Mary Jo was not quite the daughter her parents had been expecting. She was possibly the most go-go toddler they had ever encountered. She was a darling child and her parents were forever trying to pick her up for a major snuggle. This was likely to last about one enthusiastic minute; she would hug, wiggle and be gone. She taught herself to skate in her big sister’s cast-off in-line skates at the age of four and had months of scabby knees to show for her efforts before she mastered it. At five, the training wheels were long gone on her bike, and by seven she was trying to imitate the big boys’ biker stunts. Then she took up skateboarding. More scabbed knees and elbows resulted. Seeing that they could not keep her away from either biking or skateboarding, her parents bought her all the proper knee and elbow guards, helmet, gloves, etc., but getting her to stop and put all this gear on was a whole other set of problems. As much as she adored her parents, Mary Jo had business with the world.
And then there was school. Kindergarten went pretty well, except for occasional comments that she was “a little too boisterous.” Mary Jo liked it well enough. She had a wonderful time meeting friends and making new friends. All the games and artwork were fun, too.
This was still true at the beginning of first grade for Mary Jo, but her teacher was less complimentary. She talked too much. She wouldn’t listen to instructions. She didn’t complete her work. She distracted her neighbors. Each report seemed to be a little more critical. Little by little Mary Jo’s view soured, too. School was dumb. The teacher was mean. The work was silly. She wasn’t learning anything that mattered. Her dad had some sympathy, having not had a great time in school himself, but her mother, who had always done well in school, was shocked. Each report card was a signal for a family meeting and new and dire threats about what would happen if things didn’t get better. Mary Jo became ever more antagonistic about school and was also (secretly) convinced that she was stupid at schoolwork.
At the end of the second grade she was seriously behind, although she tested well above average in overall abilities. She was promoted to third grade with a warning that things had to improve, but at the end of the year she was literally failing. Although she had daily homework assignments, was sent to her room each evening to do her work, and emerged later saying it was all done, her parents just took her at her word, and her word wasn’t good! After several meetings with her teacher and principal, at the end of the third-grade school year it was agreed that Mary Jo could try to use the summer to catch up. If she could pass some minimal tests before school started in the fall, she would be promoted.
It was crunch time. Mom and Dad agreed that they were getting nowhere, and signed Mary Jo up for eight weeks of summer camp, a sort of academic boot camp. There was classroom instruction every morning except Sunday, followed by lunch and then two solid hours of homework preparation. If the daily homework was satisfactory the camper could then participate in all of the varied camp games and sports. The camp was as rich in activities as it was stern in academics. It was situated on a lake and had a swimming pool, as well, in addition to supervised horseback riding, games, evening stories, etc. But—it was all run on really tough love. If you didn’t behave in class you were booted out and that was the end of your day’s activities. You were sent to your cabin except for meals and allowed to read, but nothing else. If you were okay in class, but didn’t do the homework later, then that ended your day’s possibilities. Although Mary Jo had been warned that she would have to work if she wanted to play, she imagined that these warnings were not really different from what she had been hearing at home. But youngsters like Mary Jo were exactly the desperados that the program had been designed for. She spent the whole first week confined to her cabin during the recreation hours. At first she was not alone, and she and her fellow prisoners made a huge joke of it at meals. By the second week, though, everyone except MJ had pretty much gotten the message. She, in all her nine-year-old glory, was not about to cave in. So she sat, day after day, staring out her window at all the fun, and fumed.
Finally, she conceived a desperate plan. She would show them. She squirreled away extra bacon from breakfast, buttered biscuits, cookies and whatever else seemed portable from various meals, and made herself a food packet. Then, on a bright, moonlit night, when the whole camp was deep asleep she took a knapsack, food, canteen and blankets and slipped away. At first it seemed absolutely glorious. Nobody was going to tell her what to do, and nobody was going to lock her up in any old, smelly cabin! She hiked along a riding trail for a while just having a great time. Eventually she got pretty tired and wandered off the trail, found a soft spot with a big pile of old leaves and made a bed for herself.
