An excerpt from “I Only Said” I wanted to kill myself, I didn't really mean it.
(Kenny is nine years old)
I lie on the bed in the Bear Room seething with hatred towards Miss Tina. Why is she being like this? Why has she taken her love away from me? What have I done to make her go away from me? A tear runs down my face. I cuss at myself and wipe it away quickly. I hammer my fists on the bed to stop the tears from coming, and after a while I fall asleep.
I awaken much later. All the kids are back on the unit, and they’ve eaten dinner. My tray is sitting at the nurses’ station with my name on it. I feel a bit funny, like I don’t know where I am, and I let Miss Tina lead me out of the Bear Room. I answer her when she asks me what I’d like to drink. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel so mad at her, and when she smiles at me I want to cry, but I don’t. She takes my hand and sits me down with my tray in front of me, and brushes my hair behind my ears.
“What’s the matter, Kenny? Why have you been so angry lately?”
I can’t tell her. How can I say, “Why don’t you like me anymore?” when it’s obvious to me, as sleepy as I am, that she does still like me, and quite a lot if I’m reading her eyes right. Tears prick my eyes and I look down, scared that I might start crying really badly if I look up. I don’t want my tray because there’s a big lump in my throat, and I don’t think I could swallow anything. She seems to know without me saying anything, anyway.
“Kenny, just because I have to tell you what to do, like I have to tell all the other children, doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble, or that I don’t think you are a very special little boy. It’s because I care about you that I have to tell you what to do, so that I can help you to learn new ways to behave that will make your life better. Do you know what happens to a child if you give in to him all the time? You only have to think about George, and what he’s like when your mom gives him everything he wants and doesn’t put boundaries around him. When you care about someone, you put up boundaries to keep them safe. If I put firm boundaries around you, because I care about you, you’ll grow into a fine young man. Putting boundaries around you doesn’t mean that you’re being picked on. I know following rules can sometimes be hard; I have to follow all kinds of rules, too – we all do, grown-ups and kids.”
I stare at my tray, not really looking at it. How did she know what was in my head? I didn’t tell her, yet she knew. Right this minute I feel safer than I’ve ever felt in my life, and slowly I look up at her and gaze into her eyes. She loves me, I can see it, and I can feel it. I can’t smile because I don’t trust that I won’t start crying, but I stare at her and hope she can read what’s in my eyes.
I don’t know how I could have said I hated her, for I love her more than Grandpa, more than Will, and more than anybody in the whole wide world.
She stands up and ruffles my hair, saying, “When you’ve finished eating and had your shower, we’re going to have another story. It’s a special story and I want you to sit by me and be my helper. Will you do that for me?”
I nod, and after she leaves the room I dump my uneaten tray in the trash, take a quick shower, and then join all the other kids in the dayroom.
Miss Tina is sitting on a little chair in front of all the kids, and next to her is another little chair, which she pats when she sees me come into the room. I feel like a prince as I sit beside her holding the sheets of paper that contain her story. I’m going to be her helper, and I feel warm all over.
“Now, this story needs some actions, but don’t worry about it because they’re very simple, and they’re fun. This story is called ‘My horse is my behavior.’”
She begins to read and, although there are no pictures on the sheets of paper, lots of pictures begin to pop into my head as she reads.
Far, far away in the land that bobbed in and out of view depending upon the sea mist, an old lady lived deep within the woods in a round house. There were no corners in her house, for even the door and windows were rounded.
She had bought the house and its secrets from a wise, old doctor who lived in another round house in the woods, and sometimes when the sun began to sink over the trees, she heard his wisdoms whispering in the wind.
Children came to listen to her stories, for after she’d bought her little house, she learned of its secrets by accident one bright, sunny morning when she pulled back the curtains to let in light through the little round windows.
She peered through the first little window to check on her cabbages that were growing round and round in circles…”
Miss Tina grins at us and says, “This is the bit where you have to join in. When you hear me say ‘cabbages growing round and round in circles’ you have to say, ‘around the round house in the woods.’ Got it? Let’s practice.”
