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?

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.

Back on the chemo train

I’m feeling better than I have in weeks! After being released from the hospital on Monday, I took Tuesday to rest, and then I was back at work on Wednesday and Thursday.

Upon returning to class this week, a student gave me this "pocket angel." She carried it around with her for the last four years as she battled leukemia. "I believe these things should be passed on to those who need them," she said. "You should carry this around with you until you're better, then pass it on to someone who needs it more."

Upon returning to class this week, a student gave me this “pocket angel.” She carried this coin around with her for the last four years as she battled leukemia. “I believe these things should be passed on to those who need them,” she said. “You should carry this around with you until you’re better, then pass it on to someone who needs it more.”

The official diagnosis: pneumonia (viral) and hypoxemia (abnormally low blood oxygen level). With that diagnosis, I had my first “insurance sucks” moment when my insurance company denied the doc’s request for at-home oxygen. Low oxygen levels apparently does not mean I qualify for… oxygen? Makes total sense, right?!

I’ve managed without the oxygen just fine. I use an at-home pulseox (little device I put my finger in to determine my blood oxygen level) when I start to feel funny. From there, I can figure out what to do if my levels are too low (inhaler, deep breathing, sit down/relax, etc.) or too high. Since my levels were SO low, the docs think my oxygen levels have been low for a long time (probably since my GI problems last month) and my body has adapted to less-than-normal levels. Not good. So I feel funny when my oxygen is in the low 80s, and I feel just as funny when my oxygen is in the high 90s.

Treatment started again today. It’s the second phase of chemo. This one is supposed to be 12 weeks of “easy.” Since I’m still recovering from the fever and pneumonia, the oncologist only started one of two of the drugs for this phase (taxol), with the second one being added in a future treatment (carboplatin, which is only administered every three weeks). Some people can’t tolerate carboplatin, so it’s not a HUGE deal if I don’t get it. As the oncologist said, “The carbo is just the icing on the cake.”

Goal for this week: STAY OUT OF THE HOSPITAL!

Discharged! ER! Admitted! Stupid lungs

The doctors discharged me on St. Pat’s day. I had a super productive, feel-good-kind of day for about 36 hours, then things began to go downhill. By Friday, I was coughing and felt weak and tired. On Saturday, I spiked another 101 degree fever, and I had shortness of breath just walking across the room.

“Mommy, don’t try to brave this out. Promise me you’ll go to the hospital and get better,” Ethan said as he handed me the thermometer to confirm the fever. “And can I give you a hug?”

(I will ALWAYS take hugs from E. He’s not a super touchy-feely kid, so when he offers, I accept.)

I called the triage nurse who directed me to go the ER. After some blood tests and a CT scan (and a $75 copay), the ER doc dismissed me with a diagnosis of “not quite pneumonia.” She prescribed an oral antibiotic, plus drinking lots of fluids, and she sent me home.

Things just kept going downhill from there. Walking from the couch to the bathroom was a challenge – my heart would race; I couldn’t get my breathing under control; the coughing would start (and not end). I managed to teach my classes on Monday and Tuesday. Since I still didn’t have much of a voice, I modified my presentation and uploaded it to the Internet. Students reviewed it, then I hit the high points in a very condensed lecture. I used the next half hour for students to talk about the examples they brought to class, then we broke into work time for their assignment. I never left the chair at the front of the room, and I didn’t talk too much. Still, I had to rest in my office (across the hall from the classroom) for 20 minutes before I could imagine walking to my car, which was its own challenge.

Tuesday night was awful. I coughed and moaned all night. I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was miserable. (And I kept everyone up all night – except Lauren. She slept fine.)

Because of lack of sleep, I stayed in bed on Wednesday morning. I didn’t have to teach until 12:30, so I thought I could get a few more hours rest. Unfortunately, the coughing, the moaning, the racing heart didn’t stop. I just couldn’t get out of bed, but I couldn’t get comfortable. I finally forced myself around 10 – “I’ll just slip on some yoga pants, go to work, teach my one class, and go to the doctor,” I thought. It took me an hour to put on pants, shirt, and socks. I didn’t even mess with makeup or contact lenses or shoes that tie.

My head was a little dizzy, and I was a block or so away from the house when I realized I forgot my office keys on the kitchen counter. I turned the car around. The walk from the garage to the kitchen (maybe 30 steps one way?) caused me to nearly pass out. I called my mom. “I’m going to the ER,” I said. “There’s no way I can get from my car to the office today, let alone actually TEACH a class.”

I sent a quick note canceling my class and then drove the five miles to the hospital. When they took me back to an exam room, my oxygen level was in the low 60s (should be near 100) – and this was after sitting in a wheelchair, waiting, for about 20 minutes. Nothing makes doctors run faster to your room than a dangerously low oxygen level.

The doc was the same one who admitted me the first time a few weeks ago. I repeated my symptoms: shortness of breath, racing heart, coughing without stopping. Within two hours, I was admitted to the hospital again.

