This was our third parent/teacher night since T. moved in last year and we're getting the hang of it. Back when we were novice parents - having never parented before T. moved in last year at the age of 15 - we made some naive assumptions. We went to our first parent/teacher night expecting that the child we know and love at home is the same one his teachers get to see every day.
This year we're smarter. It no longer shocks us that T. is either an A student or a D student with no happy medium. It no longer mystifies us that the kid who is generally very orderly and organized at home is scattered and forgetful at school, arriving to class without his books, without the homework he did the night before. We weren't caught off guard this year to learn that, although he's serious and thoughtful and introverted at home, he's the clown and the life of the party in class.
T. is the kind of child who makes teachers eyes widen when you introduce yourself. At parent/teacher night, they tend to speak to the other parents in a quiet whisper, looking through their grade books and sharing marks and little tips on how the student can improve. When we introduce ourselves, they push their chair back, shove the grade book aside, and--more often than not--launch into a lengthy reflection on his "colorful" personality. Sometimes they are visibly discombobulated, their eyes searching ours for a clue as to how to control him. A few have been plain old rattled by him, unable to hold back a flood of frustration.
A very distinct profile emerges of the teacher to whom he responds best. They are always women, young, soft-spoken, firm, confident and adept. In these classes, he requires an occasional quiet correction but generally excels, earning As. Algebra and Biology have gone this way. Other classes--chemistry, PE, geometry--have not. His marks have little to do with the subject area, the time we spend helping him with his homework, or the intellectual rigor required by the discipline. They have everything to do with the dynamics of the classroom and the confidence of the teacher.
His clowning in class isn't a simple grasping for attention; its a symptom of anxiety. When I go to parent/teacher night, I see what T's day is like. The public address system is blaring. The school looks rather like a prison - bars on the windows, guards at the doors. The classrooms are crowded. In one of his classes today, another kid jokingly called him a crack baby. T. replied that in fact he had been born crack-addicted. That's what school is like for him. Very little of his day has to do with learning. He experiences school as an exercise in social control, humiliation, chaotic authority, and general pandemonium.
There are some bright points. His African American Studies teacher this semester is one of them. He takes the enlightened approach that his job as a teacher is not to set traps or catch the students with tricky quizzes and homework assignments. He wants to engage them and make them love learning and love life, and love learning about the world. It totally works. Class discussion spills over to our dinner table that evening - T. is so engaged, he wants to keep the conversation going and tell us what he's learned and share the opinions he's learned to articulate in the class. But there are so few teachers like him.
It's hard to parent a child like T. sometimes, because his intellectual capabilities and general wisdom are so at odds with his emotional maturity. He is both five and forty-five at the same time. We want to be sure we hold him to the highest standards of which he is capable. At the same time, we want to create an atmosphere at home where he can relax and get what he needs, and that means keeping stress to a minimum.
It's also hard to explain how tangled his history makes basic issues of behavior. In his early life, he learned to avoid abuse by being perfectly compliant. As an older child who badly wanted to find adoptive parents, he subjected himself to excessive self-discipline, disguising his rough edges and showing adults what he thought they wanted to see so that he would be a "desirable" child. So I often feel caught in a classic catch 22: if I hold him to the highest standards of academic achievement of which he's capable, I contribute to his success, but I also play into his perverse perfectionism and stress him out. If I parent to his emotional needs and allow him to relax and behave as the much younger child he is in terms of his emotional development, then I fear that I'm undermining his potential for academic achievement.
So I ask myself a lot what matters. The part of him that is the youngest, freshest, newest and most vulnerable is the part that is loving and accepting of love. It's the part that recently started blowing us air kisses when he leaves for school in the morning. Bio parents who start with babies have years to build bonds before they have to turn their attention to preparing a kid for college. We arrived late to the party and we have to make choices about which message to send him at any given moment, and which growth buttons to push.
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