Some people believe that children can say very cruel things. I never thought this was true. I believe they are curious and inquisitive, only that they do not understand what is appropriate to say and what is not. It is our duty to teach them. The only question is when and how to intervene.
For several years, I worked as Learning Support Assistant in a high school. The kind of things the children would come up with made you wonder if the Surrealists were so crazy after all. I still remember that day trip in which I was left in charge of the bus (the teacher went in his car with two pupils, the excuse being there was no room. The coward!). I ended pronouncing sentences of the kind “Do not burn your hair with the lighter!”, “Do not throw your shoes on the air!”. When we got off, after I got everybody to thank the driver, he patted me in the back.
My tactic when dealing with the children (which I copied from my mother) was to observe from afar. I pretended not to pay attention, but I was actually listening very carefully, ready to jump whenever it was needed.
Once, we had a new pupil in Year 8, a boy whose cheek and jaw were visibly scarred by burning. That day, I was supporting the supply teacher while the children did some written work. Then, I saw the little girl. She was crossing the room towards the new boy, with a naughty smile and inquisitive eyes. Before she spoke, I knew what she was going to ask him. I was not wrong.
“What happened to your face?”
Should I intervene? Mmmm. Not yet. The boy did not seem upset and he would have to face similar questions all his life. He needed to learn to deal with these situations by himself.
“I fell on the bonfire when I was six years old”, he said straightforwardly.
“And were you in the newspaper?”, she asked.
My jaw fell to the floor. That was unexpected!
“No, I wasn’t”, the boy replied.
“But why were you not in the newspaper?”, she insisted. She was getting angry now. How come the news had not reported the event?
At that moment, I decided to intervene. I went towards them and I calmly said:
“Stop being curious.”
She complained that she was not tormenting the boy, while he said he was not upset. I kept my poker face and said:
“Yes, but it is not good manners to ask personal questions first time you meet somebody”.
I must confess I got the sentence from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It came with an explanatory note that said it was 19th century etiquette. However, they both nodded in acknowledgement. At that point, I left them, still talking to one another. Maybe they were wondering why I worried so much about old fashioned decorum. Or maybe they were just becoming friends.
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