The Story of Callum

When I was a teacher in my late 20’s, I had a grade two student who I will call Callum. He always came to school filthy, never brushed his teeth, came without school supplies or lunch, and as you would expect, no real desire to learn. I bought him school supplies, I talked about bathing himself and the school provided lunch for him. I tried for a while to motivate Callum. I worked hard at teaching him how to read and write and do a bit of math. But he only showed up sporadically and it was hard to keep him interested.

Slowly as the year went on, I unconsciously started to give up on him. His affect was flat, his work was sloppy and minimal, and I had yet to meet his parents as they kept far away from the school. There were so many needy children and I just felt discouraged that I was making no difference in his life. When the end of the year came, I had the choice of keeping him another year since I would be teaching a gr. 2/3 class in September and Callum would be in grade 3. Although I was keeping a handful of students, I decided to pass Callum over to the other grade 3 teacher. Perhaps she could make a difference with him.

That summer I decided to fly to Sante Fe, New Mexico and go on retreat in the Sangre Di Cristo Mountains. For 10 days, I had time to sit, and walk, and come to a still point. Near the end of the retreat, as I was sitting in meditation, Callum popped into my mind. I hadn’t thought about him all summer nor was I in the habit of thinking of him at all. All of a sudden I was filled with grief.

I went back to my room and wept. I let out all the grief welled up inside for Callum – regret of not helping him more, but even more so, grief over the life he was living. It’s as if I finally woke up to how sad I felt for him and suddenly realized how much I had neglected him as his teacher; how the frustration had made me harden up toward him. The grief for Callum turned into grief for all things that hadn’t worked for me when I was a child. As I cried, there was total acceptance of my sadness and I was completely able to drain. It was a profound turning point for me.

When I went back to school that September, I told the other grade 3 teacher that I wanted to teach Callum again. I wanted a second chance. I decided that Callum would never care about learning if he didn’t feel safe, if he didn’t feel cared for by me. I threw the curriculum out the window and completely lowered my expectations for what I was going to teach him that year. I just focused on warmth, enjoyment, and delight to be in his presence. I collected him every day, I engaged him, and stopped trying to pull him up by his roots. I did this intuitively- I didn’t have a master plan in my head (I hadn’t met Gordon Neufeld yet and had not thought consciously about what I was doing) but this intuition came only because I had fully grieved. 

That year with Callum was very different than the year before. He started to attend school regularly, his demeanor changed, he enjoyed sharing little details of his life with me, he came to school proud of himself one day because he brushed his teeth (I asked him – oh was that the first time you did it by yourself? No, he replied innocently, it was the first time his teeth had ever been brushed!). For my birthday, he found an old pen in his “junk drawer” and wrapped it up as a present for me. He presented it to me just beaming. 

Callum formed an attachment to me that allowed him a place just to be. The year before he shared nothing with me. But in grade 3, he was able to tell me that he was afraid his family would be homeless because his mother often said they would soon be evicted and they would have nowhere to live. His attachment to me helped him when his mother got so mad that she threw all her kids toys in the dumpster (this was confirmed by Callum’s younger brother). That year and several years later, Callum and his brother visited my classroom a few times a week and played with my toys as I worked and chatted with them before going home each day.

Now looking back, I understand how stuck I was that first year with Callum. I needed to find my tears of sadness over his life and over the futility of not helping him learn the 3R’s. Not until I could come to a place of acceptance, could I believe that I was Callum’s best bet and move into the alpha position. I stopped putting form before spirit – I finally realized that Callum was not emergent. He was trying to survive and I needed to provide the safety he desperately needed. He needed to know that he mattered to me and that I thought he was delightful. He blossomed that year and did learn to read. He came to life.

Looking back, I wonder why it took me so long to see what he needed. I was too defended against the sorrow I felt over his life. The adaptive process is what helped change my relationship with Callum. I often wonder what became of him – the prognosis isn’t good and I feel my sadness over that too. My experience with him has certainly motivated me to share this with others and help me yearn for all of us to find our tears about what we cannot change. I couldn’t change Callum’s home life. Grieving that deeply finally helped me to move into right relationship with him and form the attachment he so desperately needed that year. 

Jessie Kuehn