As a kindergarten teacher, I have important work to do when "Dennis" walks through the door in September.
Dennis isn't his real name, of course, except in the newspaper's comic strip.
Just about every kindergarten has a Dennis (or Denise) in it. He's usually, but not always, a boy. And, he is a very, very important person in the class.
Still, his classmates and their parents seem to wish Dennis were in someone else's school.
Dennis doesn't mind. He's loud. He cuts in line. He wants things his way. He'll hit to get it.
He takes too many blocks, knocks over other kids' buildings, and takes off when it's time to put them away.
At story time, when I tell him, "Sit on your bottom!" Dennis gets on his knees. If the story doesn't interest him, he finds someone to annoy, makes a rude noise on purpose, then laughs.
At table time, Dennis paints on his neighbor's paper. He can't use scissors, except to cut someone else's paper.
He likes to play rough outside. He chases. He takes other kids' bikes without asking. He splashes in puddles. If someone's in "time out," it's probably Dennis. He's in time out more often than any other child. He's the first one to visit the principal.
He doesn't have friends.
Dennis is a lot of extra work for me. But there is no work I'd rather do, because Dennis is the key to a really successful year.
Here's why: If I can make a young gentleman out of Dennis, everyone will know that order prevails and that I really care for all the members of the class yes, even Dennis, even themselves.
Everyone can relax and feel completely secure.
But bringing a child like Dennis around takes some determination. There's no fast formula for success.
Every Dennis is unique.
Finding the key to Dennis's heart requires intuition, gentleness, complete honesty, clear expectations, firm limits, and sensible consequences, all applied with patience, courage, consistency, calmness, and compassion.
To start, it helps to remember to keep breathing. Then I must open my heart to him.
I imagine being in Dennis's shoes. I see myself through Dennis's eyes, hear my voice through Dennis's ears.
Before I say anything, before I scowl or frown, I imagine the kind, wise, and forgiving teacher I would want if I were Dennis.
I give that compassionate teacher a chance to say something, to smile. To understand.
It may take months to melt Dennis's heart. But as winter melts into spring, I see signs of change. Dennis stops denying he's lonely. He wants friends to play with.
One day, he's brave enough to try. He finds pleasure in his new playmates. He begins to care about what others think of him. He smiles and cooperates.
And, in time, Dennis becomes a likable and well-liked member of the class.
It's not just Dennis who benefits. As the teacher, I benefit. The class feels more secure. Dennis's classmates benefit, too. They know their teacher cares for everyone.
To find out if the job is really done, I find the most socially aware and outspoken member of the class (usually a girl), take her aside, and say, "I'm such a lucky teacher. What a great class this is! I like every single kid in this class."
If she asks, "Even Dennis?" I know I still have some important work to do.
Dan Gurney teaches kindergarten at Dunham School in Petaluma, Calif.