Today I Cried During a Puppet Show for Kindergarteners

I went on my first field trip with my class today. I thought it would just involve keeping kids in line and then zoning out during the little show, but it turned out to be so much more than that.

First of all, the Korean puppet show I expected to sleep through turned out to be entertaining (even though I could only understand half the words) and then really touching. I had to wipe the tears from my eyes as the (puppet) boy discovered letters his deceased father had written to him. (The music was really touching..)

But even more surprising, was how my heart broke for the boy sitting next to me during the show.

This boy is probably the rowdiest kid in my class. He is the boy with zero stickers on his sticker chart. The one who other kids are always telling on for pushing them or knocking into their stuff or running in the hallway. He is the boy I took an immediate dislike to because of his destructive and occasionally malicious behavior. Sometimes I simply don’t understand what is going through his head. (Why would you throw your friend’s eraser in the trash? Not even as a joke, but just as something mean to do when no one is looking?)

Initially, I was happy he was sitting next to me because I knew I could control him more easily. But during the play, I suddenly remembered that he had said he “didn’t have a dad” the other day in class. I began to wonder if his father had died, and if so, what he was feeling as he watched the show.

I can be overly empathetic sometimes, so I told myself that I was probably wrong. His parents were probably just divorced or something. He might not be relating the story line to his life at all. But just then, he leaned in and whispered in my ear, “My dad died, too!” He shared it as a piece of exciting news, not something to be sad about, but I knew better. My eyes immediately widened in sympathy, and throughout the rest of the show, I thought mostly about him. I even remember holding his hand and interlocking fingers with him at one point (something I never do).

I have felt moments of love for him before. The look in his eyes when I erase his smiley faces makes me believe there is part of him that wants to be good. The way he rushes to be first in line and then leans against me shows his hunger for affection. But sometimes I feel like he is just taking advantage of my kindness. When I pick him up, he starts being rough. When I turn my back, he goes right back to breaking the rules.

But today, all I could see was the little boy who desperately wants to be loved and treasured.

Today I felt like I understood a bit more why this boy is constantly acting out. Not to over-simplify the situation, but it probably has a lot to do with his dad. I was thinking about what it is that fathers provide: Stability, security, a sense of identity, discipline.

Being affectionate with my kids comes naturally now. Showing sympathy when they get hurt. Running over to attack them with hugs. Grabbing them and lifting them into my lap. But I realized today that I need to persevere in showing them tough love, too.

Lately, I’ve been learning to live with some of their behavior instead of rebuking them every time I should. Or I’ve settled for nagging them instead of disciplining them in a way that will motivate them to change. As my heart grew for this boy today, I found myself being more strict with him. And it was really good for him. What he needs isn’t leniency, but boundaries and consequences. When I punish his bad behavior, I’m showing him that his behavior actually matters.

One of my favorite moments of today, though, was giving this boy his first smiley face in over a week. It’s been so long since he got a smiley face, that I thought he may have stopped caring about them. Instead, he came over to me afterwards and whispered in my ear, “Why did you say you give me a smiley face and no smiley face?” I pointed to the board. “See next to your name? It’s right there.”

Sometimes I forget how much influence I have over these kids. I think they don’t really care whether I like them or whether I hug them or give them smiley faces. But then something like that happens, and I realize how much they do in fact care. Every single one of them.

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Elizabeth is an American living in South Korea who believes in destiny, miracles, and living life intentionally. She holds to simple faith in a complex world, values the beauty of the everyday, and strives for vulnerability with other imperfect humans. She is always learning, laughing, and finding herself in awe of grace.

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