One of the things I learned while my class was yukking it up with Mrs. Ripp’s via Skype today was that the contents of our NYC to Wisconsin care package had been distributed to the Wisconsin students by virtue of the randomness known as “Pick Sticks.” I hadn’t thought of that as a way to give to my class the goodies we received, but when Mrs. Ripp mentioned that, I figured it was a good idea.
If you don’t know, when you “pick sticks,” you’re just pulling a random student’s name on a stick out of a cup, and the student who is pulled a) gets the thing, b) answers the question, c) lines up next, etc.
So after we signed off Skype for the summer and wished each other well, I pulled out our sticks to assist me in divvying up the contents of the box we received. I did my best to explain to the class that they shouldn’t wish too hard to get any specific toy (like the University of Wisconsin ball that created so much joy for all), and that they should remember that when we pick sticks, we go with whatever the stick indicates. I really wanted them to prepare themselves to be disappointed. There were some highly coveted items, but only a select few students would be able to claim them as their own. Naturally, not everyone could get the most popular items, but as my dad used to say in my younger days, “Them’s the breaks.”
The first 7 or so students fell somewhere on the happiness spectrum between slightly amused and elated. They were all taking it like a man or woman, accepting whatever gift they received (understanding it’s better to get something than nothing at all).
But then the pick stick process ran into the buzzsaw known as Dolly. Her name was drawn just in time to receive a soft teddy bear with a knit red Wisconsin sweater. To me, it was one of the picks of the proverbial litter, but to Dolly, it was an unacceptable interloper on her dreams of acquiring that soft squeezy ball. I had my first challenge to the pick sticks. So I said to Dolly, “I know you are upset that you didn’t get the ball. You still can have this bear if you want it. Do you want the bear?” Frowny face and all, Dolly shook her head to indicate no. I told her she can make her own choice, but if she chooses not to take the bear, she will not get anything else. She still shook her head.
The process repeated with two other students who, so incensed were they to not receive exactly the piece of Wisconsin memorabilia they craved and desired, decided not to take anything. As a result, I had seven very happy children warming up to their unexpected treats, interspersed with three agitated, simmering kids who felt they had been wronged in the worst possible way.
In past days, my para would have approached me to try to get me to figure out a way to mollify their injured hearts, but I think she knows now that I don’t operate that way. No, this is a teachable moment for me, and a learnable moment for the students. I let them sit for a while, walking on a cloud after my para said, “You’re right, they have to learn.” When I began to see the brick walls they built around themselves come down, I approached each student individually.
They were not happy to hear what I was saying. I’m sure they didn’t appreciate how calmly I reminded them that they made a choice not to receive the gift after knowing the rules of pick sticks were, say it with me, “You get what you get.” (You know the rest). Gus wasn’t too pleased, Dolly barely registered a whisper in response, and Jasmyn allowed her eyes to water just a tad.
Sorry, though, I didn’t feel badly for them. I might have had they not ended their days the way they did.
Yes, they were mad at me, or the process, or the kids in Wisconsin, or their friends. But after I talked to them about it, reminding them it was their choice, their harsh exteriors faded minutes later. This was confirmation to me that they understood that their anger and sadness was a result of a choice they made, and nothing else. Before the end of the day, Gus was back to his alternately excited and gloomy self. Dolly was back talking in an audible voice. Jasmyn was boisterously announcing that she heard on the news that Justin Bieber got married.
I may sound harsh, but I offer no apologies for how it all went down. The expectations of the pick stick process were presented before we started, as they always are, and three students chose to pass on what they could have had. They spited no one but themselves. I reflect that it’s important to hold your position when children test you. I don’t think it makes me any less sensitive or caring. I think it makes me fair.
By now, I think they realize that, too.