Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Help Me Help You Help Him": The Conferences Aren't the Point...

“Help Me Help You Help Him”: The Conferences Aren’t the Point…

…communication is.  And it is exhausting.  I have three boys.  All the teachers require conferences,
and to be honest, I’ve requested them too,
sometimes in the “off season.”  Because I kind of feel that way when I gear up for these meetings, like I’m ready to be on offense (and defense) when the need arises.  You are your child’s best advocate.  You know him better than anyone.  You spend the most time with him than anyone, including, in my case, my spouse.  You know what he’s capable of and what he is struggling with.  You see the tears, and cajole, plead, LOUDLY ask, then finally wearily demand.  My kids’ collective attention span, I often think, are that of a gnat. 

Then the anxiety starts.  My eldest wants straight As.  He is constantly distracted and unwaveringly anxious.  If he brings home less than an A, he cries, he questions his intelligence.  This last one, I admit, brings me to my knees in frustration.  He is 8.  Eight.  If I can’t get him to get ahead of his anxiety now, what happens later?  I know all about this kind of performance anxiety.  But not through this. 

There was a level of expectation, a kind of miasma of horrible blue steel cold in my house.  The stage was set for constant fear of bringing home less than an A.  A father who demanded perfection, a child whose abilities lay outside the realm of math and music.  Tears were not allowed.  Crying just forbidden.  I had to present my case calmly or face the consequences.  Tiredness was not an excuse.  I once held a compass and traced circles for hours.
  When checked, none were perfect.  My hand, not steady enough.  I was 10.  Now in the difficulty of dementia, my father cannot explain why he made me go through that.  Why he didn’t give me leave to just be.  That compass--it represented mathematical certainty, a complete precise whole.  Round and full.  Placed inside its bubble, I was never, ever going to grow.  How different it would have been, if he had given me an alternate compass instead.  How much more profound if it had been his hand that held it sure to show that there was not going to be any kind of path on which I would be lost.  A way in which to go journeying to learn and yet know true north, know the road home.  Because in the end, isn't that what it all is?  This learning we do?  To find roads and to double back to share what we know?  

I can only assume that the cost of my inability gave further light into his own.  That my lack was a reflection of his own failure.  That his heated, misshapen sadness, bespoke his own insecurity.  It’s the legacy that I need to live down.

But try as I might.  It creeps in, this clutch pit fear and quake.  This edgeofbrainmessy questioning of the “what ifs?”  What if he doesn’t get this now and he’s tested and labeled as not good enough.  

Because if there is something school does well it is putting you in a box, and despite the reforms and unforms, the boxes have shifted, but they still hold and retain their shape.  

I want more for them.  I think their teachers do too.  I think boxes are convenient and kids are extravagant.  I think teachers get that.  I think bureaucracy does not.  But what if, what if whatever box they are put in on that sunswept day labels them in a way that they can’t move forward despite my telling them otherwise?  So I quake.  And my head feels bobbly unsure on my achy neck, and on many days on the knife-edge of compassion and irritation is where you’ll find me.

So I’ve lost it and done my father’s memory proud on occasion.  Lately, I’ve given the boys permission to put me in a time out if they see me spiraling downward.  A death spiral of educational fear.  “Mommy,” Sam will say bravely, clutching his number 2 ticonderoga, “you’re losing it.”  So I throw up my hands and march to the garage where I sigh and breathe and think of the damage I’ve done on unformed hands.  I come back contrite and meek and we start again.  I’ve told them why I get all wackadoodle.  I’ve told them that I am someone who is afraid.  And I’ve told them I just want them to be happy.  Whatever else.  I tell myself this as I collect
papers, and workbooks and tap out graphite shavings into the waste bin.  “Just be happy,” I think, as the smell of pencils hits me fresh and my own worry overtakes again because smellmemory is poignant and seductive, “please.”

I think that happens for all of us.  Whatever our story—a teacher who didn’t believe in you, so you stopped trying.  A free-spirited mother who decided whatever you decided to do was fine, so you find yourself years later with a degree and no where to execute it.  A parent who gave your brother a dollar for a good grade when you just couldn’t do it no matter how you tried, so you decided to keep doing something you excelled at, even if its name was trouble.  

If we have children, and with our educational baggage laid out before us, we sail the sea of scholastic uncertainty with buzzing in our ears of our friends’ children’s successes—one of the worst kind of bullying indeed occurs on the sidelines of the playground.  Shoulder pads and a full-face mask would be exceptionally welcome with some of the conversations I’ve encountered.  It is great to rejoice in your children’s successes.  But maybe we’re emphasizing the wrong kind.  You wouldn’t believe the number of likes and comments I got when my eldest got on Honor Roll for straight As, his first time doing so.  My aunt congratulated…me.  It felt amazingly yellow—I was thrilled for myself.  Then I stepped on the scale of accountability and knew it wasn’t mine to accept.  It was his.  And this was stupid.  It goes on though.  Because somehow, the acceptance of your child into that kind of group gives you a right to show yourself as “accomplished.”  Maybe this is what my Dad wanted, I don’t know. 

