Mom, dad, 2.5 kids: really, you couldn’t figure out this would be an issue?

Apologies in advance for length and stream of consciousness, as this post was written  quickly between doctor visits, but I really needed to get these thoughts out.

Last night I received a really bothersome email from Ethan’s teacher. It was a LONG email covering everything from his disrespectful behavior in class to exhibiting an “aggressive look” while playing football at recess. The crux of the note was to let me know that Ethan’s behavior has really regressed in the last two weeks (since returning from spring break), and could there possibly be anything happening at home that might be fueling this change?

Ethan and I sat down, and I read him the LONG email from his teacher. He said he was stressed with the standardize testing that started after break, and he was being bullied by a group of boys who keep calling him things like princess, queen, and lesbian. I knew this group of boys were being mean to Ethan, but I’m old-school when it comes to bullying: figure it out because bullying is a part of life. That advice is not working because in verbal retaliation to these boys, it’s Ethan’s loud voice that the teacher hears and E gets in trouble.

Then there’s the matter of “Family Life.” (Fellow StB moms: I highly recommend you read the book, if you haven’t already. I respect if your opinion is different than mine, but it’s worth a look if you haven’t reviewed.) 

The Family Life class was introduced after spring break and is part of the local Catholic school curriculum, as I understand it. Coincidentally, the introduction of this class corresponds to Ethan’s change in behavior.

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The cover of Family Life

When I asked E about the class and if it bothered him, he said no. Then he looked away and HUGE tears started to fall from his eyes. His face turned a splotchy red and he started sobbing. “Look at the cover,” he said. “The whole book is about families with moms and dads. Even kids with divorced parents have a mom and a dad.”

“I feel like an albino zebra because I stick out so much,” he cried as we hugged.

Ethan said the teacher asks questions like, “Who are you closer to, your mom or your dad?” The class has opened up the flood gates to a host of topics including bestiality (which was described as 2 animals having sex) and how a judge who imposes the death penalty is committing a sin. (A good Catholic judge cannot do that, was the message.) 

Over the last two weeks, I’ve asked every day about the lesson, the questions asked/answered, and corrected the issues I thought were misrepresented by the teacher, I.e., what bestiality really means. (Also, the judge is doing HIS JOB, and by that logic, a Catholic cannot act as an attorney, serve on a jury, be a lawyer in a criminal case, or act as a legislator making the laws – the laws the lawyers and judges are following when they impose or recommend sentencing.)

After he went to bed, I thumbed through the book. Images of smiling, very traditional families stared out from the pages. Mom, dad, 2 kids. There was diversity, but not within one family. White parents had white kids. Black parents had black kids. Asians with Asians. There were no mixed race families, no adoption of children of another race., no same sex parents or transgender discussions.

 

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OMG! These homogeneous families are so damn happy!

I read with interest the section on Fathers and Mothers. A few excerpts:

On Fathers, page 34:

Fathers come in many sizes and styles. Some are forceful and outgoing, others are quiet and strong. Some love sports and others love music. Some like to cook, and all seem to enjoy a good home-cooked meal! Some have to travel or work late a lot, and some may have lots of pressures on them. Some still find time to coach a sports team or to teach a child to ride a bike, and others wish they could. Some fathers may tell funny stories to their children or listen to their problems. Very few fathers, however, are just perfect.

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“Dad, can I have a Members Only jacket, too,” junior asks admiring the soft khaki fabric and the numerous pockets. “You have to work hard, travel a lot, and love sports or music first, Big Guy. But now, let’s say we go home and eat a big home-cooked meal?” dad responds.

On Mothers, page 35:

Mothers fill many roles in today’s busy world. They may work outside the home, as well as care for their families. They may work as volunteers. They have many things to do, but mothers try to constantly be aware of then needs of their children.

Interesting. So dad’s all busy with his travel and stressful schedule, and mom… What? She “may” work outside the home? Heck, as long as she’s home in time to make her husband that “home-cooked meal,”  it’s probably okay for her to have her little “outside the home” job. Dad, as we all know, is the real hero in this story. 

WTF, Family Life?