She peered through the first little window to check on her cabbages that were growing “round and round in circles…”
“Around the round house in the woods,” we all shout, and Miss Tina giggles.
“Very good, but just a little louder next time, okay?”
She pressed her nose against the windowpane. The cabbages weren’t there. She went to the next window and yanked the curtains back, the light momentarily dazzling her. There were her cabbages, resting in tireless circles around the house. She shook her head and began to talk to herself.
“You silly old woman, where are your glasses?”
Putting them on her nose, she peered through the first window again – the cabbages were nowhere to be seen. Feeling flustered, she rushed to the second window again, and there they were, cabbages growing “round and round in circles…”
We all shout so loudly that the windows rattle, “Around the round house in the woods.” And she claps and laughs. It’s fun, and we all sit listening really closely, waiting to shout out again.
She went to the next window and pulled back the curtains. The cabbages had gone again, and with a frenzy of confusion, she ran to each little window, and pulled back the curtains, peering through each one, searching for her cabbages, but not one was to be found.
With a rising sense of panic she yanked open the front door and there before her were her cabbages growing “round and round in circles…”
“Around the round house in the woods,” we yell.
Her heart was hammering in her chest, but as she looked at her garden, it gradually slowed.
“You silly goose,” she said out loud, scaring a blackbird that was resting on the handle of a garden spade stuck in the earth. “Too much home-made rhubarb wine, that’s what’s wrong with you,” and she went back inside the house, closing the door after her.
As she filled the kettle with water to make a pot of tea, she stared absentmindedly out of the window, and her heart began to hammer again; the cabbages were gone. Holding on to the sink to steady herself, she took a deep breath and stared through the window. There was no doubt, the cabbages were not there, and after she had checked each window, only one showed the scene she knew to be outside.
She sat in her big armchair by the log fire and sipped her cup of tea, thinking hard. She couldn’t explain it, yet as she pondered, echoes of the wise old doctor’s words rang in her ears. Had he said that the house held secrets? “Windows of wisdom,” she vaguely remembered him saying, but in her excitement to move in, she hadn’t paid him any attention.
She stood up, and with curiosity coursing through her veins, rather than fear, she went from window to window and marveled at the sights before her, each one different from the next, and each one with a priceless jewel of wisdom to impart.
From that day forth the old lady never feared the changing vistas through each window, and each time she stared at the scene before her, she embarked upon a journey.
Very soon she had so many tales to tell that children came from far and wide to listen to her in the round house with cabbages growing round and round in circles…
“Around the round house in the woods,” we shout again, louder than before.
“Long, long ago in a land where truth was freedom,” she said to a group of children who sat cross-legged before her, “a tribe of Indians lived beneath a snowcovered mountain beside a bubbling brook. The greatest person in the village was called Chief Free Will, who had many noble and honorable sons who all shared one passion – their horses. The only time they were separated was when they were asleep in their skin-covered teepees, for separation seemed intolerable to these right and noble people.
“Over eons of time the love for their horses bestowed a precious gift upon their children, for each child was born with a tiny horse that never left their side. As the child grew, so did its horse, and toddlers taking their first steps chuckled as their horse frollicked about, finding its feet.
“Chief Free Will’s horse was sedate and calm, and he had only to nudge it with his heels. They moved in unison; his horse was completely under his control, safe and happy knowing that his rider was strong and in control. The chief loved his horse with an all- consuming passion, and the trust between them was total. When chasing bison on the plains, they worked as one entity, each trusting the other completely. Chief Free Will was in charge no matter what, and his horse felt safe in that knowledge. When they hunted, his horse knew the rules and the great chief had no need to tell him what to do, for he already knew. When they played, Chief Free Will would relax on his back and allow his horse to canter about the meadow, horse-playing and kicking its heels. Sometimes his horse had so much fun that Chief Free Will had to hang on tightly to his mane as he galloped with the other horses, racing across a line in cheerful competition. At other times he’d laugh as his horse paddled in the brook, splashing water over him, as the sun beat down upon them. No matter what they were doing, his horse always knew that Chief Free Will was in charge, and this knowledge enabled him to feel safe enough to play and have lots of fun.
