What problem? Meeting recap and the start of making a decision about the kids’ futures

WARNING: Long, 2,000 word dialogue reconstruction follows. This is a recap, to the best of my recollection, about yesterday’s conference with Ethan’s teacher and principal.

I have a very difficult decision to make. It might be time to take both kids out of their current school and into a new educational environment.

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But first: Couldn’t have been better timing. Pillows made from one of Mike’s shirts arrived yesterday. (I only had this shirt and another one plus an old hat of Mike’s. Ethan has the other shirt and hat.) I asked his parents for a few things after Mike died (like his ties – I wanted to give Ethan one of his dad’s ties for every special event he attends), but… nothing.

I met with Ethan’s teacher and principal yesterday about his behavior. It was a ridiculous waste of time. Meeting recap (keep in mind, they called the meeting):

Principal: We’re here because we’re concerned about Ethan being ready for middle school. He won’t have a base homeroom like he does this year. This lady (pointing to his teacher) has been fantastic with him. Taking time with him. Blah blah. (Words of awesomeness directed toward his teacher)

Me: OK. I’m confused. I haven’t heard anything for months about Ethan’s behavior, then there was the email last week to which I responded. This is the first I’m hearing of concerns about middle school.

Teacher: Well, he’s unorganized. He refuses to use his accordion folder and he won’t have a desk next year so he’ll have to stay organized in his locker.

Me: OK… He’s 10. And a boy.

Teacher: Well, he won’t listen to me about using his accordion folder to stay organized.

Me: So, that’s not in your email…

Teacher: (recaps her email)

Me: (recaps my email) I want you to know that I read my email response, and your email, to Ethan so he could make sure incidents were portrayed as how they happened. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. I want to him to stand by what he told me.

Teacher: It’s interesting you bring up your email, and that you read it to Ethan. You’re giving him excuses for his behavior. You’re justifying it. And by reading it to him, he’s believing the excuses you’re giving him.

Me: No. I don’t do excuses. Your email questioned what has changed since spring break, and I answered. It’s three things: testing, bullying by (four names) and Family Life.

Teacher and Principal: Oh no! Three of those boys would NEVER bully someone. The one, though, yeah, we know about him.

Me: And I understand that the bullying isn’t limited to Ethan, that at least one other mother has indicated concern.

Teacher: So you talked to (mother’s name)? Yeah… (looks at principal)

Me: It’s an issue, so what’s the plan to resolve?

Teacher: Well, Ethan bullies back. He says things to (bully name) that are similar to what you say the (bully) says to him. But I’ve never heard (bully) say anything to Ethan. I can only respond to what I hear about, and (bully and his three cohorts) tell me all the time things Ethan says to them. I’ve even heard from their parents that Ethan is bullying them by name calling.

Me: So Ethan’s not tattling on these boys, and I’m not calling you telling you (name) called him a lesbian, so Ethan’s at fault? The other boys are quiet in their comments so teachers can’t hear, but Ethan has a loud voice that carries, so that’s what you hear and react to? Because here’s the thing: my attitude is “no tattling. Period. Figure it out, unless someone is bleeding.” It’s all stupid shit that doesn’t warrant the attention of an adult. But you want the tattling? You want Ethan to tell you when the boys are bullying him or other kids?

Teacher: I can’t help what I don’t know about.

Me: OK, I’m telling you…I’m not saying Ethan’s innocent – hell, who wouldn’t call someone names if that person kept bullying them? They need to work it out.

Principal: I’ll bring them both together tomorrow and talk to them.

Me: Great. And I’ll tell Ethan to tattle more. Now about Family Life…

Teacher: I really don’t understand why you want to take him out. He has such insightful things to say and questions to ask. He brings a different perspective to the class. This is a hard conversation to have, but he’ll bring up his dad and the things his dad did and ask about it.

Me: Yeah, so the book really doesn’t represent “family” life as portrayed in the real world.

Principal: Can I see the book? What do you mean?

Me: Well, to start with, just look at the pictures. Families don’t look like that. There are no mixed families, no interracial adoptions represented, no single parents, no same sex parents…

Teacher and principal laugh hysterically.

Principal: Well, it is a Catholic school, so we would NEVER show a gay couple in “Family Life.”

Me: But that’s the real world. That’s part of “family life.” You can discuss the church’s views on homosexuality, but you can’t deny that these families exist. It’s legal. It exists. It’s my job as a mom to make sure my kids are prepared for the world, and that’s part of the world. I would like the name of the person at the archdiocese in charge of curriculum because I’d like to discuss the outdated notions in this book. As Ethan told me, “look at the cover.”

Teacher: It’s so funny you say that because that’s exactly what I told the class – “look at the cover. Does anyone’s family look like that? Because mine doesn’t.” We talk about family differences. Like I asked, “who in your house mows the lawn?” I had them raise their hands for it’s hired out, I do, mom does, dad does. And we marked it on the board to show how different we are. And how our families operate differently.

Me: Two things: so Ethan heard “look at the cover” and tuned you out. I guarantee it. Because there’s nothing there he can relate to. And examples like that show families are different, but in Ethan’s mind, it’s reinforcing HE’S different because dad mowing the lawn isn’t an option. No matter what you ask the class about family roles, he can NEVER raise his hand that his dad does this or that.

