Nor custom stale
Rough morning. Charlie's rocking and rolling, objecting to everything, construing even the mildest guiding word as a slur against his honouuuur. After sixty or seventy gentle remonstrances, quiet redirections, and calm changes of subject, I'm starting to lose my cool. I finally fling away my patience with both hands and tell him to go, just gooooooooooo. GO get in the CAR before I go all cannibal hamster and eat my tender pink young.
His parting salvo is "Ben never has to get sent anywhere when he's behaving badly!"
The door slams and Ben runs over to it. Ben, you see, is helpful.
He opens it, leans out, and calls after Charlie, "I did! I got sent to my room yesterday! When I said that mean thing to you!"
And repeats that mean thing once more. Ben, you see, is helpful.
And I say to Paul, ignoring Charlie's sputters audible from the garage, "You know how some people look in despair at their lives and ask, 'When did I turn into my mother?' I'd love to be like my mother." My mom was in every way better than this.
Ben, behind me on the stairs, struggling into his snow pants, says, "If you want to be like your mom, just buy some fake wrinkly skin."
And typing this now, I have to laugh. Not only am I not momming right, I'm not even momblogging right. If I were, "fake wrinkly skin" above would have an affiliate link.
Posted by Julie at 09:49 AM | Comments (19)
Short list, long post
A Brief List of What Has Improved Since Charlie Started at Hippie Do As You Please School
There. See you again in six months!
...Perhaps I'll get more specific. But first I'll have to work hard to cast my mind back to where we were at the end of second grade. It's a little hard to remember, because human consciousness mercifully retains only the outlines of past agony instead of actually recreating the sensation of repeatedly dropping an anvil on your foot every time you recall it. Just, K through 2 were hell on a pedicure, is all I'll say about that.
This year is different. Instead of tears, anger, and outbursts in the morning, we have...okay, tears, anger, and outbursts, but those are mine and occasioned only by five-year-old Ben's insistence on putting his boots on before his snow pants. (That's not true. I don't cry. No, at times like that I merely lean on the newel post, wearily wait for the storm to pass, and think about adding Drāno to my second cup of coffee.)
This year, Charlie's happy to go to school. Once he's there, he's involved, engaged, productive, and — this is the part where the tears do well up — a part of the community. Not the bullshit kind of community, where the teacher stations him next to the class's most compliant student and tells him to watch, learn, and do juuuust like she does...thaaat's right..., but the kind where, when he walks down the hall, kids call out his name, tell him his glasses look cool, and want to work with him on projects. What's even more remarkable is that he wants to work with them.
He's come a very long way socially, too, and while I can't say that that's entirely due to a change in schooling, since he's another year older and presumably more mature, and since we also compel him, over his protests, to serve time at a Weekly Hateful Social Coaching Gulag, I do see positive changes that have their roots in HDAYPS. If I had to guess, I'd say the most obvious factor is the council meeting — the school's community-based, consensus-building method of conflict resolution.
All right. Now back away from the precipice, if you please. The idea isn't quite that hippie-do-as-you-please. As with so many aspects of this particular HDAYPS program — and surely others, but they're beyond my ken — there's a thoughtful, consistent set of principles quietly at work, giving heft, if you will, to the loincloth.
Here's how it works. When you have an issue with someone and ordinary methods of problem-solving have failed — meaning you've already tried to work out your differences directly with that person; you've enlisted the help of a teacher or older student to achieve resolution; and you've asked the person to stop the problematic behavior — any student or teacher can call a council meeting.
When a meeting is called, everyone in the school drops what they're working on — do you know how hard it is for me not to suggest six to ten hilarious examples? — and gathers. By vote, the group selects a moderator, who then guides the meeting, asking questions like, "Who called this meeting?" "Why did you call it?" and "Why didn't you stop when she asked you to?" Interested parties raise their hands to speak; people discuss how the behavior or issue at hand affects the community; brainstorming sometimes takes place; and usually the person who called the meeting is asked what they need in order to feel that the matter has been resolved — an apology, for example, or a rule change. There may be motions made and voted upon, and eventually the meeting is adjourned. ...You know, so the kids can get back to making unicorn bridles out of fair-trade hemp dyed with windfall nutshells and festooned with Tibetan prayer flags LOOK YOU PEOPLE I AM NOT MADE OF STONE.
And there's a lot that can be taken from this. What I see Charlie internalizing is the recognition that one person's behavior has an impact on his community. That people have opinions — often strong ones — about the way we act. That those opinions influence whether they want to spend time with us. These are things he's been told before, of course, but never really heard. Now it seems he's listening.
The other thing he seems to be developing is the confidence to take responsibility for his actions, to accept that he's accountable to others besides himself, and to trust that nothing really bad is going to happen if he owns up to making a bad choice once in a very great while. The council meetings are teaching him that, by example if not directly. (His sole council meeting star turn thus far has had to do with blurting in class. "Of course it did," I said to his teacher, interrupting her mid-sentence.)
His learning is evident when he talks about the meetings he's attended, just in the language he uses. "Wasn't very considerate of the people who were trying to concentrate." "Weren't going to play that game with him if he chose not to follow the rules." "Didn't know it was bothering so many people, but it was." "Asked us to help by reminding her if she does it again."
