Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Ugly Duckling: A Commentary on Education and Community

I attended Tuesday night's Board of Education meeting as a community reporter, but my heart as a parent suffered the most. I'm not a Farm Hill parent, so I have no direct knowledge of what has happened there. My children left the Middletown school system in 2009 for private school, so I don't even have a direct connection to a Middletown school in general. What I do have, though, is one of "those" children. My oldest is in 6th grade, and he has been "difficult" since he was born: 20 minute naps as an infant, tantrums as a two-year-old because we weren't driving "the right way," meltdowns over schoolwork, you name it we've had it. He doesn't have a learning disability, he doesn't have ADHD, he doesn't have any diagnosable "problem," but he does have a low threshold for frustration, he's impulsive, and he's got a flaming, instantaneous temper when things don't go his way. His outbursts can be so consuming and violent that I've wondered if one day I'll have to worry about my safety.

So let's consider his environment: he's very white, upper-middle class, has happily married and well-educated parents, great healthcare, mom at home full time, dad very involved in parenting, active church involvement, nice home with all the extras in a good neighborhood, attends private school, involved in sports and other activities including music, gets to travel, lacks for nothing and yet, he's a nightmare to be around when he loses it.

We've seen doctors, psychologists, and counselors. We've had teacher meetings, administrator meetings and any other meeting you can think of. We've drafted plans, talked about consequences, implemented plans and consequences, yelled, grounded, taken stuff away, canceled family events, talked about medication (but without a specific diagnosis, meds aren't an option), etc. He goes to bed by 8pm and doesn't watch TV or play video games during the week, and that's been his schedule for at least the last 3 or 4 years. We've thrown significant time and resources at "solving" his problems, and yet nothing has worked to prevent his meltdowns, not even under a specific doctor's recommended care.

In second grade, he had issues with the long-term sub when his regular teacher had a knee replacement. In third grade he was in trouble every day for doing something the teacher didn't like, and then he got mad a recess one day and punched one of his best friends. Then we started seeing someone for anger management and put him in private school for fourth grade. We paid full tuition, knowing it was our responsibility to provide him with the best possible environment. It was better for a little while, but then he had issues "getting along" with his classmates. In fifth grade, it seemed like he had finally settled in. Mind you, it wasn't his schoolwork that was the problem. He's very smart and completes his homework effortlessly if he feels like it. He could do without any kind of writing, but he is more than competent at it if forced to work on it long enough. He had a few bumpy moments with his two teachers, but seemed to be getting the hang of it finally.

Here's the point of my story: right before the February break last year, his teacher mentions to me as I'm leaving school for vacation that there have been some issues at recess, but that the teachers were handling it. He doesn't explain, I'm in a hurry to get out the door. The day we returned from vacation, I'm asked to a meeting between the teachers and an administrator about an upcoming parent meeting for the entire 5th grade (about 23 kids). I'm told that a group of kids have been treating my son unfairly, that there are all kinds of issues in 5th grade about how the kids were treating each other. All the parents will be meeting with a hired outside counselor to talk things over. So my husband and I go to that meeting, only to have it get hijacked by a small group of very angry parents with a specific grievance against our son. I was told, in front of a room full of about 40 parents, that "our school has been a great place until your kid showed up and ruined our lives...."

If you can imagine what I felt at that moment - shock, disbelief, anger at not being told anything about what was going on, amazement that not one parent called me in the WEEKS of supposed goings on, frustration that my child might have really screwed it up this time, etc. - then you can imagine a piece of what it was like to be in the BOE meeting on Tuesday. There was genuine anger, frustration, and horror. There was also a lot of uncertainty, missing details, emotion, speculation, and basic lashing out, and here's why my personal experiences as a parent are relevant. Let's not forget that the other side of this story is the child who struggles and the parent who has to watch it over and over and over again. I'm not concluding that parents are excused from parenting or that children shouldn't be held accountable for their actions, I'm saying that there are many moving pieces in play, and we all need to take a moment and consider what they are before we pass judgment on anyone.

Hans Christian Anderson wrote the story, The Ugly Duckling, in 1844. I've always known the basic story, but I hadn't actually read it for myself until yesterday. Take a moment to read it for yourself in the original telling. (click here)

The basic moral of the story is of course that you can't be something you're not. If you're not a duck, you can't be one no matter how hard you try. We all get that, I think. Then I thought about how the story applies to public education generally, and the Middletown Public School system specifically. It occurred to me that maybe we're still trying to turn swans into ducks when we ought to be focusing on the quality of the water in the pond.