“Chief Free Will was a fine leader, and he and his sons watched over the infant horses as they grew with their children. They showed them how to ride in unison, as one, with no distinction between rider and horse. It was as it had been for generations before him, as he passed on the wisdoms of his tribe, and all was well in the village.
“One day Chief Free Will called his sons to his teepee, and his face was grave. He told them that they had to take a long journey, as their food reserves were depleted and they needed to travel to fresh hunting grounds in order to feed his tribe. He left his brother’s son, the brave, Pore Parenting, in charge of the children in the village, and as they rode away he called back, ‘Make sure the children mind their horses and take care of them.’
“But Pore Parenting was lazy and didn’t care about the village or the children and their horses. As he lay in his bed smoking his pipe and drinking firewater, with his own horse running wild, the children’s horses saw his horse and began to copy. There were little horses, horse-playing when they were supposed to be still, nagging when they were supposed to be quiet, cavorting when they had chores to do, braying at each other and stamping their hoofs, and whinnying loudly to get attention when they were supposed to put other horses first or work as a team.
“Little by little the children’s horses got further and further away from their riders, and the children, who had no one to show them how to control their horses, stood by helplessly, wringing their hands. They felt very sad and afraid, for their horses were becoming so willful and destructive that they feared something terrible would happen to them. The thought was intolerable, for if a child’s horse died, he died, too.”
Miss Tina’s voice is sad, very sad, and we’re all silent. I think about how bad it would be if my little horse died and I died with it. I know then that I’ll never say I’m going to kill myself ever again, and as Miss Tina reads on, handing me the pages that she’s finished with, I’m so glad that I’m alive. I’m her helper.
“Every day the little horses grew bigger and more willful, not caring what they destroyed or who they hurt as they stampeded through the village in their pursuit of freedom and revelry. The children got bigger, too, and sat passively around, separated from their horses. The unity they’d known in infancy was only a vague recollection, one that was virtually beyond their reach. They couldn’t quite place the confusion they felt, as they watched their horses completely running wild. They didn’t have the words to express the pain of separation they each felt, but felt it they did, each and every one of them. Yet not one child was able to take charge of their horse.
“Their pain was worse during the night when their horses were asleep, for it was then that the memory of being as one with their horse, and being in charge of it, filtered into their dreams. It was a silent cry for help, but one that evaporated as the children awoke each morning.
“The village was all but destroyed by the time Chief Free Will and his honorable sons returned with enough food and furs to feed the village and keep them all warm. He stood on a hill overlooking the village and let out a great cry of pain when he saw the children separated from their horses, and all the little horses running wild, destroying everything in their way.
“He rode into the village with a great roar, his sons behind him, their horses moving as one with their riders, sensing Chief Free Will’s outrage. They circled the children’s horses and penned them in, ignoring the whinnying and braying, as the little horses fought to get their own way and break the boundaries the great chief and his sons had placed around them. There was a great commotion and the children, shaken from their passivity, looked fearful, not knowing what Chief Free Will would do or say.
“Their fear also masked their pain, for the sight of the grown- up riders and horses moving in such total harmony showed them the tragedy of being separated from their own horses. It reawakened their vague memories from the days when they too had known such unity, and they cried out in pain, and hung their heads in misery.
“Chief Free Will’s horse displayed his rider’s rage. He bucked, and rose into the air outside Pore Parenting’s teepee, pawing the air and snorting loudly.
‘Come out,’ Chief Free Will roared.”
Miss Tina makes us jump as she roars “Come out!” and she smiles as she continues reading. No one makes a sound in the room.
“Pore Parenting, fearful of the chief’s rage, came out gingerly, his head hung in dread beneath the chief’s might.
“‘What have you done?’ the chief demanded, and when he couldn’t answer, Chief Free Will stated, ‘You have done our children a great wrong, one that will cause them much pain. Get your horse and be gone; we have no place for you here.’