Here’s what I get from the book: moms talk on the phone a lot, as evidenced by the only two photos showing a parent without a child in the book. Seriously, there are no “this is just dad” photos. Just these two of women, no kids in sight, talking on CORDED phones. These ladies are probably sharing casserole recipes to make that hardy home-cooked meal men love so much! Amiright, ladies?!

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The section concludes with this, page 35:

Men and women each have important roles to play in God’s plan. Sometimes children experience the love and care of just one parent. Sometimes children don’t have any parents. Yet, it is a great blessing for children to grow up in the presence of two loving parents, a father and a mother. Both give love and attention, both offer models of what it means to be a loving and faithful man or woman.

So, my child isn’t blessed because he has one parent? He gets the shaft because his dad chose the bottle? Gee, kid, sorry about that, but look around, the rest of your classmates have this “great blessing” that you don’t (and won’t) have. 

Um, not a great message. No wonder he’s acting a fool in school. Hell, I’m sitting at Panera writing this and SEETHING with anger at this bullshit book.

Let’s talk about sex, page 39:

“It’s good to meet you. Where are you from?” People you meet often want to know where you were born or where your ancestors come from. Knowing where you came from helps them understand who you are. You came from God. God created you. Before you came to be, God thought about you and loved you. Everyone who has ever was or ever will be came from God. That’s why you can say you are part of the Family of God. Your parents cooperated with God’s plan for you. Through the miracle of procreation, they assisted God in bringing you to life.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure Mike and I just got busy. Sperm. Egg. Boom! Miracle of life. And if someone responded to my inquiry of “Where are you from?” with a bullshit “I’m part of the Family of God,” I’d pretty much write them off as coo-coo birds.

I’m not saying Ethan and Lauren aren’t part of God’s plan, but this is a pretty limited, self-serving explanation. To be fair, the book does include a little bit more on pages 48-49, but it’s VERY limited and focused on outdated notions. (Go figure!)

I responded to his teacher with this note:

Thank you so much for your email. No, Ethan did not tell me all this (except the testing stuff). We are still seeing his therapist, every other week. This was not one of the weeks. However, Ethan and I had a VERY good talk tonight.

There are three big issues here:

  • Testing pressure. Ethan has been stressed about the Iowas for months. I’ve let him know to just do his best, but he always stresses about tests. Testing causes him a lot of internal turmoil, particularly when he’s being asked questions he’s not familiar with. I’m not sure how to encourage him more than I have. And I’m not surprised that he’s upset during a testing week.
  • Ethan has been on the receiving side of some major bullying for the last few weeks. My attitude toward bullying is old-school – bullying happens at all life stages, so find a way to deal with it. My advice is obviously not working. In the last few weeks, a group of boys (NAMES redacted to protect the underage guilty) have been calling him names including princess, queen, Hillary Clinton, and lesbian. Ethan’s response to retaliate verbally is getting him in trouble – Ethan’s voice is LOUD, so he’s the one being heard with his retaliation. (However, racial name calling is NEVER tolerated, and we discussed that at length.) He feels like he has to say something back to the boys because walking away makes the other kids laugh and Ethan gets embarrassed. He hasn’t mentioned the bullying to anyone at school because he doesn’t want retaliation from the boys finding out that he tattled. He’s afraid it will cause even further name calling and more aggressive bullying. Ethan also said nasty comments are not just directed at him – this group is making comments about teachers behind their backs (including the art teacher mentioned in your email). In the art situation, Ethan was trying to call out the boys for looking at the teacher while saying “we like you” but behind the teacher’s back, the boys were saying some REALLY nasty things about him. Ethan was trying to let the teacher know what the boys were really saying. He did not handle it appropriately and he acknowledges that. The bullying issue is such a big deal to him, that Ethan talked to his therapist about the bullying issue a few weeks ago, and she indicated that she would mention it to someone at St. B. I’m assuming that connection didn’t happen?
  • Family Life. ETHAN NEEDS TO BE REMOVED FROM FAMILY LIFE IMMEDIATELY. First, perhaps I misunderstood, but I thought it was mentioned at the beginning of the year that the book would be sent home for parents to review in advance. That didn’t happen. I’ve had concerns the last few weeks about what was being taught – Ethan has come home asking about bestiality and why judges who impose the death penalty have committed a sin. (Note: Ethan’s dad was an attorney and we have A LOT of attorney/judge friends.) In addition, this subject IS the major difference in the last two weeks, as the book was introduced after spring break. Tonight, I asked Ethan about Family Life and if it was the reason for his behavior changes. His immediate response was “no.” Then he started to completely break down crying (the major, ugly kind of crying and sobbing). He said, “I didn’t even realize it until now, but Family Life time is hard for me. I thought I was over daddy’s death, but I’m not.” Take a look at the book – most of the photos are the shiny happy stereotypical family: mom, dad, 2 kids (I’m surprised there aren’t more white picket fences and dogs). Yep, there are photos of mom with the kids, but there are also a lot with dad and the kids. (And a strange number of photos of mom on a corded phone, no husband or kids around?) Discussions about “who are you closer to, your mom or dad?” (or however it was phrased in class, Ethan didn’t remember the exact wording) are causing major issues with Ethan’s mental health. THESE DISCUSSIONS ARE A TRIGGER FOR HIM AND HIS GRIEF, AND (AS I’VE MENTIONED BEFORE) TRIGGERS CAN AFFECT ALL HIS BEHAVIORS AND THESE EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS ARE NOT GOING AWAY, even outside of the lesson. I really believe spending time with this book and these lessons are hurting his attitude and his behaviors at school. Ethan and I agree that there is value with Family Life, and I would like to keep the book and teach the lessons to my son myself. We can coordinate what lessons you’re teaching each week so Ethan can stay on the same page as his classmates. But having him sit in class where a more “traditional” family model is discussed is very hurtful for him. (In his words: “Even in divorced families, the kids have a mom and a dad. I feel like an albino zebra because I stick out so much.”)

