Mr Nicholas (the teacher): If you were an octopus … what would your life be like?
    Jared (the 13 year old): I would find a family that is nice to me.

Sometimes we don’t ask the question directly.

A child comes to us in crisis, maybe with reports of abuse or neglect at home. We want him to tell us what’s going on in his life, in his head, but he doesn’t trust adults with that kind of information.

He might, however, be OK writing about it – as a character or another person or an animal, like the one in My Octopus Teacher.

In case you missed it, My Octopus Teacher just won the Oscar for best documentary feature. It’s a story about the filmmaker’s bond with a wild octopus he met diving off the coast of South Africa.

What would your life be like as an octopus?

Mr Nicholas was an early fan of the film. He’s the teacher at one of our crisis & assessment centers, and he shows My Octopus Teacher in his classroom because it asks big questions about consciousness and “others” – what it means to be something or someone else.

What he’s noticed is kids like Jared – assigned to write about life as an octopus – open up with their own issues in ways they would not otherwise, had he just asked, What’s going on with you? Or, if they can’t do the assignment – they can’t imagine themselves as someone or something else – it signals something else, perhaps a lower capacity to feel empathy.

Poetry works the same way …

Sometimes, Mr Nicholas says, the kids surprise him with what they reveal in writing exercises – like this poem, I’m sorry but I hate you, written by a 12 year old. His name is Wade, and he came to us after he pushed his mother; years of neglect and indifference had led to that moment.

I’m sorry but I hate you.
You try to make me mad
but all I do is get you hurt.
So go and flirt with danger, go flirt
with a range of bulls or fools,
but I miss you.
It makes me sad that you’re so mad.
You need to get your act straight.
You monstrous wolves, you want fools
to mess with my grill.
Hit me with all you got.
I will be chill,
give it a shot.
I’m sorry I hate you, but you can get on a hall
and tear up the walls.
I miss you, mom, dad, uncle stan
to uncle dan.
I’m sorry but I hate you.
You! Go to your crate
you monstrous wolves.
Go! Go far away.
Come! Come close.
I’m sorry I yelled, cursed,
pushed, and burst.
I’m sorry I hate you.
But you need a trainer.

Kids like Wade and Jared are in our crisis & assessment centers a short time, no more than 30 days, for psychological testing and teaching. Our teachers are on a team with assessment counselors and psychologists, all focused on getting to know the kids – their unique needs and strengths – and finding them help or removing them from dangerous situations.

You make a difference! Last year, 272 kids – ages 10 to 17 – got help in our crisis & assessment centers.