Every child is unique and special. Even in a family with the same parents, children can be similar and yet completely different. On the scale of a large city with multiple schools, then, these differences are magnified infinitely. We're no longer talking about ducks and swans, for there are frogs, fish, bugs, snakes, geese, beavers, otters, turtles, herons, snails, water lilies, cattails, and all the other creatures and plants that would live in or use a pond. A healthy pond needs all these creatures for the eco-system to function properly. A turtle can't tell a goose to leave because the goose honks loudly, and any nature lover can tell you the havoc wreaked on the system when one species dominates in a way it shouldn't (think invasive non-native species).

Most importantly, any use of the pond creates ripples. Fish swim below the surface, a flock of geese makes all kinds of noise and waves when landing collectively, and tree frogs just talk incessantly when they have something to say. So "correct" use of the pond isn't about not disturbing the surface or the peace, it's about the pond's ability to meet the needs of the creature using it. Animals will stay when their needs are met and they will move on when they need something else. Plants will thrive or die off, and the cycle continues on.

Our pond metaphor gets tricky when you consider the outside forces that can alter how a pond functions. A nearby industrial plant that pollutes the water stream forces the ecosystem to handle a threat it wasn't designed for. A massive storm or even a new housing development could rearrange the terrain and alter drainage into or out of the pond. The inhabitants of the pond have no control over these outside events, but they suffer all the consequences of an altered environment with no ability to change their circumstances. It's also possible that the altered environment brings new users (for better or for worse), and a frog couldn't argue that a beaver couldn't use the pond because beavers had never been there before.

So, if we all agree that education is a principal foundation for our American way of life, and we have chosen the public school system as the primary method to convert principal into deed, we must all use the same perspective to evaluate how the system functions.

There is a huge ripple in the pond over at Farm Hill Elementary School right now, but why? Is it a functional ripple, meaning the system is being used as it should be? Or, is it a warning from one user of the system to all other users that danger is close and everyone had better pay attention? If the latter, what is the source of the danger? Is it a direct threat, meaning one participant to another (think heron to fish), or an indirect threat, meaning a force that will alter the basic make-up of the environment (think acid rain or even a drought)?

My pond metaphor ceases to be useful at the point we have to consider the safety of each child in the school environment. Obviously heron are entitled to eat, and they like fish and frogs, and that's not so good for the fish and frogs, but that's how it goes for nature. So, moving on, let's consider what we as a community can say and do from here.

1. Get the facts. The warning call sounded, so let's check it out. Assistant Superintendent Barbara Senges told me personally that every complaint or accusation mentioned at Tuesday night's meeting will get checked out. I heard several BOE members say something similar, and we have to trust all of them to do their jobs and give them the time to sort it out. There are many sides to this story - teachers, administrators, the kids who were involved, the kids who weren't involved, parents who are involved, parents who aren't involved, and so on.

2. Tell the truth. For everyone in this town as well as this situation specifically, honesty is an absolute requirement. If you made a mistake, own it, admit it, and then fix it. If a program isn't working the way it was designed to, say so and then make it better. There is no such thing as a perfect parent or teacher or administrator or child. Some of my most spectacular failures as a parent have come at the same time I've been trying to get my child "under control" for his own failure to keep it together. If I were to continue to apply the same failing method while blaming him for the problem, I'd be ignoring my duty as a parent to know and love and guide my child for the person he is instead of the person I wished he was. I'm not saying I'm now perfect, I'm saying I get it intellectually and I still fail to execute it the way I think and know I should, and so I have to keep trying.

3. Think before you speak, and then act with grace and mercy. Humans are emotional creatures, and threats to our children are probably the number one reason for instant, emotional response. That's OK and that's how we're wired. We also live in a community and depend on each other for friendship, support, economic prosperity and safety. If you act and speak without measure, you damage these relationships in the most profound ways. In my personal experience, those angry parents ended up not having the full story (they only knew what their children had told them), and their assumptions and actions shattered our small school community. In the end, everyone shared a piece of the problem, my child included, and resolution could only be possible when everyone recognized what was wrong and worked together to make it right. Honestly, that didn't completely happen and I would say that it's not 100% better. That doesn't give me the right to be rude to people or to fail to hold my child accountable for his mistakes, and it also doesn't mean that we shouldn't even try to make improvements because we can't be 100% successful in solving problems. Building community is a process that doesn't end, and if you expect or deserve certain things from your community, your community expects and deserves those same things from you.

