I was straightening up the garage, getting ready to head to after-care and pick up the boys when the phone rang. I looked down to see it was after-care calling me.
As any parent can understand, I took a deep breath before answering.
“Hello, Mr. Guerra,” said Rick, the young man who manages the after-care program at the school my children attend, “Parker and a kid on a bike got into a collision. He’s got a pretty bad cut on his head.”
Since I could tell Rick was shaken up, I got calmer. “Ok, Rick,” I said.
A moment later a woman’s voice came on the line. It was Rick’s boss, Alisson, a middle-aged woman who runs the after-care program at all our towns’ schools. She was even more flustered than Rick.
“Can you come down now?” she asked, her voice a little shaky.
“Yes. I’ll head right over,” I said.
Not satisfied, she asked, “How long do you think you’ll be? If you’re going to be more than a few minutes, I’ll call the ambulance.”
“I’m leaving now, and I’ll be there in under five minutes,” I said. “No need to call the ambulance.”
Having a hunch that I’d be heading to the hospital, I grabbed a backpack and stuffed it with some snacks, a bottle of water, and that all-important occupier of a child’s attention: an iPad.
When I arrived on the scene, Parker was sitting on the ground, still crying, with more than a little of his shirt covered in blood. The pressure and ice pack had, by that time, largely stopped the bleeding, but I could clearly see an inch-long and very nasty gash on his head. In an instant, I knew we’d be heading to the ER for stitches. I looked over and saw two kids on bikes still at the scene. One had obviously been in the collision with Parker and was distraught.
“What happened?” I asked Alisson.
She responded with something about a collision with one of those kids.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time at after-care because I never make the kids leave right when I pick them up. Weather permitting, I find them all playing behind the school with the counselors and having a great time, but never do I see anyone riding bikes back there.
At that moment — having to get the hospital and not knowing all the facts — I didn’t want to get into an argument, but I did want to drop a hint that I felt something was amiss.
“I’ve never seen anyone riding bikes back here,” I said.
“We were just trying to clear the bikes out when the children came out, and it was just one of those things,” she said apologetically.
Keep in mind that the kids on the bikes were not in the after-care program. They were just riding behind the school.
So I whisked Parker up, got Tyler in the car, and headed to the ER. After we got settled, I felt it was time to call Marie. For reason’s which will become clear, I feel the need to refer to her in this story as Mama Bear.
Well, when Mama Bear herd the story about her Baby Bear getting into a collision with an older kid on a bike while supposedly under sound supervision, and having his head gashed open, she was far less accepting of the “stuff happens” explanation. After arriving at the hospital and seeing the wound first hand, Mama Bear wanted to have a talk with Alisson.
I was content to watch Wild Kratts on the iPad with Parker.
As Mama Bear didn’t stray too far for her conversation, though, I could hear bits and pieces, and what I could comprehend told me the two weren’t having a meeting of the minds. You see, Marie wanted a simple apology (which we got), along with a plan for how such an accident wouldn’t happen again. We wanted to know what new policies would be put into place so there wouldn’t be a repetition of the day’s events. “Stuff happens” makes for a clever bumper sticker, but isn’t a strategy for learning from mistakes.
Unfortunately, in their 20 minute conversation — and during my 10 minute conversation with Alisson the next day — we never heard the formulation of new policy we were looking for, and I think that was a big mistake. If she had just said something like, “We will make sure there are no kids on bikes behind the school when we let the after-care students outside. If there are, we’ll ask them to leave. If they won’t, we won’t let the kids out, or we’ll make sure they play on the other side of the playground.”
I think it would have been pretty simple.
In your life, in your work, you will make mistakes, and bad things will happen under your purview. This is inevitable. But you do have the power to make the best of the situation at that point; you do have the power not just to apologizes, but to provide those effected with the solace of knowing things are going to change. “Stuff,” you might say, “will certainly happen again, but I promise you it won’t be the same stuff that happened today.”
For our part, we’re still using the after-care program, because we need it, and because I think it’s generally well run. But I won’t quite look at Alisson the same as I did before, and that’s a shame. Ironically, my opinion of her wasn’t altered by the accident, but how she handled the aftermath.