“Pore Parenting picked up his pipe and bottle of firewater, and set off to try and capture his own willful horse. As he scurried away, a silence hung over the village, one that brought sadness to all the grown-ups; their trust was broken. The children watched as Pore Parenting chased after his horse, but it was so unruly and out of control that it was impossible to rein him in. Yet no child laughed at the spectacle, for each knew deep down that they had lost something wonderful by Pore Parenting’s presence. They watched him in the distance slumped under a tree, smoking and drinking, having completely given up as his horse ran amok. “Chief Free Will and his sons cared passionately for their children – as much, if not more, than for the relationship between horse and rider. And they knew that unless they could reunite the children with their horses, the future of the village would be doomed.
“So began a new age in the village, one where Chief Free Will and his sons formed a tight boundary around the little wayward horses, and forced the children to mount the bucking creatures.
“Chief Free Will stood before them and said, ‘Claim your horses, claim them as yourselves. Don’t you know that they are a part of you? Take control of them. Can’t you see how at one we are with ours? We move as one being. Watch.’
“And he rode around the village, cantering, galloping and swerving in and out of the teepees, his knees gripping tightly across his horse’s back, so that each knew the other’s will. The children stared in awe as Chief Free Will pulled on his horse’s mane to make him do his bidding, becoming an extension to the great chief’s body. And as he soared over the fence around the village in a magnificent jump, the children gasped in wonder. They shielded their eyes from the sun and waited for the chief and his horse to leap back over the fence into their midst. They waited with baited breath as they heard the pounding of hoofs.
“Each child silently vowed to be just like Chief Free Will when they grew up, and as he and his horse made a dignified and graceful vault back over the fence, his sons held their heads up with pride.
“Bringing his horse to an abrupt, yet controlled, halt in front of the children and their unruly horses, he spoke.
“‘My horse is me, and I am my horse. My horse is my behavior. Take control of your horse; take control of your behavior. Train it and respect it. Now, mount your horse and take charge.’
“To start with, the children didn’t have any confidence in their ability to control their little horses, and while both the children and their horses found their old ways easier, Chief Free Will had to be strict and place very firm boundaries around them. “There were many tears as the willful horses, used to getting their own way, tried to buck their riders off. They didn’t want to be ridden or controlled, for it was easier to run wild, even if they knew the pain of separation. The children weren’t very happy either, for they’d lost the art of thinking and taking control of anything, let alone their willful horses, but Chief Free Will forced them to ride. And after many falls and bruises, the separation between rider and horse lessened.
“They had only to look over their shoulders to see Pore Parenting still slumped against the tree, smoking his pipe and drinking firewater, to be reminded of the pain of separation. His horse cavorted outrageously and they knew that, although regaining control of their horses was painful at times, if they didn’t succeed, they’d end up just like Pore Parenting. There was no child in the village that could bear to think of becoming like Pore Parenting, for each had made a silent vow to be exactly like Chief Free Will. Therefore the children practiced and practiced, forcing themselves to get back on when their horses succeeded in bucking them off. Each knew a growing determination to be better than his brother and to grow more and more like the great chief and his sons.
“As each rider began to know their horse, the bad ways they’d learned from Pore Parenting were all but forgotten, and so a peace came upon them; their horses were tamed and calm. They practiced doing the right thing and learned new ways of behaving; ways that would not get them into trouble or cause them pain. As their behavior became controlled, they knew that they would grow into fine, noble and honorable people, just like those who cared enough for them to put strong, firm boundaries around them. They knew that they were safe and valued, and everything was as it should be before Pore Parenting had robbed them of the joy of being whole and healthy.
“And so they lived happily ever after, at one with their horses, and they grew up to be just as noble and honorable as the great Chief Free Will and his sons. They in turn taught their own children how to be at one with their tiny horses, and the village was saved for all time.”
Miss Tina takes a sip of water and smiles at us all.
The children sat at the old woman’s feet in the round house in the woods, the sunlight streaming through the windows of wisdom onto their enthralled faces.
“What does it all mean?” asked a small child.
The old lady smiled kindly at him.