4. Say I'm sorry. No ifs, ands or buts...just I'm sorry. Those are powerful words and they work magic to deflate an angry, heated atmosphere. Those words are most effective from people in positions of authority, even if said individuals had no direct responsibility for what happened. "I'm sorry" also works between parents and children, and parents and parents, and children and children. You don't even have to be sorry for doing something to someone else, you could be sorry for not noticing their struggle or sorry that they're struggling at all.

5. Be a friend. This is a deliberate action, and it can be hard and uncomfortable. It can also be rewarding, exciting, funny, joyful, and the most fun of your life! Look for someone to be a friend to, and don't assume he or she doesn't like you because they didn't ask you first. Stand up for someone you see being mistreated, and ask questions when you don't understand a situation you witness.

Finally, we have to trust the system to work. Parents and schools are supposed to be allies, not enemies. It's not "us" against "them" (well, sometimes our kids think it is, but that's a different "us" and "them"!). Individuals can make mistakes and we should insist on accountability, but we have to work together, not against each other. There's no room for egos or personal agendas. This is our town, our money, our schools, and our kids. Call the other parent and get the whole story if your child complains about another child. If you have an issue you can't work out with the teacher or the principal, file a complaint or make an appointment with the Assistant Superintendent and the Superintendent. Go to a Board of Education meeting and stay the whole time, not just for the public comment time. Focus on what you can do to make sure the pond is clean and healthy, even if you can't do as much as someone else can, and together we can ensure all our children have the best possible environment to grow up in.

Jennifer Mahr,
EYE reporter and mother of 3 living in Middletown

P.S. About my "ugly duckling" sixth grader...he's in middle school now and they change classes and teachers every period. He has gym twice a week, sports practice during school twice a week, and practice after school twice a week. He's not only having a better year, he's rocking everything he does, and he's doing it without parental intervention, without a doctor's supervision, and without medication. He's had remarkable improvement in his behavior at home. He hasn't had one issue at school, and it's the same kids, same parents, same everything as the last two very difficult years. Maturity might be some of it, perhaps our continual efforts have finally accomplished something, maybe the possibility of a cell phone for awesome grades through eighth grade might be a factor, or just maybe it could be as simple as the fact that his school schedule no longer has him sitting in the same place with the same kids for long periods of time. Just maybe this continual motion helps reset his frustration tolerance every 50 minutes or so, and that's all he needs to function "successfully." Is he now a "perfect" child and my parenting challenges are over? Hah! We haven't even introduced hormones yet, so I know there's no chance I'm off the hook. But, I have had a stunning insight into what makes my child tick, and I now see the last several years in a completely different light. I so desperately wanted a duck, and my son is not a duck for sure. Interestingly, though, I think his ugly behavior is mostly the result of the basic assumption that he was a duck and needed to learn like one. When that restriction was lifted, we are now better able to see him for who he really is.


Madam Nirvana (Molly Salafia) said...

Jennifer, I am speechless. Beautiful insight and thank you for sharing so intimately with all of us. I wish you were Middletown's superintendent

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, I nearly wept reading your story. It was beautiful! children are always in thr process learning. As adults we need to remember it is about the child and not what is convenient for us. Parents should be more gracious and supportive of one another. I wish you and your family the best. Please write again and share the success of your child who has been on a "learning" journey.

lechowiczfam said...

Jennifer, thank you for sharing and broadening the perspective of this community conversation. Your authenticity and perseverance is inspiring and I hope it will open people's minds and hearts.

David Sauer said...


Thank you for your very thoughtful and thought provoking post. Your five rules for moving forward are really a masterpiece. If everyone (or even most of us) could follow these guidelines something positive will come out of this.

Thank you for a post that really moves us forward in the pursuit of our common goal, the best education possible for our children.

BCFire said...

I just want to take a moment and compliment on a thoughtful piece. We in Middletown may not always agree, but what we should do is agree to disagree and act as adults should. Too often we try to fit square pegs into round holes and expect diamonds to emerge. What we need to realize is we all are not created equally, no matter how many trophies we hand one another. It is what makes us unique as human beings.

