Thursday, October 14, 2010


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.

Silly us.

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Lulu. You said it perfectly as always! I Tweeted and Facebooked this. I hope every single teacher reads it.

marythemom said...

Basically you need to decide which is more important for him in the long run? Personally I would focus on the emotions. He needs a loving family right now to help him grow into a mature adult, capable of developing relationships with others. Academics are secondary.

We have similar problems with our son being so focused on survival that he's not doing well in school. He qualifies for an IEP as emotionally disturbed and so we have him in very small classes (8-10) kids instead of regular sizes. It helps some, but we've found the exact same thing you have about teacher's personalities. He's an A-B student if he likes the teacher and there's not too many distractions. D or Fs if he doesn't.

I don't know if it's possible for you to get him in small classes or a "safer" environment? Maybe work with the school to get him teachers that are more likely to be a good personality match? If not this year, then next.

Mary in TX

Lulu McCabe said...

Hi guys. Thanks for your support as always! Mary, spot on, as usual. We worked with the school this year to hand pick his teachers as much as possible - so we have fewer problems than we did last semester. We haven't been successful in getting him an IEP. In part, that's because his caseworkers have turned over so often and it's been so hard to find competent therapists for him - and because he just sort of fell through the cracks in the system before he came to us. He was sufficiently successful in school to remain mainstream and yet underserved. By the time he came to us mid-way through his sophomore year, he'd been in four high schools. Right now we're working on getting him a good chemistry tutor. But as you suggest, we've also resolved that his emotional needs come first. We'll do our best with school, but accept that just getting to graduation might be the best we can do academically - later on, we can help him with junior college and transferring to a four-year school if that's what he continues to want. The most important thing right now is making sure he gets what he wants at home, and feels unconditionally treasured by us every day no matter how he acts when he's at school. I remind myself all the time, he's doing the best that he can. I wish more of his teachers understood that.

Julie said...

In a very practical way, I think it is in your son's best interests to concentrate on his emotional growth now. If that means his grades slide, so be it.

He is not a likely candidate for Harvard anyway, at least not right now. Since, if he goes to college, it will probably be a community college to start, wait until then to hammer on the grades. This isn't to say that you shouldn't encourage good study habits, etc. now--but if you have to choose, teaching this young man how to be a contented and fulfilled human being comes first.

No one really admits this, but 'name' educational institutions are more important and easier to get into at the professional or grad. program level--in fact a kid with his history, and good grades from a podunk school has a better chance of getting in than a mediocre ivy league grad.

obladi oblada said...

Good post. I will say that it is great that he has parents who are so concerned about doing the right thing for him. I would say the emotional first, I think once that comes in, everything else will fall in line. He sounds like a great kid.

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