that it was, indeed, very, very special. You put it around your neck, stepped out the classroom door and into a very real place that was “somewhere else.” You took the time you needed and, when you were ready, you just walked back through the door, which waited for you, upright on the floor, or ground, or beach — wherever you had gone. And, the best part was that nobody had to wait for you to come back because, however long you spent in your somewhere else, it seemed to everyone back in the classroom as if you had just turned around and walked back in, except in a better mood.
Experience had demonstrated that the “somewhere else” was both flexible and invariably safe. You were always alone, you were anywhere you could imagine that would give a satisfactory time-out, and nothing bad ever happened there. Never. Ever.
Becky Anne came in from the playground in tears. The kids had been playing dodge-ball and she had been hit. Now, granted, the whole point of dodge-ball was to hit people across the other team’s line and then to get hit yourself. It built teamwork, coordination and rule-following. It was a safe release for generalized aggression. And, if you weren’t really in the mood to play, it was easy enough to contrive to go out by getting hit early (if you didn’t make it too obvious or pull the stunt too often).
Today, Becky Anne had conflicting emotions. She had never liked dodge-ball but was reluctant to sit-out when everyone else expected her to play. Also, she was starting to like Tommy Giordano in a way that she didn’t yet understand and she thought Tommy liked her too. It was a tingly feeling of hope and promise that felt really good. She was thinking of writing a “do you like me?” note but couldn’t decide what she should do if he checked “yes” or if he checked “no” or if somebody snatched the note and everyone laughed.
As luck would have it, Tommy Giordano did like Becky Anne. He liked watching her and just being near her. She was cute and usually friendly when she wasn’t being sad. He didn’t understand why she got sad, but something in him wanted to cheer her up when she did. When he could, he contrived to be in whatever reading group or art project it looked like she would be in. When she brought her puppy for Pet Day and it peed on the floor, he just quietly got some towels and cleaned it up. Sometimes he made faces at her.
Today, Becky Anne seemed sad again. That was wrong. This was recess. She needed to take this precious opportunity to yell and jump around and have some fun. So, Tommy threw the rubber dodge-ball at her — three times in a row until he got her. Becky Anne was not flattered by his special attention. It hurt emotionally and it hurt physically. Somebody had forgotten to pump the ball back up and Tommy’s strong fist was able to grab a fold and throw the ball harder than usual. It stung badly and her secret affection for Tommy was betrayed. Becky Anne just sat down and cried.
Mrs. Applegate saw it happen but decided to let it go for the moment. She was in the process of sending Bobby to the office for punching Daryl Langton in the shoulder. Dodge-ball was encouraged; fists were not. Daryl would probably have a bruise and the incident would require a written report explaining the circumstances, defending her course of action, and proposing a discipline plan to prevent things like this from happening again.
Mrs. Applegate truly cared about her students. She had a remarkable empathy for the problems they faced at this level of development. She knew how to inspire loyalty and impose discipline — most of the time. But, with this many children, only so many interventions could be managed at once. Besides, one of the primary goals for children at this age was to encourage them to learn how to decide and act for themselves – without relying on an authority figure to solve all their problems.
When the class got back to their room, Mrs. Applegate gently put her hand on Becky Anne’s shoulder, caught her eye and glanced at the special pass. Becky Anne understood the invitation immediately and offered a small smile of gratitude. Somebody had noticed and cared. It had only taken a moment, but Becky Anne already knew that she would be able to get herself together and feel better by the time she came back – and so she did.
Bobby was in a foul mood when he got back from the Principal’s office. Everybody understood that Bobby had a tough life. His father drank and came home mean. His mother had given up on life and spent most of her time watching television. But, still, there was no excusing his resorting to hitting other people to fill his void of despair and self-loathing.
Bobby was being expelled for three days. Unfortunately, nobody understood what depths of abandonment and impotence Bobby would suffer for those three days. That, and his dad would probably be drunk and vent his anger at Bobby, the school, the world, himself, and even the indifferent god that never answered his prayers for the mercy of relief from any of his desperate burdens. Never. Ever.
Bobby handed his expulsion note to Mrs. Applegate who winced, gave him a sympathetic half-smile and set about gathering assignments and homework for his absence. Bobby asked her if he could use the special pass before he left and, unlike his father’s god, she granted him that mercy. He walked back through the door, still dispirited but holding his shoulders a bit higher. He put the special pass back on its hook and thanked his teacher quietly before heading back to the office to wait for his mother to pick him up.
That night, after class, Mrs. Applegate finished grading papers, revised Bobby’s discipline plan, laid out the materials for tomorrow’s lessons and picked up broken crayon pieces so the custodian wouldn’t grind them into the floor. He seemed to get a cruel satisfaction from covering the streaks under new wax.
Mrs. Applegate hesitated on her way out of the room. She put the special pass around her neck and stepped out the door. She returned with puffy red eyes and a fresh chocolate stain on her dress. She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, turned off the lights and went home to her cat.
Bobby rejoined the class the following Monday. At school, Mondays can be a refreshing new start and an anchor for new hope. The other kids were chirpy, but Bobby was clearly despondent. They left him alone to get back into the swing of things and nurse the bruise that darkened his cheek.
Although Bobby was an incorrigible “bad boy,” this was everybody’s class and who did they have but each other? Besides, they were young and easily-forgiving. They were ready to welcome Bobby back into the fold. Still, Bobby sat quietly with uncharacteristic rectitude. Mostly, he looked out the window or let his gaze linger on the other students.
When it was time for morning recess, Bobby asked and received permission to use the special pass. Of course, Mrs. Applegate gave him permission. She reminded him to take all the time he needed and that he was free to decide when he was ready come back. Bobby thanked her again, put the special pass around his neck and strode confidently out the door. Bobby never decided that he was ready to come back. Never. Ever.