So here we go.  Conference time.  And I want to understand, that’s all.  I want them to understand the hurt I’m feeling when my child comes to me in tears that he doesn’t feel he can ever do it in the right way.  And that he keeps just missing the brass ring of approval.  I can see their confusion as to why I’m here.  “He’s doing so well,” they say, “he doesn’t display any of this in school.”  Oh, I want them to know--he's always teetering in the Bs, and he works so hard.  This is his first year with letter (and number) grades--points taken off for a missed word here and fraction of a point taken for a partial answer there--I don't remember seeing such numbers until I was in high school.  I’m wearing uncomfortable shoes, the ones that rub my obnoxiously long second toe.  I dressed nicely.  My glasses are clean.  I have my papers in order, I’m trying to see if they can just see me.  Help Me.  Help Me Help You Help Joe.  Because he’s so wonderful (“we agree”) and so kind (“yes, indeed”) but he’s frustrated and sad.  “I’m worried, I say, tightly calm, “about his ability to handle this.”   Because it doesn't seem quite right that the rubrics are so exacting, that between the adults at home we cannot understand the parameters enough to explain them, and there will come a time in his life when an A is not the measure, and a knockdown comes in the form of something the least imagined and not book found or learned.  He will need more than the affirmation of a green letter and corresponding number to navigate his place in this world.  Help Me. 

In the end, maybe we all understood each other a little better--the effort to be known was hopefully received with the right spirit, and I received strategies that I can try with my wondrous boy.  The same one that when I was asked on paper to introduce him to his teachers at the school orientation night, I wrote, “Joe is the most empathetic and compassionate person I know.  He feels others’ hurts as his own.  I wish I was more like him.”  When another parent read over my hand at my words, his eyebrows raised into his perfect hair and he stage whispered to his wife, “Wow—there are some oddballs here.”  Indeed. 

I can only imagine that this, this dance that we do every year is more measured and worrisome, laden and burdened for my fierce friend whose son has a processing disorder.  He sees the world differently.  She is all but worn out trying to get everyone else to see that too.  It doesn’t matter what shoes she wears or how clean the glasses.  Trying to advocate is tough even with the kindest of audiences.  And, she has told me, often, they are not kind.  Often, it is a soul sucking climb without the least bit of oxygen or water.  But she does it.  Because she cannot do it alone.  As much as she is trying to do everything she can.  He needs them and this world.  And they will need him too, ready or not.

I admire greatly what these teachers, who are grossly underpaid, do day in and day out.  They aren’t just telling them facts, they’re teaching these children, our children, how to live.  How to learn, how to play fair, how to respond calmly, how to behave in company that may be indifferent to you.  They do all of this, all day, every day, and go home to emails, lesson plans, dinner, homework for their own children and get up early to do it all again.  Sometimes a few get it wrong and we see the damage it wreaks, but most do it right and again and again until the rightness fits whatever child they see.  The board on which they move keeps changing, and the rules right along with it.  It is difficult weather to navigate.  But they do it, as one teacher said, “for the children.  We’re here for them.”  I don’t believe they want the boxes either but there is no unchecked option.  So I am here.  I want to know.  Yes, grades matter.  There should be a losing team and a winning team.  And life isn’t fair.  But in all of this, all of it, what have we emphasized I wonder?  If so much is made of the As, then what about the Bs?  And if the Bs are second place, what does that make the Cs?  And does character really count at all?  I can’t tell you how many times I interviewed for positions where teaching was said to count most but publications mattered more.  We need better citizens but the test scores are mentioned.  Well-rounded students are welcome but those that have perfect college boards are placed higher on the list. 

Maybe, we can add in some points for citizenship, engagement, and volunteering.  Maybe those categories need to show up on the report card separate and equally necessary.  How many children would work harder in those areas if they were as important?  How much more humane would the learning curve be?  As I type this and wonder at it all, I think about the stain that disappointment left on my future, something I couldn’t erase and still lingers in the fading light of years; I want to be the salve that stops the spots from forming on the brows of my boys.  The one thing I know for sure?  It’s not too late of anything.  Every day is a new day to make it heard.  Help Me. Help Us. Help Them. 


Brittany Graham said...

You're wonderful. The boys are so lucky to have you as their mommy. I know I've told you this time and time again, but you need to be told that (: Even if you get all wackadoodle every once in awhile! And of course, your writing (drools) is perfect.

sara said...

Oh thanks Brittany. I appreciate it. What a wonderful comment to read. :)

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