Crying at the Curb

Eric's Middle School
Eric's Middle School
My mom had always said that, “Kids will tell you what they need”. That was her way of saying she respected a young person’s ability to know what was best for them. But when our pre-teen son started telling us with his behavior that his middle school was not what he needed, we were not listening, and that failure led to what I recall as the darkest period of my parenting experience.

As I’ve said before, context is everything, and there were difficult issues at play during this time. Our son’s mom, my partner Sally, had gone through a diagnosis of breast cancer, a mastectomy, chemotherapy and all the side effects of that treatment (see “Breast Cancer”). Our son had had some bad experiences in his previous two years of school with teachers who seemed either “checked out” (lost their love of teaching and were just going through the motions) or very rigid in the way they ran their classrooms.

Sally and I had great hopes at the time for the middle school he was newly attending. It was a performing arts magnet school and our son really loved theater and film. We had naively hoped that the school built its entire curriculum around the performing arts and our son could just plunge into a creative milieu that he loved and learn what he needed to learn as a consequence. Though he did have one theater class that he really got into, and his physical education class was dance, the rest of his day was spent in the same traditional academic classrooms that he found boring and had had difficulties with the previous two years.

He did have some good experiences at that school school. He had several teachers who appreciated and enjoyed who he was as an individual, and ran a looser, noisier, more collaborative classroom which he was much more comfortable in. He participated each semester in both dance or theater performances, and developed close friendships with some of his fellow cast members. He also had the opportunity to successfully lead an effort – including a student petition drive – to lobby the schools principal to open up an additional area for the students to eat lunch outside.

But most of his day in school was spent with teachers in classroom environments that he found overly structured, needlessly formal and featured boring make-work in an otherwise interesting subject. Some examples…

Our son had a science class where the teacher started the year with a weekly schedule that involved lectures, experiments then a Friday quiz or test that was the bulk of the student’s grade. Our son found the material interesting, listened to the lectures, participated in discussion and experiments, and demonstrated his acquiring of the knowledge by getting A’s on the quizzes and tests. But because many of the students were doing poorly on those same quizzes and tests, the teacher changed his approach to try and help them bump up their failing grades. He instituted mandatory homework that was 50% of the class grade. Our son refused to do the homework while continuing to ace the quizzes and tests, lowering his grade from an A to a C, and putting him constantly at odds with his teacher pestering our son for never-done homework.

A video production class, which our son was so looking forward to, was led by a teacher who spent the first ten weeks of class having the students study the camera manuals and other texts on film-making and not letting them even touch the video equipment itself. The teacher was apparently concerned that his students would misuse the equipment and by keeping them away from it for so long, created a very negative class dynamic. By the end of the twenty-week class, according to our son, the students had done very little actual video work and were generally unhappy with the class and disgusted with the teacher.

The above mentioned experiences, the context of his mom’s breast cancer recovery, plus the academic routine of school in general, and homework in particular, took its toll on our son. He regularly expressed a feeling that he was trapped in an everyday routine at school that was “boring and pointless” with no hope for relief until holiday breaks or the end of the school year. But caught up in our own lives including my partner Sally’s recovery from breast cancer, and the prevailing parental norm that kids needed to suck it up, take their medicine, and show up and perform in school every day, we did not heed my mom’s advice and listen to our son’s assessment of what he needed. Through two years in this school his situation deteriorated until by 8th grade things came to a head.

During this period, our son was having more and more trouble getting to sleep at night. He later shared with me that he dreaded those weekday mornings when he had to go to school, so he resisted the coming of the new day as much as he could by delaying going to sleep. Making this situation worse, as part of trying to orient him to successfully navigate and perform in his school, we had had him evaluated by doctors who diagnosed him with Attention Deficit Disorder (see “Prescription for Academics”) and prescribed the stimulant Aderall to help him focus better in the classroom and on his homework. We gave him a full pill in the morning and then a half pill in the afternoon to ease his “crash” when the stimulant wore off, but I think it contributed to his difficulty sleeping at night.

Increasing difficulty getting to sleep led to increasing resistance to getting up in the morning, getting dressed and going to school. By the fall of his 8th grade year, every morning was a grueling ordeal of cajoling, pleading and/or coercing him to get out of bed, get dressed and get in the car. This led to him being late to his first period class almost every morning, and except for his English teacher who liked him and did not report him tardy, our son would have been constantly viewed by the school staff as a delinquent student.

As the situation worsened, our son would plead with me on the way to school to not make him go to school that day and let him stay home. Following the tough love parental strategy at that point (advised by his teachers and an educational therapist we had sent him to for a time) I would tell him that he had to go to school and work things out for himself.

Things deteriorated to the point where I would essentially drag him, crying to be allowed to go home, out of the car and leave him sobbing on the curb by his school while I drove off. I can almost not bear to write down these words and admit to doing this morning after morning. What was I thinking? I had let conventional wisdom trump my mom’s advice and my own best judgment.

After weeks of this and several incidents my partner and I finally gave up our effort to keep our son in school. The first incident was when our son walked off to the mall by his school rather than go to class, and was picked up by a truant officer. The second was his response to taking the California 8th grade math assessment test, where rather than answering the questions, he wrote a short essay on his test form including an expletive that captured the depth of his rage (see “Fuck Math”) and got everyone’s attention.

3 replies on “Crying at the Curb”

  1. cooper I loved this blog. I really think you should right a whole book. “The lefty Parent”
    thank you so much for sharing this with me. My girlfriend is reading it right now too.
    happy days

  2. Thank God I’m not the only one who initially had that reaction. I feel so horrible about it- my daughter wound up in therapy at age 9 for suicidal depression/anger management issues. She’d been consistently in academic and behavioral trouble. We finally yanked her. After a year of homeschooling, we put her in a different school, and now she is happy, healthy, and has made Honor Roll every quarter. I think it was just that one year that did her the most good.

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