by Sarah Michaelis Tuesday March 18, 2008

There’s a boy in my daughter’s class—we’ll call him Sam—who has a problem. Or maybe it’s not Sam who has a problem, but everyone around Sam has a problem. You see, Sam’s been labeled as having ‘behavioural issues.’

When you first think of a child with this label, you think of a bully bent on destroying the classroom experience for other kids. Or you think of a child with a medical issue. But Sam doesn’t fit any stereotypes. In fact, if you were in his class, you might not even know Sam is there.   

That’s because Sam’s “problem” is external, not internal; it’s nurture, not nature. Sam comes in late for school—sometimes two or three hours late because he has to take the bus and usually he doesn’t have bus fare. At age 11, he smokes cigarettes pilfered from his mom right after she passes out. He wears the same clothes every day mainly because he doesn’t have a choice. He looks like he hasn’t bathed in weeks.

Sam is failing all his subjects and he doesn’t care. He sits quietly in the back of class and comes and goes when he pleases. When he’s asked a question, he answers politely. He doesn’t talk back, cuss at the teachers or destroy property.

So why, instead of helping Sam, has the school labeled him? When asked this question, teachers look away and blame previous teachers, previous schools or “the system.” They sigh to their colleagues because they’ve been saddled with the “problem child.” Each day, when Sam comes in late they send him to the office. Sometimes he gets suspended.

A call to the parents proves futile because nobody there cares about Sam. Teachers are too busy to care about Sam. The principal is too important to care about Sam. Sam is too sad to care about Sam. So that leaves us to care about Sam. If we don’t care about Sam and the thousands of others like him, who will?

The next time you drop your child off, look for the sad kid with the label. Chances are good he’s there and chances are even better he’s just like Sam. Maybe you can make it better.