Finally, I want to clarify the activities on the playground. When the boys play football, it’s aggressive all the way around – the GAME is aggressive. There’s a move that the boys came up with earlier in the year called the “(LAST NAME) Attack” in which Ethan acts as the rusher. You can’t have a rusher and/or a move called “(LAST NAME) Attack” without an aggressive facial look. (Also, Ethan played tackle football in St. Louis before we moved and rule No. 1 is to look tough. Seriously.) The aggressive look might appear out of context from where (name of recess dictator redacted) stands observing the game. If football is allowed, aggressive looks (and, let’s be honest, aggressive actions) should be allowed. Other kids are knocking down players and throwing the ball too hard resulting in injuries. Kids are getting bruised, and yet a lot of the class wants to play. Aggression is part of the game. Let them play the game, or ban the game. It’s football, not ring-around-the-rosie.

Ethan and I have talked about appropriate school behavior, not talking out and being more respectful. If the bullying and Family Life issues are addressed, his behaviors will change dramatically.

Today, in response, Ethan’s teacher asked that I reconsider removing him from Family Life because he asks good questions and leads the discussion. He’s not afraid to ask questions that other kids are too shy to address, and she feels it’s good for everyone if he’s part of the group since he plays a lead. Um, no, I stand by my position to remove him from Family Life.

And if she wants him involved, then she has to deal with the consequences of his behavior triggered by this bullshit, outdated, superficial, Pollyanna class. We’ll see how Monday’s meeting goes…

We need roooooommmm! Basement remodeling decisions

I was going to write about my sister and how she’s really pissing me off by making my mom feel guilty and she’s passive aggressively dissing mom on social media. But when I started writing, I realized giving Julie that much of my time and attention was making me really, really angry. She’s crazy, and always will be. (And for anyone I know IRL who’s following Julie’s FB “health” drama, don’t believe the hype, and please don’t think my mom and I are not involved. We just know how this plays out because we’ve been there, done that, and we’re over it. Julie’s using and abusing the new BF and his family – they’re just too new to know who/what my sister truly is. But, hey, Julie’s getting a newly remodeled home out of the deal, so grossly exaggerating things and lying is okay, right?)

Ahem.

Let’s talk basements. The topic will still stress me out, but in a much nicer way.

When I bought this house, I really liked that the basement was unfinished. I’d seen some homes with poorly designed basements, so a large, empty, open concrete slab (with decently tall ceilings), was a selling point. Clean slate. Do what I want, when I want, figure out what works for the kids and me.

