Someone pulls a knife on you. Do you imagine a dark street with a hooded figure emptying your pockets? Surely you don’t picture a colourful sunlit room with half a dozen tiny witnesses, the person on the other end of the knife a young boy. But that’s what happened five years ago at my summer internship. At a practice that treated children I was dedicated to Danial, a boy of nine who was built like a tank, dressed like a golfer and acted like a mafia boss. His diagnosis was ADHD and it had insidiously crept into his life until he was failing at school, misunderstood in a joint family and scraped and bruised from his antics. He came to us to deal with his symptoms and we were left with a hurricane torpedoing through our rooms, leaving us spent in the July heat.
With Danial it was an exercise in patience and literal exercise. He was agile, climbing the roof or out the window or running into the street. My arms were shields while he unleashed an aggressive torrent on me, no longer lovable but enraged and frustrated. So many times I held those wrists, speaking to him softly as he yelled and spat in my face, always ending in tears and sincere apologies. I felt so much love for him while wanting to tear him a new one.
For him, others were in slow motion, the world failing to keep up with his ‘normal’. The predictability of a routine was cathartic, giving him a break from the spontaneity of his surroundings when he couldn’t from his mind. But his family wouldn’t reinforce our efforts. If we banned sugary snacks and energy drinks its all he had at home. If we restricted TV he was parked in front of gory flicks all night. He’d relay the stabbings and shootings in graphic detail and those words began to express themselves as actions. His progress eventually plateaued. I’d still sit with him and practice breathing, remove contraband from his lunch box, do mathematics and literacy together and find other channels for his energy but I began to wonder if either of us was learning anything.
One day, while doing crafts with the youngsters, Danial strides in, smirking proudly with an announcement to make. The children eagerly turned in their seats as he strode to the end of the room, back to us as he searched his lunch box and then whipped around triumphant, brandishing a giant knife.
My immediate reaction was to stand up and freeze. A stone’s throw away was the door and my flight or fight instinct was begging me to run. But around me sat the children and as I frantically wondered how to reach an adult it hit me: I was the adult. I cautiously stepped in front of them while my mind struggled to acknowledge the situation- this was no butter knife. The blade was the size of my forearm, in the hands of the most violent and excitable child we had in our midst. I couldn’t question how he’d snuck it from home or got it into the practice. I was still trying to conceive its close proximity whilst envisioning it piercing my flesh.
“Danial. You need to put that away” I said firmly but he twirled it playfully, showing off his trophy. The children had returned to their crafting, bored with Danial’s “surprise” and I warned him he wasn’t impressing anybody, that he’d hurt himself. In return he gave me a wicked look and ran at me, knife extended. I screamed and braced when he halted midway and laughed. Then he did it again and again, guffawing at my expense while I teared up, astonished at this cruel game. “Danial. Stop it” I said but I had lost control, visibly shaking. My clouded vision locked on the knife while he gave me a sickly smile, head cocked to one side. He came running at me a final time and I prepared myself for wrist grabbing and pain.
Just then the door burst open and one of the assistant psychologists walked in. Danial immediately recoiled and she calmly had him surrender the knife before escorting him out, while I stood stoic, lightheaded, feeling like a mix of disappointment, failure and betrayal. I’d believed I was someone Danial cared for, not someone he wanted to terrorise. When the assistant psychologist listened to my account she nodded sympathetically but I still felt as if I was confessing a wrongdoing, that I had been toyed with by a child and unable to diffuse the situation. I was shook up.
When I was done she told me I could have abandoned the situation, gotten aggressive or startled Danial so badly he injured himself but I had tried to placate and most importantly, I had protected the children. The fact that I kept him engaged for however long was beyond my expected skill set and I couldn’t have predicted this. Then she said it wasn’t personal. This was not about me but a result of exposure to gratuitous violence, of him confusing the knife for just another toy. Danial knew the knife was banned on the premises the way we know gum is banned in schools- a rule with no life changing consequences. Our job was to tell him it was more severe than that but I remained worried that the power dynamic had been so abruptly dismantled he would never listen again and I would always be afraid.
The next day I received a written apology, the strain of concentration and genuine emotion etched in Danial’s letter to Miss Nadine. This was supplemented with a half-hearted verbal apology from his parents which smelt of two individuals afraid of legal action but it didn’t take away from their son’s efforts to mend our relationship. That day Danial pulled out the mats and we sat cross legged, breathing softly. We never spoke of the incident again.