Being the parent of three daughters who have gone thru Middletown's system, specifically Farm Hill, it saddens me this can take place in the city I am born and raised in. What I offer each parent and BOE member is that you work together to address concerns and find solutions as adults should. The children are watching and are looking for our calmer cooler heads to show them the right directions.

Middletown's system may not be the best, but we owe it to our children to ensure the problems are identified and repaired. One thing I do know is Dr. Nocera is one of the most calm cool headed leaders I have witnessed in a while. I know I will not question his knowledge and background in education just as he won't question mine as a professional firefighter. The fact of the matter still remains, Middletown is all of our homes. We must all come together to assist this school for the well being of our children. A community is lost if it ignores our children. It takes a village folks, that is a very powerful statement.

jennifer said...

This is a wonderful analogy. Thank you for your insight and the genuine share into your own experience which will no doubt be of help in this particular situation. Best wishes to you and your family as you navigate your own "waters".

Wendy Sheil said...

Thank you for your insight, sharing of your personal story and your ideas. You have brought a much-needed perspective and it is so well said and in such a way that I am hopeful that many can "take it in". A very touching and meaningful piece.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, now you know the fear that the parents of "those kids" at Farm Hill feel like and how they are in fear of speaking out against the negative comments their community has made about their kids and them. They have been labeled bad parents by the general public who don't understand. The PTA president would prefer to take away one of the tools that helps their children out of ignorance. Best of luck to you and all the other families who through no fault of their own find themselves in a similar situation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. You are a eloquent writer enabling us to feel what you went through. You also created an analogy that is strong and understandable, yet were able to know the limitations of that analogy in this situation. I also like your points, they are strong and thoughtful and are something everyone can apply to their own lives.
I am not as well spoken as you, so I don't want offense taken at any of my criticism of your article. I am trying to add to the point and see where things are challenging.
First, I think your weakness in your whole story is that your children go to private school. You don't specifically share why you choose to send them to private school and if it has anything to do with your oldest child, whom I would called a quirky kid:
"The world is full of Quirky Kids. They live with us in our houses-but they live in slightly different zones, seeing the world around them through idiosyncratic lenses, walking just a little out of step, marching and even dancing to the beat of different drummers…These are the differences-skewed development, temperamental extremes, social complications-that define the group of quirky kids." from the book:
Quirky Kids, Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In, When to Worry and When Not to Worry, by Perri Klass, M.D., and Eileen Costello, M.D. pgs. 13-14, Introduction.
I put my personal assumptions out there about why you choose the private school world; you were tired of fighting the school district to get the services your child needed. That is my fight and I don't have the luxury of paying for private school. I am sure that other readers also put their own personal assumptions on your choice. But, the point is you left the public school world and there are differences between the two.

Anonymous said...

Which brings me to another point. You ask parents to communicate with each other first. That is not easily done because it is not allowed or encouraged through the public school system. When a child had a situation with another student, we as parents are not told the other student's name, we are not allowed to know what they wrote on their think sheet or what they said happened (but we are given a summary of what they said). We are forced to trust the teachers and principal's judgement. We are not allowed to connect with each other to deal with it. When our children are young, they are not able to communicate well who the other person is, they may give you a name, but that won't help much. As older children, they know who the child is, their siblings and about where they live (sometimes), but in a school meeting we still have to refer to them as "the other student." It is a strange game of privacy protection that just causes more challenges.
I do agree with you, that in a lot of cases if the people involved could talk it out, it would make a huge difference, we see life more alike than we admit. And going through proper channels and following through to the end are essential to help any situation.
The other point which I whole heartedly agree with is saying sorry. I think that brings down emotional wallls. But, we are living in a country with 2-3x more lawyers than doctors. By saying sorry, it is assumed that you are admitting fault and are liable. We have been trying to help our son through the system for years and mistakes have been made, and I can tell you I understand why they have been made, my son doesn't fit into a defined box either. But, once we had it more defined if the district had just said, they made a mistake and let's get things in place now, I would have been extremely satisfied and felt more confidence in the system. But, I got the feeling that if they admitted to mistakes, someone would be held accountable and then they would have been concerned that we would sue them. So the school district and the admin will not say they are sorry. Just like the BOE and the City wouldn't make ammends under the old leaders. It is just as much a part of our nature not to admit fault as it is to protect our children.
I am gladly sharing your story because I think it is something that everyone needs to read after the week we have had in this town.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your story, it was so insightful. I wish more Middletown parents could read it!