A few months ago, I think I witnessed a 10-year-old dealing with compassion fatigue.
It was my first day back in the classroom after a 10-month hiatus and I really had no idea of what to expect. I certainly didn't expect to meet D.
I began with the register and asked the children to tell me something about themselves when they answered. Most told me about things they liked (football, basketball, food) but D said, without hesitation, "I'm vegetarian." My heart skipped a beat but I vowed not to make a big deal out of it; in fact, I decided not to even mention my veganism unless it somehow came up.
I carried on as normal, giving a somewhat rusty input for a lesson on line graphs and circulating around the class clarifying my often-misunderstood instructions. D turned out to be curious: a thinker, a questioner.
"I just don't understand why I have to do this," he said, matter-of-factly, as he pointed to a table containing the data he was going to plot on his line graph. "I know it goes up in 80s, so why do I need to write it out? Can't I just make my graph?" Honestly, I agreed with him, but I made the case for doing the work as asked and he eventually conceded, more due to the imbalance of power in the adult-child relationship than through a genuine understanding of the purpose of the task.
Later that day, during a group discussion about jobs in the fashion industry, I noticed that D was upset. I went over to see what was going on.
J piped up: "D doesn't like it when we say mean things about animals."
Immediately, a back and forth ensued between D and another classmate. T was talking about humans' use of cows to make leather goods. I remained impartial but couldn't help feeling that T and J were deliberately goading D as humans are wont to do.
Then D spoke directly from my heart: "But I don't think humans are more important than animals!" He burst into tears.
I gave him some time to calm down before telling him, in the vague hope of give him a little push of strength and some semblance of solidarity, that I choose to live a vegan lifestyle. His eyes lit up. "So you don't eat eggs or milk or use any animal products?" I shook my head and the two other boys became quiet. I left it there but was keen to know more.
Kids can be mean, as adults can. At ten, they are flexing their intrapersonal muscles, trying to work out what they think and seeing how far they can push the people around them. They are just doing what they need to in order to find out where they fit into the life they've found themselves living.
Children like D can be confronting for me, though, both personally and professionally.
As a teacher they make me realise that often what I am teaching has little bearing on the real world (as an adult, how often are you asked to draw a line graph BY HAND?). If I stop to think about this I become disillusioned: our education system isn't evolving quickly enough and blindly perpetuates the status quo; it does not allow for deviation from the norm or reward genuine curiosity and exploration as children grow up.
Personally - as a vegan who isn't even sure she wants kids but would raise her children to be vegan - it's tough. I have a snapshot of the future and the daily difficulties my maybe-child could face in the classroom for being 'different'. D's emotions were bubbling beneath the surface and I wondered about the value of a child knowing too much about the realities of the world too young, when the world itself turns a blind eye. Was he really suffering from some form of compassion fatigue aged 10? Even if that were the case, that realisation alone is not enough to put the brakes on my morals. Instead, it makes me want to fight harder to create the kind of world that would not make a child feel this way.
Before long, my discomfort was partially eased anyway. After he had recovered from his tears and pushed the boundaries just enough with the following picture, I snatched a moment to ask D about his vegetarianism.
"How long have you been vegetarian?" I asked
He didn't mind me asking, in fact, he seemed to enjoy it. "Since I was one. Um..." He corrected himself: "Since I was born."
"So was it your choice?"
He shook his head passionately, "No. But if I could choose I would choose to do it anyway." And with that, he was gone.
In assembly, I watched him miming happily along to the hymns and communicating silently yet animatedly with a classmate. At the end of the day, he rushed off, just like all the other kids, and got lost in the crowd.
D, in the space of a few short hours, reminded me of both the fragility and strength that can be found within a child if you give them the chance. Found in just the right balance within children, the fierceness of passion combined with the ability to lose oneself in the moment and play are a force to be reckoned with. And, to the adult that observes - a little envious of their ability to feel so wholly and recover so quickly - it serves as a gentle reminder of their resilience in the face of adversity.