So I’m back in the hospital – this time, on oxygen, an oral and IV antibiotic cocktail, breathing treatments that feel like I’m sucking on a leaf blower, and more tests and doctors/specialists. A CT scan yesterday (and compared to Saturday’s) showed “cloudy” lungs, or as my oncologist called it “the look of crushed glass.” This morning, I underwent a bronchoscopy (tube/camera down my nose, through my windpipe and larynx and into my lungs – where the doc injected saline and sucked it back out for testing). The good news: the doc called my windpipe “perfect – exactly how the windpipe of a young person who has never smoked should look.” The bad news: it could be days before the test results are in. It could be an infection, a virus, a fungus, or inflammation. And until they know, they can’t adequately treat it. All they can do is throw a little of everything at it. So far, I’ve had antibiotics that treat MRSA, anthrax, the plague, plus generic bacterial infections. Bases seem to be covered.

I’m still really winded whenever I move – even adjusting blankets in my sleep can cause my oxygen levels to dip below 90 (setting off alarms). Walking to/from the bathroom causes my oxygen levels to drop to the high 70s (setting off alarms and causing nurses to check on me). There’s definitely something going on within my lungs and my body doesn’t like it.

It’s also caused another delay in my chemo treatment. I can’t have my blood counts low from chemo while I’m battling whatever this is. My oncologist was funny as he was delivering the news of the delay. He balled up his fists and pounded them down as he said, “But I love killing cancer, and we know the chemo is killing your cancer. I hate delays, but you need to get better.” He went on to say the docs I have are the same ones who treated a lingering cough he had last month, and that I was in really good hands. The doctor’s doctors? Yes, please.

Another thing that sucks, B had a minor medical procedure today, and I wish I could be with him. But I’m tethered to my oxygen tank and IV tower in the hospital, and he’s stuck on his couch with pain meds and frozen peas. It would just be so nice to curl up next to him…

But I’m here through the weekend, probably Monday at least. I just hope they find something so we can treat it.

Finally, a super big thanks to my friends for getting my computer and grading to me, and for checking on my Thursday classes. I REALLY appreciate good colleagues and friends!

Almost 100 percent

I’m back.

Last week was rough. A GI virus that took down my mom and Lauren for about 12 hours spent about 10 days rattling around my body. It didn’t help that it was my “low” week so my body had NOTHING to help the fight.

Day by day, I tried to stay on top of rehydration, but the faster I put fluids in, the faster they were (violently) ejected from my body.

I went to work every day, but I won’t win any awards for my performance – it was all I could do to teach the bare minimum to stay on schedule. Usually my teaching style is very dynamic. I move around a lot, making use of the entire classroom. Last week, I didn’t leave my chair at the front of the room.

I slept. A lot. Because I was up all night, I slept until around 10 a.m., got up, went to work, came home, slept more. I had zero energy.

I was REALLY grouchy, and sometimes dizzy and light headed. I almost passed out after climbing about 40 steps in the parking garage – 40 freaking steps and I had to sit down for 10 minutes on the frozen concrete because I was seeing black spots. Good thing I didn’t park where I normally do or I definitely would have passed out on the walk to my office.

On Thursday, my tolerance reached a low point when I got mad at my thermos for keeping my soup hot and at my scarf for hugging my neck too tight. Getting angry (like, CRAZY mad) at inanimate objects for doing their job? Yeah, that’s not right.

I had been talking to the doctor and his nurses all week. Various tests came back normal. I finally laid it out for the nurse, “If I can’t get in today, I will go to the ER. I desperately need fluids, and I just can’t drink any more.”

I drove straight from work to the cancer center. Two bags of fluid plus magnesium and potassium and instructions for how to manage the GI virus symptoms, and I felt better. I slept through the night on Thursday.

I was still tired and weak and grouchy on Friday. I went shopping with my mom – as a birthday/Mother’s Day present, I wanted to buy her a new oven. She found one she liked and the sale was ending, so we had to go on Friday. It was all I could do to tolerate the appliance salesdude and his incessant repetition of the installation instructions. A trip to Target afterward was cut short because I just wanted to go to sleep.

Reread that – I didn’t want to shop at Target because I was tired. That’s pretty freaking tired, people.

My mom took the kids home with her Friday and Saturday nights so I could rest without interruption. I also decided to ignore the clear liquids/BRAT diet instructions I had been following for the past week. I was going to eat whatever my body told me it wanted. I needed nutrition (and to actually CHEW food) – more than comes from clear broth or jelly toast. Eating felt good.

By Saturday afternoon, I was feeling much better. By Sunday, when the kids came home, I was back to myself. Today, I feel about 95 percent “me.”

Friday will be my last dance with the red devil. I’m doing everything possible to stay on top of my health to get through the next few weeks before “regular” chemo starts. I’m told that will be the easy part.