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.
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.