“Playing Catch and Catching Clues”
The kids who need the most attention, positive feedback, and mentoring from adults are seldom the ones to ask for it — or even acknowledge it to our faces. But that shouldn’t dissuade us from offering it again and again and again.
Our elementary school has a volunteer program called WatchDOGS, in which dads and granddads volunteer for the day. They help in the morning with carpool, attend their kids’ recess and lunch periods, assist with bus loading at the end of the day, and help out with other assorted school chores.
My first time volunteering as a WatchDOG, I spent two minutes throwing a football with Randall, a student in my daughter Vivianna’s fourth-grade class. “He gets into a lot of trouble,” she told me later. “He got in-school suspension last week for calling the teacher a bad word.”
“Why’d he do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. He does things like that all the time. He told me he has ADHD.”
I knew none of this when I asked him to play catch. We were all outside at recess, and I saw him off by himself with a small football and asked him to pass it to me. We tossed the ball back and forth for a minute or two, then the teachers blew the whistle to end recess. I gave him a high-five and told him he had a good arm, then I thought nothing else of it until a few weeks later when Vivianna asked me when I was going to be a WatchDOG again.
“Randall asks every day when you’re coming back,” she told me.
“That’s nice,” I said. “Tell him when I come back next we’ll play again.”
A few months later, I volunteered again. That morning when I arrived at the class, I gave Vivianna a hello hug and then went straight to Randall. “Hey buddy,” I said and held out my hand for a high-five. “How’s it going?”
He gave me a soft, unenthusiastic high-five and quietly said, “Good.”
“I brought a bigger football. Do you want to play some catch at recess?”
Without lifting up his head, he said, “Sure.”
I couldn’t tell if he was shy, distracted, or uninterested, but I was expecting a little more enthusiasm. Once recess came, I grabbed my football and rushed outside. It took me a few minutes to find Randall. Based on Vivianna’s description, I thought he would seek me out. So I worried I was inconveniencing him, that maybe I was butting in on something between him and his friends.
But once I found him, we played the entire recess. After each catch, I told him good job. He never smiled or said thanks after I gave him a compliment, yet I continued to make a big deal when he made a play. In fact, he never said a word the whole time. When recess ended, he just walked away. As the students lined up to go inside, I ran up to him and said, “You did good, buddy. Keep it up.” I offered him a high-five, and he softly high-fived back.
I went to the teacher’s lounge to drink a cup of coffee and thought about recess. It seemed to me Randall wasn’t into it. Maybe Vivianna misunderstood or played up too much how interested he was the first time. Maybe he was having an off day. Or maybe he was humoring me. I couldn’t figure it out.
I’ve been a WatchDOG now several times, and each time I make sure to seek out Randall. Every time we play at recess but he says nothing, shows no emotion, and then for weeks asks Vivianna when I’m coming back. I’ve tried interacting with him during class, at class parties, and during field trips. But every time I start a conversation he’s very awkward and clearly uncomfortable. “It’s not you,” the teacher said when I was volunteering at a field trip. “He’s been like that with me all year. But he likes you. He asks about you all the time.”
I wanted to ask for more details. What happened when he flipped you off? What are his grades like? What’s his family situation? I wanted some more context, but I couldn’t be nosy. I have no way of finding out what a few minutes of playing football means to him. Yet I make sure to engage him every time I visit the school. When I volunteer, I say hello when I see him. I ask him to play catch. I say goodbye when I leave for the day. Then I look at my work schedule and try to figure out how soon I can go back to the school and play catch.