cafe mama

finding magic every day

a story from school . october 09 . 2007

everett and his lazy eight
What I remember most -- what I will remember most -- was Teacher Mary's notebook. It was a three-ring binder, impossibly slim, and I remember being almost amused by her earnest 70s-style organization. There were little handwritten tabs with each student's name... "Stormie" "Po" "Everett"... and she quickly turned to the pages on my own little kindergartener. September 11th, the second day of school, my terrible birthday, was filled with notes. I remember thinking that it must have taken her forever to write it, wondered if she sat down immediately after the kids went home at 2:15 to commit my little boy's grievances to wide-ruled paper.

What I remember is the heat in my face, how I wondered if I would start to cry, how I wondered if they could see the heat, flame red, when my part talking stopped and the principal took a deep breath and did her part. I could tell she'd practiced, in her mind at least, I could tell she knew what she was going to say, she had conviction and lots of documentation.

I remember feeling that my tailbone was beginning to ache, on that tiny school-issue chair, with Monroe in the sling weighing me down by another 15 pounds or so. All my boys and me, in Room 103, to hear the judgment being rained down upon my head by five people my son is being taught to respect, these people who must fill out a form to say they've met with me, and make copies, and send me one.

I had come (I thought) to a meeting, to discuss "next steps," to meet formally with the school psychologist. I hadn't been told this in so many words, but my assumption was that this meeting -- four weeks after my oldest child's first days of kindergarten -- would start the process of having him evaluated. I'd soon learn that the school district doesn't evaluate children psychologically; instead, it's educationally. "An educational diagnosis," the woman would tell me. She seemed too small, too quietly pretty, to own so much power over these little bodies.

Everett had been having trouble with his temper. The first explosion was on his second day at school; he'd done this with me so many times, I knew the drill. Something doesn't go his way, often the emotional harm is something quite important to a five-year-old of any sort; but just as often, it's something immaterial. Someone says they won't be his friend any more. Someone says it's time to go in after recess. He escalates quickly, from a refusal to screaming and, perhaps, punching or kicking. Depending upon the reaction of those around him, he can deflate in a minute or stay angry for nearly an hour. He can be loud. He can hit hard.

The first truly monumental fit was right before Christmas, over a train track that wouldn't quite connect in an oval. I was pregnant and Truman and Everett and I had gone to get a new igniter for the furnace, and stopped for pie and juice. I couldn't get him to the bus stop and had to sit on the sidewalk in the cold while we waited for my sister to come pick us up.

After that, I started reading and getting input from everyone I trusted. Things slowly improved. By summer, when we could afford to get help, he seemed to have turned the corner. And then he turned back. One day Jonathan told him to put his shirt on and he screamed so loud a police man stopped me as the boys and I headed to the bus stop, thinking that I was being abused.

When I filled out paperwork in another tiny little chair before school, I hadn't known what to write. "He has screaming fits sometimes and scratches me but overall he's so sweet and smart and you must, you must fall in love with him?" No, I didn't, I wrote about his imagination and that he and his brother played rough sometimes. I read the school rules with gathering dread. If a student hurts another student, he is first suspended for the day, then for several days, then finally expelled for a year. My stomach hurt but I tried to put it out of my mind, prayed that he would be ok.

His first day of school was great. He got a sticker. He made a buddy, and two friends. His second day was awful. By the end of the first week we were already meeting with the principal. We scrambled and by the end of the second week we were meeting with two parenting coaches (licensed social workers), a couples counsellor, and Jonathan was headed off to meet with his own individual therapist. I became consistent, fair, not offering too many chances, I stuck to the schedule, I prayed over him every night. Even on the weekends I got up with him, I never let him watch too much TV, I gave him lots of coloring. His writing and drawing were growing exponentially in quantity and intricacy, funny five-fingered pirates, tales of conquest and rescue, baby bottles full of sand, concentric rainbow boxes for mouths. He could write a few words and draw hearts for his most dear friend, Misha. It seemed that he was getting better, though we were having bad days we were having good days too, sometimes three in a row!, Jonathan started spending lots of time in the classroom.