“The horse was their behavior. Under the care of Chief Free Will and his sons – good, caring, responsible parents – each child learned to be at one with his behavior, how to control it and how to have fun safely. He would never allow his behavior to run wild, to hurt himself or others, for to do so would leave him feeling bad about himself. Without the care of people like Chief Free Will – good, caring parents – children feel so afraid that they have no choice but to act out. They behave more and more wildly in order to force someone strong enough to put boundaries around them in order to keep them safe.
“They become so used to acting out, or demanding the things they think they need, that they lose the ability to think or solve problems, or to be assertive and ask calmly for what they want or need. They learn the ways of Pore Parenting, and as their ability to think or to take control of their willful behavior becomes impaired, no one wants to be with them. Those children know the pain of separation, of feeling helpless and being out of control of their behavior. Yet they don’t know how to change it, just as Pore Parenting didn’t when he was thrown out of the village.
“The only thing that can help children who have learned the ways of Pore Parenting is to have someone like Chief Free Will put very firm boundaries around them. So despite their tears and anger, they will know that someone cares enough to show them a new way to behave, a way that will keep them safe and happy.”
“What are boundaries?” asked another child.
“Boundaries are the rules everyone has to live by; everyone, old and young. The children and their horses had learned from Pore Parenting that taking control of their behavior didn’t matter, so they copied him, and their behavior become more and more unruly, just like his. It’s the same as children being brought up by parents who are too busy, or can’t be bothered, to show their children what they need to do to turn into fine adults, as fine as Chief Free Will and his noble sons. The children’s behavior got so bad that, without someone to show them how to be, they lost the ability to think for themselves or to take responsibility for their behavior. They felt wretched knowing that their behavior was out of control and hurting them, but they didn’t know how to fix it. That’s the same as little children learning behaviors that will hurt them or get them into trouble, but until someone shows them a different way and holds them accountable for their behavior, they won’t know how to change. They need someone as strong as Chief Free Will to show them how to join their behavior and thinking skills together, so that they can learn how to gain control of themselves.” “Sounds tough,” a little boy stated candidly. “Too hard, if you ask me.”
The old lady smiled at him. “Yes, it is tough and the little Indian children and their horses felt the same, but while they battled to stay astride their horses, and learn new ways, they had an incentive. The image of Pore Parenting, cast out of his village with nowhere to go, and with no one to care about him because of his behavior, forced them to bear the discomfort of change and learn new ways of being. They could also see how much pain Pore Parenting was in after having been abandoned by his tribe, and that was incentive enough to encourage the children to gain control of their own behavior and make a different life for themselves. All change is hard but it’s worth it.”
“That’s so sad,” a child said, and others joined her.
“I feel sorry for Pore Parenting.”
“I feel sorry for the children.”
“I feel sorry for the horses.”
“What about Chief Free Will and his sons, how would they have felt?”
The children looked solemn.
“It’s tragic,” the old lady said. “Tragic for the children of the village, but also tragic for Pore Parenting, who himself didn’t know a better way. But y’know, the children in the village were lucky. Chief Free Will and his noble sons came back in time and managed to undo the damage, and that’s how it can be with grown-ups who care about children and who work with them. They can put very firm boundaries around their children until they learn to take control of their own behavior, despite it all feeling uncomfortable and hard at first. In time children can be at one with their behavior, in control of it, just as the children were with their little horses. They can experience the same unity that Chief Free Will and his sons treasured so much.”
The children began to fidget as all children do.
Miss Tina smiled as she read that bit, glancing at two kids at the back of the room who start to fidget, and she wags her finger at them, saying, “Get ready, now.”
And the little old lady said, “Close the curtains, my dears, that’s enough wisdom for today.”
She stood up and opened a large tin of chocolates. “Take one as you leave, and be safe as you go home. No talking to any strangers, mind,” she said, and she smiled at the children filing out into the garden, dodging the cabbages that grew “round and round in circles…”
“Around the round house in the woods,” we shout as loud as we possibly can with our mouths wide open. Miss Tina laughs and claps very loudly.