In the four years since we’ve lived here, the basement has become a four corner dump pile – storage here, kids’ toys there, stuff for a yard sale here, holiday decorations there. There are also about 15 large moving boxes STUFFED with packing paper, making a cardboard wall separating kid space from yard sale stuff. Organized but not useable.

Sure, the kids will play down there every once in a while. And I’ll run/walk on the treadmill (which can’t be plugged into the outlets in the basement, so a heavy-duty extension cord runs up the stairs – super classy). But it’s cold (no heat), and a little dark, and really not inviting.

Last year, I thought I’d get it finished, but, you know, cancer. (Damn, 2015 was a wasted year.)

Now this, THIS is the year: the kids are older and need more space – Lauren’s dollhouses and dress up clothes and babies are taking over the living spaces where I never intended toys to be (dining room, front room, living room, entryway, kitchen – girl stuff is EVERYWHERE); Ethan doesn’t always want to watch “Wild Kratz” or other Lauren-type shows and is at an age where he needs to have a little bit of his own time and space. And I’m tired of stepping on Legos when he spreads himself – and those damn plastic foot-destroyers – across the living room floor.

And, as B and I work toward merging our family together, more usable space is becoming necessary – a place where all six of us can (comfortably) gather, a place where he can play his bass and I can arrange/organize/use crafty and gift wrapping stuff.

I started getting bids for the job.

  • First guy: REALLY young (not that age is a big deal), ridiculously quick, didn’t seem super thorough, plans didn’t reflect some of the things I asked for, some of the design elements didn’t make sense (i.e., walling around the furnace and water heater so close that neither would be able to be removed should I have to replace them in the future), kind of got the sense he might nickel-and-dime me when things don’t go as planned.
  • Second guy (and his wife who is his design partner): straight shooter, super thorough, pointed out some things I should correct now (whether or not he does the job), his bid was about $10K more than I want to spend BUT I think he’d do an amazing job (and he guarantees not to go over the budget).
  • Third guy: walked him through what I wanted, spent half the time he was at the house talking on his phone to someone (I was upstairs; he was supposed to be doing measurements), pointed out stuff I should do now (like guy 2), can’t get me the estimate until he has his electrician AND plumber AND carpenter all come out separately – like “Hey Dude 3, what’s your job if you’re not qualified to figure this shit out?!”
  • Fourth guy: got his name from an remodeling referral service at a home improvement show this weekend (he was the only one of four names sent that had a website, and I’m leary of builders and remodelers who are not showcasing their work on the internet or social media), from his website he is really receptive to working WITH the homeowner on budget and design, GREAT phone conversation with him, he’s coming out tomorrow.

This is a CRAZY big decision to make. It’s a lot of money. I want it done right. I want it to feel like part of the house, not just an afterthought or nasty scary basement. I don’t know enough about remodeling or building or plumbing or electric or drywall to know if someone is doing a good job or not. I need to have full-faith in the person doing the work.

Guys 1 and 3 are out.

I like guy 2, especially his no bullshit attitude, but he’s expensive.

Guy 4 *might* be the answer.

Oh boy, adult decisions are hard.

To Kill a Mockingbird, err…To Kill a Kid’s Desire to Read

News of Harper Lee’s death dominated the internet late last week. It prompted some serious conversation at Chez Jax. “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of my favorite books, and the movie is at the top of my list also. The book is so dear to me that I refuse to read “Go Set a Watchman” because I really don’t believe the beloved Ms. Lee wanted it published.

At the same time, I received a note (the second in two weeks) from Ethan’s teacher about his reading grade. Part of the grade relies on students reading books and taking online quizzes about the book contents. Students can pick any book, as long as it’s within their individual reading level and part of the database program from which the quizzes originate.

Ethan LOVES to read. The kid will literally spend hours in his room reading. It’s awesome! As a former literature major, it truly warms my heart that my kid – my SON – loves reading. Unfortunately, the kinds of books Ethan likes to read aren’t on the program list. He likes reference books, encyclopedias, text books, and not-kid books. Seriously, the kid reads text books and encyclopedias FOR FUN.