A few days before our scheduled meeting I got a call, that we needed to come pick him up, he was melting down. I didn't know it at the time, but that was his first suspension. Now I have the paperwork in my hand, it sits with all its form-formality and covered with a variety of brown shapes (Everett) and a coffee stain (Truman). Along with the other paperwork, that says the things the principal told me when she opened her mouth with such purpose. That they don't want Everett to stay at his neighborhood school anymore. And when they say "we don't want it" that means that he can't, of course it's my decision, but if he does they'll "go the disciplinary route" because after all "I can't have any more of my kids being hurt, I can't have any more of my staff being hurt" (she said it exactly that way and more than one time, "and after all it's assault and battery." As if it was an audit, I was given so many numbers, numbers of staff hurt, numbers of times that Everett acted up in a week, strength of his shrieks, numbers of adults to whom he wouldn't respond. I don't know if they expected me to say, "no! You're wrong! There's nothing wrong with my son and you all are crazy!" and they needed these numbers, they needed to express to me how they had never done anything so difficult in their lives as deal with my son, but at some point the principal thanked me for being "open" and "not defensive."

Perhaps another parent would have been defensive, but with all this offense around me, what was left for me to do but swallow my heart and feel it lying there in my still-soft belly, resting there with the tears I didn't want to let well up in my eyes?

I had two options, said all the pieces of paper, I could home school him or accept to send him to this other school "for safety," where all the children were unspeakably challenged and he could be assessed. It would a temporary placement while they diagnosed him educationally. Then perhaps he could be returned to "general education," if he wasn't placed in a special education classroom. I felt very strongly that the teacher, the principal, they were happy to be rid of my sweet, explosive boy, I felt their sighs of relief, that I was not throwing a fit, that I was not screaming myself, that soon they could focus on the problems they could wrap their experience around, that Max didn't want to come to school some days, that a little boy was delayed in his coloring development, that a little girl showed inappropriate affection toward adults.

And as I walked home, as I held in my hands the school backpack and the library book and the permission slips and the fundraiser envelopes and the little fliers about PTA meetings and all, all of the paper, I had to fight an urge to throw, kick, crumple, stomp. That would not help at all, I told myself. Piece of paper by pencil I mourned Everett his kindergarten class, Misha and the little heart-filled drawings they make for each other, I mourned walking to school in the misty dawn light, I mourned the mom who lives down the street and who might never be my friend now, whose children might not want to walk to school with my children, I mourned the PTA and the Halloween contest and the field trip to the pumpkin patch and the school I'd thought all my little boys would attend, marching in like legacies in a fraternity, one by one by one, beloved by all.

I mourned that the little wonderful son I know is obscured by this thing, mood disorder or defiance or chemical imbalance or evil spirit, that the school is not willing or able to, does not understand how to, see through it, give it time to let us pray, schedule, love, change everything (and I cannot say that without Voltaire). I mourned normalcy, I mourned that thing that most parents get no matter how chaotic their lives or inexpert their parenting skills, that ability to drop off a child at school in the morning and not have her heart leap painfully every time the phone rings until that child is home.

I mourned my own lack of trust in the oft-repeated mantra, you can't blame yourself. I do. I blame me. I was too slow to respond to the signs; to quick to show anger myself. I was too stressed while his little brain was developing inside me, I didn't show his tiny synapses the proper paths, I didn't often enough reinforce the benefit of taking a deep breath. I was not the right model, I worked too hard, I let them watch too much TV. I was too afraid to fill out that badly-mimeographed form, under "what should we know about your child?" I should have written, "he can not handle frustration. He is not afraid of you."

If he only had a little more time, a little more leeway, if the numbers were not already lined up in the column of judgment. But this is the hand I must hold, and we must cross the street, and we must find our way safely into the future. And somehow, some way, I will find the right path for us.

paying the bills

read my previous post . three? is HARD . september 12 . 2007