Honoring greatness with the Nurtured Heart Approach
Tammy Small, M.Ed. and certified Nurtured Heart Trainer
 
 
 
(published in Transforming The Difficult Child: True Stories of Triumph by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley, c. 2008)
A Nurtured Heart Story
 
Johnny was a boy who had struggled in school since he was a kindergartner.  You could watch the smile in the yearbook slowly fade from ‘taking on the world’ to being weighed down by it.  To him, in 8th grade, it was just another ‘parent/teacher’ conference where everyone cared more than he did.  One of the great things about Johnny is that he was funny.  Everyone knew he was funny – but he had hid it for so long, only attempting mumbled jokes, or small asides to his most trusted, truant friends.  He lacked the confidence to be the class clown.  More importantly, he lacked the confidence to step into his greatness.  
 
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After shifting the focus of parents and teachers from Johnny’s errant ways to his gifts, we were ready to give Johnny our full Nurtured Heart Approach (modified version of untrained but best intentioned parents and teachers).  His social studies teacher went to find him.
 
Johnny sauntered into the principal’s office like a man on a mission (“Get this over, so I can get outta here,” his smirk implied.)  Eight adults gathered to nurture his heart and see if we could find the key to Johnny’s engagement. One adolescent well armored from years of his skill at ‘getting it all wrong’ right.
 
“You can use this chair or the principal’s.” She is not here – but we are using her space to corral the child into compliance.  “Take the principal’s,” I encourage.
 
“Sure,” Johnny sits down and slides the chair up to the conference table like a professional C.E.O.  “I am glad you could make the time to meet today,” he says breaking the ice in a way that no adult could do justice.  His voice deep and his clear, dark eyes meeting us over a sweaty brow of anxiety.
 
“Keep going, Johnny,” I say, chuckling with the others, “You are on a roll.  Tell us why you have brought us together.”
 
He bites on this game – and sits taller in his cushy, leather chair of authority.  “Well, we are here today to discuss me, and how to get me to do my work.”  The adults are laughing, relieved to be free of those first words.  
 
“And what should we do, Johnny?”  I lean in, nodding and smiling.  And so it begins.  We go on to tell what he is doing well, where he is giving his best Johnny-ness, as I coin it.  Do more of that, I say.  What about Social Studies?  
 
“Well, I could ask more questions when I am lost.”  He is incredible as ‘Principal’ Johnny.  And as Johnny, struggling adolescent,  coming to a difficult table but being fully present, fully honest.  I tell him so.  “Yes, and what else?” I push.
 
“If I could just keep track of my notebook.”  Teachers agree and Ellen, his English teacher says, “What if we were to tie a rubber chicken to your notebook?  It would be hard to lose then, right?”   He smiles and nods and Ellen and I both know he is hooked again.  Be unique – but be responsible.
 
“I saw rubber chicken key chains at Safeway,” I blurt enthusiastically, and begin to describe them.  And Ellen and I banter back and forth about how this might work. Then we look up and clarify with the other adults, who may think we have been joking. “We are absolutely serious,” I say looking around the table. I was serious from the start, the visionary educational intervention clear – but the lack of convention doesn’t mirror any theory. “Would this be Johnny-ish enough for you?” I ask, matching Johnny’s direct eye contact across the table.   He confirms the absolute silliness and seriousness at the same time.  “I think it would work,” he says, smiling imperceptibly.  
 
The Rubber Chicken is just one of many plans that are made that session, but I am compelled to see it through.
 
****
 
That afternoon, after feeling well-nurtured by simply nurturing the greatness of Johnny (merely hidden behind bad habits), I find it.  Johnny’s rubber chicken, that is – at the counter of a drug store with my freshman daughter (she wants one too, go figure.  But I wait – she is already responsible.  I buy her mascara instead.)  It was not the small key chain version, nor the larger one used by magicians, but a more perfect seven inches of quality rubber – candy included.  I guess it was a rooster, not a chicken, well-plucked – ready for a child’s Easter basket.  And for me, it symbolized Johnny’s own Easter revival.
 
It is the end of my day. One of those crazy ones that start with difficult conversations about struggling students and end with the struggling student themselves.  But I am  heading out of school after many teary scenes, a meeting to train playground supervisors in the Nurtured Heart method, several conversations with teachers struggling with students, one mediation with my trained mediators, and three separate follow-ups with students in conflict.  It is a good exhaustion.  Feeling nurtured but ready to leave, I grab my bag and the Rubber Chicken (R.C.) pokes its head out.  Of course.  “You have one more thing to do,” it reminds me with its ridiculous orange beak and silly bumpy skin.
 
The Social Studies and Ellen, his English teacher, and my partner in collusion are both on field trip.  But Johnny is here for another 15 minutes.  I debate and decide.   Recklessly, I sneak into the classroom of 8th graders engaged in Writer’s Workshop and poke him on his shoulder,  “Come with me,” I mouth silently, R.C. tucked conspiratorially under my sweater.
 
We sneak around the corner and I produce him, all 7 inches of genuine rubber and boasting some non-descript candy that comes out of his mouth.
 
“So here is the thing,” I explain with hushed gravity, “You have to be very mature to handle this chicken.”  We are both smiling at the banality of this statement.  But I continue, “You must attach him to your notebook, but then resist this,” I squeeze his belly and produce the ‘Quick to make enemies of teachers here to help you’ sound.  We both stifle a giggle – he tilts his head back, his smile so genuine, no sweat of anxiety.  
 
I mean business and neither of us miss the oxymoron of a serious rubber chicken.
 
“Should I wait and help you attach it tomorrow – or do you have the notebook?”  Can you handle it now, is my implied question.  And he gets it.  “I’ll take care of it, “ he says taking the chicken without even a test squeeze. “Best of luck,” I say to his back, as he nods with a smile, and tucks the rather large Rubber Chicken of Responsibility into his pants’ pocket.  I am still chuckling as I head down the hall toward my car, not a squeak to be heard from the classroom.
 
 
The Rubber Chicken of Responsibility
Friday, May 9, 2008