As long as he’s reading, I encourage that. Read what you want, I say! Just read.

Because he’s not reading books in the database program, he can’t take the quizzes. (Reference and text books are not on the list.) So this quarter, he’s at 35 percent of his reading goal, even though he just finished David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers.” (Not on the list.)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was on the list, within Ethan’s reading level, and worth 15 points, which would put him over his reading goal for the quarter. I dug out my old copy and handed it to him, explaining I read it for the first time in the sixth grade.

He started reading it that day. The first chapter, he said, was slow, but he reasoned, most books start a bit slow. By the second chapter, he was hooked. He read it all weekend. And he took it to school today.

At 9:30, I received an email from his teacher:

Ethan brought To Kill a Mockingbird to school to read today.  I told him that book is not appropriate for his age given one of the adult topics in the book.  I did not tell him it was concerning rape.  He thought I was talking about racism, which is fine. Nevertheless, that book is appropriate for the higher middle school and high school student.  At SCHOOL NAME, we read the book in 8th grade and it is not on our AR list of quizzes for anyone but the 8th graders reading the book.  Ethan asked me to email you and explain that to you.  If you’d like him to read it that is not my business but it won’t work for his AR goals and I’d prefer that he not discuss the topic in school at this age. 

WTF. So my kid reads at a ninth grade level (this book’s at an 8th grade level), but books at that level aren’t appropriate? Color me confused…

Sure, the book includes racism and rape and a whole host of other social issues. Those SAME issues are talked about on morning drive radio, or the nightly news, or referenced in TV shows. Issues Ethan and I frequently talk about, openly, at the dinner table or before bed. Things that are part of our world. Things that I don’t hide from my kids. Things that require open and honest discussion.

I’m not raising my kids to live in a bubble. I want them to form their own opinions, to be able to dialogue about issues in our world. I don’t shy away from the “hard” topics. I want my kids to understand that there’s some nasty bad people and things out there – and some really good people who fight for what’s right.

Decision made: fuck his reading grade. I’m letting the kid read what he wants – even if it’s not on the “list” or deemed “inappropriate.” I’m going to tell him to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” BECAUSE his teacher doesn’t want him to – that’s reason enough to read it, talk about it, and learn from it.

Update to -1

Ethan’s teacher responded to my email. She was “surprised” that I sent an email and “sad” that I thought she “would be such an inconsiderate teacher.” After a couple of email exchanges, I have a bit of clarification, but not satisfaction.

Students were told to ask “any adult” to tell the story of where they were when the Challenger exploded. Some parents, as the teacher pointed out, were only a year old at the time, so it could be any adult. (A year old in 1986!? Now I feel ancient…) She said she specifically told Ethan he could ask his grandma for a story. Students received one point for each “story” they brought in.

Fine. However, “story” seems to be a pretty broad term. Literally, most students had one line – “my dad was home sick.” That’s not a story. That’s a statement. I wrote a story. A one-page story. The only story.

Also, while the kids see my mom regularly and B is becoming a more regular fixture during the week (YAY!), there’s one “adult” with whom the kids have regular contact. Me. It’s presumptuous to assume there’s anyone else around the kids on any given day. There is simply me. That’s only one extra credit point because there was only one adult around the dinner table with whom Ethan could get a “story.”

On the night of the assignment, I picked E up from school, and he was with my mom for about 40 minutes while I went to the gym. In that 40 minutes, at minimum, she emptied the kids’ lunchboxes, made snacks, ensured Lauren had all her winter snow gear for the next day, went through Lauren’s school folder, listened to Lauren read a story, helped Lauren with homework, and took the dog out to potty. She probably also moderated arguments between E and L, coerced them to change out of school clothes, tracked down Lauren’s water bottle (she always leaves it in my mom’s car), and who knows what else. Point being, there wasn’t  a lot of time for my mom to chat with Ethan about her recollection of that historical day.

Sometimes adulting is hard. Sometimes it sucks. Today is one of those days.

 

And you get -1 for not having a second parent

I’m pissed. I’m sad. I’m literally crying in a Panera Bread right now. (Since it’s too early for a drink, I’m medicating through pastries and massive amounts of caffeine.)

