Racing Trains and Swallowing Chains

Most people would say I have some sense. But I didn’t always. Take for example, the day I tried to beat the train. I heard it coming. I saw the lights flashing. But I was young and in a hurry. And I made it across the tracks. Barely.

What if I hadn’t? This bothered me for a day or two. I was more cautious the next time I saw the flashing lights. But mostly I managed to bury this gaffe down somewhere so deep I almost forgot.

Until I kept meeting my younger self in middle school classrooms.

“What was he thinking?”

My colleagues and I asked this question a dozen times a week. Why would a kid smash a fist through glass, light a trash can on fire, jump from the fire escape, dart in front of a bus?

“A good kid, too!” we’d often add, shaking our heads.

In the back corner of my classroom one day, I saw the strangest sight ever. A quiet student, one who never made trouble, sat stunned by what she had done. One end of a chain hung from her mouth and the other end dangled out of her nose.

“It worked,” she whispered to me. “I swallowed a chain through my nose.”


I didn’t tell the chain swallower about the obvious mismatch in her brain. Its emotion center was in full swing, for sure—looking for pleasure and risk and novel experience. Her frontal lobe, on the other hand, the part that brings good judgement, had not yet matured.

Not only mismatched, for teens, these brain parts are also not well connected. It’s like the nerve impulses traveling between the emotional brain and the judgment brain are pushing their way though unplowed snow.

And herein lies the job of teachers and parents—to travel with teens through the drifts over and over until the road has opened.

I once raced a train, I’d tell myself when I lost patience. I’m glad my teachers stuck with me. After all, it’s the teens with adult traveling companions who turn into thinking adults.

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