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tales from the field

The Lime in the Coconut

Maxine Kelly

Sean eyed me suspiciously as his 8-year-old hand pumped mine by way of introduction. He did not return my grin, and dutifully focused on his sheet of double-digit addition. While I waited for conversational cues, I made mental notes of his well-developed fine motor and numeracy skills and his almost compulsive precision in aligning and recording numbers. Rolled-up bits of eraser debris littered the page, replicating the careless manner in which his belongings were deposited around his desk. His disheveled appearance kept good company with the second-grade classroom smell of spit, chalk dust and damp socks.

I was ‘assigned’ to Sean in response to teacher concern for his “low social skills and sometimes aggressive behaviour”. My intervention became high priority when one of the boys playing in a group with Sean fell on the ice-encrusted playground and broke his arm in two places. There was talk of his having been pushed by Sean. The hole growing on the page right under Sean’s eraser seemed like the cue I was waiting for, so I asked how his day was going.

“Not so good,” he said with a sigh. Thus began my relationship with Sean.

Sean was new to Canada. He’d migrated from Jamaica with his father. For the first time in his 8-year-old life, he was living away from his mother and an extended community family that nurtured him. He was used to lush green mountains; warm weather; open-windowed classrooms with teachers who spoke just like him. In Jamaica, recess was a perpetual game of Cricket or a quick game of Rounders. Life in Toronto had by contrast been limiting. Not only was it always cold, but he was constricted in a tiny apartment with double-paned windows sealed shut. At school, no one understood him when he spoke – especially not the other kids who responded to the cadence of his language by breaking into the calypso-style Kermit song: “you put da lime in de coconut and drink it all up…”. Everyone back in Jamaica knew that limes and coconuts don’t go together unless it was for medicine.

So Sean decided to stop speaking – even to the teachers. His dad told him that all he needed was to: “Listen and do schoolwork.” Most days, and every night, Sean wanted to go home to his mom, to the things, the places and people he knew and loved.

I’d arrived at the elementary school for my afternoon Social Skills class with the 4th graders, to find a downcast Sean sitting quietly in the office. He looked up at me, rolled his eyes, and said that he was tired of talking; just needed to have the principal spank him and get it over with. During lunch recess, he’d stomped on his full drink box and sprayed several students with fruit punch. He told me he’d seen kids do it many times before, but for some reason, his didn’t make a neat sound, it just got everyone wet. We discussed the value of doing stomping on an empty juice box vs. a full juice box. Understanding registered in his eyes, but he remained downcast.

“Are you going to tell my Dad about this?” I replied that I thought it was a small enough thing we could solve here at school. Relieved, Sean related that he was already in big trouble at home, and that he didn’t think his Dad could solve too many problems. After a call to Sean’s Dad (who worked nights), and consultation with the principal, I walked the three blocks home with Sean that evening. Sean, his Dad and I talked about some of the cultural anchors in the community that might help Sean with the transition and support Dad’s efforts to be a single father.

With little or no preamble, Sean’s Dad confided that he thought there was something very wrong – something very vengeful and destructive happening in his son, and he didn’t quite know how to deal with it. With minimal prompting, he revealed that Sean had submerged a Nintendo game in a basin of warm soapy water. Dad said that he’d been so angry, he could not speak to Sean, and had confined him to his room for the rest of the evening. As the story unfolded, Sean sobbed uncontrollably and told his Dad that he was sorry. Slowly, spirits were calmed enough for him to detail the chronology of events leading to the warm soapy bath. As it turned out, the Nintendo had shown some ‘blurring’, and when Sean pointed it out to his half-asleep Dad, he’d said:

“Uh-huh, the tape is just dirty and needs to be cleaned”.

Sean had merely initiated the cleansing in the one way that he knew how – warm soapy water …

As you may imagine, Sean and I had many stories over the two terms that I was his advocate.  On those days when he began to enjoy living in Toronto, he began making friends, began to not need me as an advocate.  He’d turn his head to one side and say: “C’mon, you know what I mean … it’s just like the lime in the coconut” as he lapsed into his rhythmic, undulating Jamaican speak.

My experience with Sean emphasized the chasm in communication that Child and Youth Workers labor to bridge, not only between one culture to the next, but between stressed parents and children, and children and each other.