School evokes so many emotions in me that it’s hard to focus on a good way to approach this subject. I’ve been a student and a substitute teacher. I’ve been the mother of students. Each role carries with it its own separate memories, both good and bad.
As kids, we played school a lot. My parents even got us student desks and I loved them. I loved doing “homework” and “teaching.” I loved workbooks; especially those with the answers in the back so I could check my work. For a long time, I thought I would be a teacher.
I excelled at being a student in college. The second time around, that is. My homework was perfect. I was an over achiever. I learned the most important lesson of being a student: kiss ass and kiss ass often. I also learned the most important lesson about life: those who work the hardest aren’t always the ones who get the farthest. Both are good lessons for someone in their 20s to master.
I finished my master’s degree and during my defense of my thesis, my advisers spent the time trying to convince me to go on and get my doctorate instead of discussing my research. I was flattered, but uninterested. I was done with school.
Then I had kids and started into my role as a parent of a student. I was so happy to be a mom that I cried at the early teacher conferences. Then as I settled into that role, I started crying at parent conferences because they were so bad! OK, maybe I didn’t actually cry. But I wanted to.
Even when I wasn’t an overachieving student, I was a decent student. I wouldn’t have dreamed of failing a class! But here I was the mother of underachievers. It’s a hard thing to accept. Raising children who have no interest in learning is sad. They aren’t readers. I love reading.
Aaron has some learning issues and has an IEP (I think it stands for Individual Education Plan) which means we get to go to yearly meetings about the extra services he will or won’t receive during the school year. Every three years there is a reevaluation of him, which means a longer meeting.
The meetings are always an emotional roller coaster. You walk into them thinking, “My kid is doing great!” Then you leave thinking, “My kid is barely able to function in society. What will become of him?!” It’s all a matter of perception and who speaks louder at the meetings. It’s also another life lesson: just because an “expert” says something is true doesn’t mean it’s actually true. Trust the people in the every day trenches.
After the first meeting before kindergarten, I made Jim start going with me. Because I didn’t trust myself not to get too emotional. This was my baby they were talking about! This means both of us leave the meetings baffled, wondering what they are doing to our kid that he can’t function at school like he does at home.
After witnessing the school psychologist swear that Aaron was incapable of some math skills, while his math teacher quietly disagreed, I learned that there is a hierarchy to the IEP meeting. And a regular special ed teacher isn’t at the top of the pile. Finally, after listening to the psychologist and watching the teacher try to get a word in but being ignored, I ended up intervening. That’s a nice way of saying I took to yelling, “stop talking about my kid like he’s retarded, and listen to his teacher.” The meeting wrapped up shortly after that, with the psychologist looking a little frightened and the teacher thanking me.
I thought that would be the worst meeting, but it wasn’t. Fifth grade arrived with our sixth IEP meeting. I thought I was an old pro. After all, I had confronted people the year before, raised my voice, and the world didn’t end. Again, I was wrong. Jim and I left that meeting feeling like the worst parents in the whole wide world. Seriously. According to the group that year, Aaron was suffering because we were unable to save him from his brothers’ torturous behavior. Additionally, they informed us that Aaron was depressed and they were concerned about him.
Jim and I left the meeting, heads bowed, shoulders slumped. We were both filled with remorse at being The Worst Parents In The World. I plotted all afternoon about ways we could help Aaron with his depression. I beat myself up because I–a trained psychologist–missed the signs of depression in my own son! I beat myself up because I–a therapist to kids–was raising the twins to be bullies and cads!
I went directly to the source, and talked to Aaron when he got home from school.
Gently, in my most pleasant Buddha Mom voice, I asked him, “Aaron, are you feeling sad? Are you feeling bad?”
“Yes!” He announced clearly, enunciating each letter of the word. I was taken aback because he was mighty assertive for someone suffering from severe, school-concerning, depression. “I. Am. Depressed.”
My heart fell. It clenched and did that funny heart beat thing it does when I am stressed. I took a deep breath, “What does it mean to be depressed?”
He shrugged, threw his hands up, and said–again clearly and powerfully, “I don’t know, but I am depressed. They keep telling me I am.”
“They” being the school. Part of my parenting angst lifted at that moment. The experts were suddenly less powerful. They didn’t know my kid like they thought they did. It made me think about the twins and their “bullying” behavior. Which, according to the school, was the fact that they eat a lot and ate PopTarts that Aaron wanted.
Whoa! No one’s on drugs. No one’s drinking. No one’s pregnant. They come home at night. Follow their curfew. Help around the house. Sure their room is a pit and Martha Stewart would pass out if she saw it. But they aren’t Bad Kids. They are big brothers dealing with a bratty little brother who believes the world revolves around him and his need for PopTarts. They are giants and need a lot of food. Unlike Aaron, their diet doesn’t need a steady infusion of sugar and junk. But they do like to have some when it comes into the house.
I remember telling Jim, “Fuck this, we aren’t bad parents!” And another life lesson was learned: take everything said about your child with a grain of salt. The good and the bad can’t always be taken at face value.
I’m sure “school” has emotional meaning for everyone. I just wish it was a little less emotional…