The kids attend a Catholic school, which means there’s an expectation for parental volunteering. I could write PAGES on how I feel about volunteering and how it’s (mis)handled at the school and why it’s best for everyone that I do the minimum (lest I be seen as a raging, controlling, know-it-all bitch), but that’s not today’s point. At the beginning of the year, I signed up to help with “Friday folders” in Ethan’s class. Basically, once a week, all the tests and homework and notes to parents have to be sorted and put into the correct kids’ folder to go home. It’s usually less than an hour every three or four weeks. I can do it alone, first thing in the morning when I drop off the kids, and still have the rest of my day for grading, yoga and errands.

Generally, I don’t pay much attention to anything I’m sorting. Look at the name, put in the kid’s pile, move on to the next. But there was one assignment in which I was interested.

The kids were asked last week to talk to their parents about where they were when the Challenger exploded in 1986. The kids had to write (or have a parent write) the response for extra credit. I told the kids the story of where I was and how I learned of the explosion. It was long and convoluted (junior high, screaming crying science teacher, seeing it on TV in the classroom after lunch, watching endless coverage that afternoon/night, sister’s birthday celebration that night downgraded and somber, Chicago Bears Super Bowl decorations still out around my grandma’s house where my sister and I were staying while my mom was in the hospital and dad was out of town). See, lots of detail. I remember it well. So I wrote the response. It was an entire page.

Ethan added a second part of the extra credit – how many Earths would fit into the sun? (1.3 million, if you were curious.) And he turned it in.

Today those responses were part of the work to be sent home. Most were short – “my mom was in high school” – few went into much detail – “my dad watched it in the library at UWM.” Mine was by far the most detailed and longest. (And it was the only one written in green Sharpie. Green for science, get it? Color coding!)  Ethan received two points extra credit (one for my response, one for the Earth/sun question). Great.

But several kids in the class received THREE points on the extra credit assignment. One point for the Earth/sun question, one point for mom’s response, one point for dad’s response. The teacher made three check marks on the papers that received three points – one check next to the Earth/sun question, one next to the mom’s response, one next to the dad’s response. Three points.

Two-parent families, in which both parents contributed to the “where were you” assignment, were rewarded more than those in which only one parent responded. (And, quite frankly, the generic nature of the majority of responses – “My mom saw it on TV. My dad saw it on TV.” – make me question how meaningful some of the conversations really were, and, honestly, if some of the conversations actually even took place.)

Spoiler alert: in our household, there is only ONE parent capable of responding since the other is, you know, dead.

It feels woefully unfair. It’s exactly what I don’t want Ethan – or Lauren – to experience: “your dad is dead and you’ll never be on the same playing field as kids with two, living parents. Those kids will always get three points, and you’ll be stuck with two points. You can’t ever get three points.

Exaggeration? Yeah, sure.

It’s just extra credit, you’re thinking. Big deal, right?

Wrong. This is a kid who continues to struggle with his memories of his dad. A kid who is still coming to terms with his grief. A kid who is ANGRY that his dad chose to drink beer and vodka and whiskey instead of choosing to LIVE to see his kids grow up. A kid who is very aware that he is different because his dad is dead. Dead. Dead.

Yeah, to THAT kid (and his mom), losing out on one point is a much, much bigger deal. It’s symbolic of what’s lost and can never be replaced.

It’s another more hurdle to overcome. One more time in which he won’t have something others will, through no fault of his own.

He will always be one point shy of his classmates’ scores.

Fuck.

Updated: I sent the teacher the following email (yes, regardless of what I say in the first paragraph, I’ve already jumped to conclusions, but I needed to write/post this blog or I would explode with rage). I’m eagerly awaiting her response:

Hi (TEACHER NAME) –

While doing folders this morning, I saw something that really disturbed me. I wanted to ask about it before I make any assumptions.

On the “where was my parent when the Challenger exploded” and Earth/sun extra credit, some students received 3 points, while others (like Ethan) only got 2 points. The only difference between those who received 3 points and those who received 2 points was the inclusion of information from both parents (Earth/sun=1 point, mom=1 point, dad=1 point).

Please clarify the point system, and if Ethan did not get a third point because asking his dad is impossible. Thank you.

–J