What the world needs now? See, I can’t even bring myself to finish the quote. With all the schmaltz and candy coating that comes with a Burt Bacharach refrain, it’s hard to get it out. Sort of sticks in the throat and causes my hands to pause over the keyboard. But, despite the preamble of pop and bubble gum, it’s true. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. And when children are not able to obtain the love they so truly desire from their homes or parents or families or community, they will seek it out. And an emotionally abandoned child forced to seek and scramble for love does not always seek the best in people. We know the clichés and yet Burt Bacharach never wrote a peppy jingle about how lack of love begets lack of love and on and on and on. That’s a little harder to put to major chords.
Cynthia was one of these children. An angry middle schooler with an angrier mouth, painfully seeking the only attention she has ever known – trouble. Trouble and rage. If Cynthia could make you angry, well that was about as close as she was going to get to love. And she just didn’t know how else to communicate her needs to you. She didn’t really even know her needs anymore. That’s what anger does. It clouds your thinking, like a low dose of some street drug forcing you to make worse and worse decisions that lead you farther down paths and alleys that create a maze behind you. And then? Then it’s hard to get back to that initial need and knowing. It makes it easy to forget that you forged down this road looking for love. It’s an ugly rendition of Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road. It’s what the world needs now though, right?
They say girls mature much more quickly than boys, but I don’t know how much of that I buy. Boys can sense a young girl’s desperation no matter how efficiently she cloaks it with rage and insults she spits at you. They know. Very early on, they know. That’s a girl with a weakness. That’s a girl at fourteen that is already very easy prey. Now, to be fair, I guess you can’t really classify preying on angry young girls as emotional maturity. But it is a deep sense of knowing. And, it’s a terrible thing for a fourteen-year-old boy to know. A little knowledge in very dangerous hands.
Naturally, some boys, also in deep need of love to claim as their own, come calling on her. And in some hybrid concoction of need and yearning and anger and tears, a boy settles in on Cynthia. Prey finds prey. Nothing good can from it obviously. But for a few brief weeks, with no prior knowledge, Cynthia believes she has found love. She’s in love. She has something that she seems to think is a love she can call her own. But this is eighth grade. Two weeks is an eternity, so hoping for three is a fool’s errand.
And now Cynthia is infinitely angrier than she was before her stint with love. The boy is off to new prey. There are Cynthia’s liberally sprinkled all over the quad, the cafeteria, the halls at lunch. They are throughout the neighborhood, too. Dropouts and teen moms stowed away behind closed doors most of the day. Cynthia has sadly christened a new self-fulfilling prophecy. Her childhood has told her that she is not worthy of love, attention, affection, and this first taste of romance only serves to prove her worst fears about herself. But Cynthia so badly needs permanence. And she takes matters into her own hands.
She shows up to class with gauze over her forearm. It is rare for her to offer personal information. Obviously guarded and closed. But she and I have settled into some piecework version of an understanding. She lets me teach most of the time. Cynthia makes honest attempts at respect, though this in no way immunes me from her wrath. But when it’s my turn to wear the burden of her rage, I can usually count on an apology later down the line. This is our understood limbo. It does allow me to ask questions. I don’t always get answers, but she is never upset when I ask. I give it a go about the gauze.
“What happened to your arm?” She waits for the room to clear.
“I did something stupid.”
“How stupid?” She hesitates, then slowly rolls back the gauze on her forearm. And there it is. Everything you ever wanted to know about a young girl in crisis.
See Cynthia isn’t old enough for a tattoo, so she used something sharp and literally scraped, almost carved, the boy’s name into her forearm. It looks as if it was painful. The boy’s name, John, glistens with what she tells me is Neosporin.
“Do you think it will go away?” It’s easily the most loaded question I’ve ever been asked. The short-term answer was yes, I think. It didn’t look quite deep enough to be permanent. But this? This was something that wasn’t going away anytime soon. A young girl, so badly in need of stability and love went so far as to carve a boy’s name into her arm in hopes of holding onto something that, for her, vaguely resembled love. And that? All the bad breadcrumbs that lead to that may very well never go away. To be honest, this was one of my first experiences teaching middle school, and I haven’t gotten over it. It has stayed with me. Permanently. Whenever I am dealing with a young girl in crisis, I am immediately taken back to Cynthia’s forearm. I often think about what she sees now when she looks down at her arm. The time, money, understanding, and patience required to heal is a luxury item most cannot afford. It is easy to assume that it never went away.
What the world needs now, right? Love the children that walk through your classroom doors. When they let you down, love them more. When they turn their anger towards you, love them more. When they act out and disrupt your plans, love them more. When they call you names and take advantage of your kindness, love them more. It’s what the kids need now, right?
For more classroom stories, check out Chris Bowen’s latest book from 2019, Backpacks Full of Burden, available on Amazon.