Going to sleep wasn’t so easy. She could hear little things crawling in the leaves and that was kind of disturbing. Bigger things were howling in the distance and that was really disturbing. Finally she fell asleep and woke much later to bright sunlight. She dug into her stash of food for breakfast. When the meal was over she saw that that half the food and half of the warm flat Coca-Cola in the canteen was gone. She decided she would look for a highway and hitch a ride home. That hitching a ride could be dangerous was not one of her concerns. She packed up and took off. By noon (well, the sun was overhead so it was probably noon) she had not come across anything. Hungry again, she ate all the rest of her food and drank the stale cola. By dark, she was really, really tired and totally lost in what seemed to be an endless forest. This was beginning to seem worse than being stuck in the cabin. She wandered around looking for a place to make a bed again. Finally, she found a pretty good place and put her blankets down and threw the canteen down in disgust. Although she hadn’t seen it she stirred up a skunk, and the flying canteen scared him, provoking a spray that landed all over her blankets, knapsack and canteen. That really did it. She walked off to a safer spot with unaccustomed tears pouring down her face.
There seemed to be nothing left to do, but keep walking. It was too cold to lie down without the blankets, and besides, who knew how many more skunks were out there? So she walked, and walked, with tears continuing to drizzle down. Just when her courage had totally failed her, she heard, “Mary Jo, Mary Jo, please answer.” It was the very same camp counselor who had confined her to the cabin day after day. But suddenly, her voice sounded wonderful. Mary Jo yelled with all her might and started running. Coming around a thicket of bushes the two almost collided, and it was hard to know which of them was happier. Apparently police, camp staff and even her parents had been out hunting for her for over 24 hours with no luck. In her steady wanderings, she had eluded everyone.
When all the tears and hubbub were over, the problem remained. Mary Jo had to learn to do the minimum work required of her. Her mom was all for bringing her right home, but after long conversations with the staff it was agreed that no lesson would be learned if running away got her out of finishing summer camp. Instead, the counselor who had found her sat her down for a long talk. She spent a little time talking about the necessity of learning her schoolwork as a basis for later life, but she could see that this didn’t have much impact. She then discussed how worried and unhappy Mary Jo’s mom was and this argument carried more weight. But then MJ’s own hidden anguish came out. “I’m just dumb, no good at this, and I can’t do it,” was the basic lament. The counselor rightly said that wasn’t so, but Mary Jo wasn’t persuaded.
Finally, she suggested that MJ needed to learn to work hard and pay attention, in baby steps, until she got the hang of it, and saw that she could do it. She asked if she remembered the story of Pinocchio and his conscience, Jiminy Cricket. When Mary Jo smiled at that she said, “Well, I am going to be your Jiminy Cricket for the next two weeks. I’m going to sit next to you in class and during the homework period, and when I think your behavior is about to get you tossed out I am just going to whisper “Cricket.” MJ didn’t think that would work, but she did think it was kind of funny, so she agreed to try it. They also agreed that if Mary Jo caught herself on the edge before the counselor did, she would say “cricket” herself and get back to work. For the first few days there were an awful lot of “crickets” being whispered, but by the end of the first week Mary Jo was beginning to realize how much her attention did wander and how often she acted up when everyone else was busy. By the end of the second week she was doing nearly all of her own “crickets,” and was actually beginning to stay out of cabin detention.
It would be nice to suggest that this turned Mary Jo’s whole life around, but of course, it didn’t. She would always love to talk and move around and she would probably never come to love schoolwork. But, what she did learn that was very important was how much time she really wasted, and how this had caused her to fail. By the end of summer she realized that she could do this work if she wanted to, and that was a victory. Her school let her go on to fourth grade and that was another victory. And her mom and dad, seeing how all of this had worked out, and talking at length with her camp counselor, realized several things, too. Their own failures had contributed to Mary Jo’s. They could not simply leave her alone from report card to report card and then make a fuss, and they could not just assume that homework was really done without paying any attention to it. Similarly, isolating this very social child in her room to study was not an answer. They had a lot of baby steps to take, too, in finding a better way to help her stay on track. And, the sociable Mary Jo learned that total defiance may just lead you to being all alone in a cold forest with skunks and no blankets!
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