Teacher: I really don’t think his dad’s death is still an issue. He talks about him in class, which is something he didn’t do before. He’s over it.

Me: No. And Family Life is reinforcing that he doesn’t have a dad. Look, I’m personally offended by a lot of content in the book. (Refers to the father/mother section) This is not representative of my life now, nor when I was married. I was the primary bread winner. I traveled a lot. I had a lot of stress. I would’ve liked to participate in the kid’s activities more but couldn’t because of work obligations. It’s really unrealistic.

Teacher: We talk about how this is how it used to be and then discuss how things are now.

Me: Kids see a book that you’ve put in front of them and consider it to be what you’re teaching. I don’t care what your in-class discussions are, the perception is that this is “family life.” It isn’t being taught as history; it’s being taught as “family life.” Also, I thought parents were supposed to see the book before it was taught.

Teacher: Oh no, not this book because we’ve never had a problem with it. There’s a bigger text book that talks about sex that would go home to parents first so you could decide if you wanted your child to participate. This is just a workbook for discussions to set up the bigger text book.

Me: Yeah, Ethan will not participate in this class. Not now with the workbook, and I can’t even imagine how the text book will work, so I revoke my permission for that, too.

Principal: This is taking the place of religion this quarter, right?

Teacher: Yes.

Me: Well, Ethan will have to be somewhere else during this discussion. I would like your lesson plans and I will instruct him myself on “family life.”

Teacher: I have a packet for you. You’ll really have fun having the conversations with Ethan about this stuff. But I really don’t think it’s a dad-issue for him. He says such nice things about his relationship with Mr. B and his Big Brother…

Me: Yes, he has male role models, but HIS DAD IS DEAD. NO HE’S NOT OVER IT. AND YES I WHOLEHEARTEDLY BELIEVE FAMILY LIFE IS TRIGGERING HIS BEHAVIOR THAT YOU SAY HAS REGRESSED SINCE BEFORE SPRING BREAK.

Principal: Let’s bring Ethan in.

Ethan came in and I asked about his day. His response was typical, “It was good.” I asked if he got in trouble or had to be told not to talk out in class. “Once in Miss J’s class,” he said.

Teacher: REALLY?!

Ethan: Yes?

Teacher: Well, I don’t always correct him, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t talk out or have a good day. I’d say today was a medium day.

Me: So if you don’t call him out, how is he supposed to know his actions aren’t appropriate. Or how you perceive his day to have gone?

Teacher: He knows.

Ethan’s skin turned red and blotchy.

The teacher brought up tutoring to help Ethan with math. Ethan LOST it. I’ve never seen him break down like that. His eyes teared up, his voice was LOUD, and he just said, “No, no, I won’t do it.” His head was thrown back and he refused to make eye contact. His hand went to his head and he rocked back and forth a bit. He slid low into his chair.

Me (reaching out to touch his leg): What’s the problem? Do you know what tutoring is? It’s not a big deal.

The reaction from Ethan didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop it. The teacher and principal couldn’t stop it. Finally, I told Ethan to get a drink of water and come back.

Teacher: That’s what I deal with every day.

Me: I’ve never seen anything remotely like that before from him.

Teacher: I can tell by your expression that you’ve never seen it, but that’s how he reacts. A lot. It might be because of math or because of an assignment he forgot. Anything will set him off.

Ethan came back into the room.

Me: OK, so you started this meeting talking about middle school. One thing we all know is that Ethan doesn’t do great with change. One reason he’s had a decent year – which I’m going with since I haven’t heard much from you – is because he knew (teacher) from last year. Is there any way Ethan can meet with the three middle school teachers before school starts?

Ethan flew into hysterics again. “I will not do that! I don’t want to talk to them! I don’t want to go here anymore!”

Principal: We can work something out. (Ethan continued his tantrum.)

Me: Ethan, can you tell me why? Why don’t you want to meet with the middle school teachers? What’s wrong with the school?

He couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate his feelings. The meeting concluded shortly after.

Ethan and I talked a lot last night about Family Life. Ethan believes it’s a contributing factor to his behavior the last few weeks. I told him that now he’s removed from it AND the bullying issue will (hopefully) be addressed, he needs to back it up by pulling it together at school.

Me: Let’s show them that we’re right. Bullying and that stupid fucking Family Life bullshit book are the reasons. But that argument goes in the garbage the first time you act out, you realize that?

I’ve been thinking about the conversation with the teacher and the principal, and the follow up with Ethan. I wish he could articulate what it is about the school – this isn’t the first time he’s mentioned he wants to change schools. I’m generally not one to give in, but if the school thinks Ethan is or should be over his dad’s death, and if I have to continually have the same conversations with the same people, maybe it’s better for everyone to change.

We live in an open enrollment state. I applied to a couple of public schools outside our district today, and I talked to a mom who has kids in a different Catholic school in the area. I haven’t filled out the “are you returning” paperwork at the current school yet, and I’ll probably not do it until I finalize my decision on where the kids will go to school next year.

To be continued: To change schools or not to change schools?

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