And I could go off on a whole long angry sputter about how his public school disciplinary experience suggested pretty much the opposite of every single one of those things, but how 'bout I just skip that anvil because, hey, look! my toes have healed.
There's more to school than belonging, certainly, and other reasons we send kids there beyond fostering emotional self-actualization: academics, right? Those achievements and abilities we measure with tests, grades, and standards...?
And that's where I feel on shakiest ground when I talk about HDAYPS. What can I say? I fight my own prejudices every day when I don't ask, "But what are you learning?" I've seen enough of Charlie's work product to know that he is doing what anyone would recognize as traditional academics — but not only that, or even primarily that, and certainly not in the quantity he did at public school.
So how will we know that he's learning? This is the question I ask myself often, worrying at it like a hangnail I must...keep...picking. But it's not really the right question for me to ask about Charlie, who, like most kids, can't help learning if you get out of their way. He'll learn. The more relevant question is what exactly it is he needs to learn.
To give that question rhetorical zing, I could put any handful of things in inflammatory opposition to each other. What's more important to learn: which animals are indigenous to Africa, or the rewards of successful collaboration? decimal division, or that his curiosity is precious and worth celebrating? writing in cursive, or his own inherent value to his community — and the value of each of us to one another?
He needs to learn it all. It's all important. It's just not all important right now. The way I feel about it is similar to how I felt about giving him ADHD meds: you have to turn down the static before he can receive the teaching. What's important right now, we think as we grope our way through it, is that Charlie feel good about learning.
And he didn't. I feel very small admitting this, but since exposing one's own ass is basically what the Internet is for, I'll go ahead and confess it: I had no idea how deep an impact his negative school experience was having on the rest of his life. He never articulated it as such, but in retrospect I see that he must have felt terribly anxious. I mean, maybe post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that cautious Caesary hand-waving, but once that pervasive stressor was neutralized, everything else improved. He's sleeping better. He's more helpful at home. He's more patient with Ben, more flexible, more cooperative, and more receptive to correction. Why, he's become the easily-manipulated designer-baby accessory child we always dreamed of!
He is also doing better by his own measures. He sees that his gifts are appreciated. He feels respected, encouraged, and coached instead of hectored and disapproved of. He gets to work on what's important to him, at least for part of his day. He looks forward to tomorrow instead of meeting it with dread. They let him use a glue gun, y'all — do I need to say more than that?
Wait, turns out I do need to say one thing more. At our most recent conference, Charlie's teacher told us, "I'm so glad he's in our class." Another teacher stopped us in the hall to say, "I love your son." Until it was relieved by a few simple words, I didn't know how deep my own anxiety ran. Now let me borrow your loincloth — I've gone all teary again.
Plague of locust
The last swim of the summer took place in our neighbor's pool. After the standard boyish frolic (gleeful pantsing) and the requisite motherly threats (baleful warning), Charlie and his friend H. grudgingly hauled themselves out, toweled off, and prepared to trudge back home. But as they walked past the pool filter's reservoir, H. spotted a grasshopper, floating, apparently dead.
"Let's take it home," he suggested, and Charlie was quick to agree: "Yeah! We can cut it open!"
My lifted brow was eloquent enough that he hastened to add, "And look at it with a magnifying glass." (You know, Mama: For Science!)
Back at my house, they repaired to the den, where they busied themselves with the corpse.
Or did they?
Apparently they did not. Oh, they were busy, though not with a magnifying glass but with magnets and Snap Circuits. No, it's the corpse part that was in question, because the next thing I heard was an excited squawk: "Come see! COME SEE! COMMMMME SEEEEEEEeeeeeEEEEE Mama oh MAN come SEE!"
So duly I come'd see, to find that they had — well, they had done this:
Do you see that poor creepity bastard moving?
Despite my gentle suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the grasshopper had only been mostly dead, the boys were convinced that they had successfully reanimated it — so sure that they were practically sketching out a plan for selling a goddamn franchise. I have to hand it to them, though; they were reasonably pragmatic about its long-term prognosis. When I offered Charlie a container with some holes poked in the lid, Charlie declined, opting instead for what seemed to me a reasonable standard of care, expectant management. "He's not at that stage yet," he told me, in the same somber tone someone once used of him. "It's not well at all," indeed.
Still, the grasshopper clung to life long enough to be moved to the mobile step-down unit, a nice glass jar stuffed with damp green leaves. He did well enough there, flinging himself against the lid with increasing vigor until I suggested that maybe it would be a good idea to discharge him to the competent care of his family. "You've given him a second chance at life," I urged. "Shame to make him waste it."
We turned him out of his jar into the rainy evening. I don't know what Charlie was thinking as the grasshopper sprang away; I was only hoping he'd hurl himself far enough into the bushes so we wouldn't find his frizzled husk tomorrow. I didn't really worry about Charlie being sad or disappointed. I was mostly just terrified he'd want to hook it back up to his homemade AED.
So all this suggests a few possibilities, aside from my concern Charlie will now think that this is a perfectly good way to perk up any living creature who's looking kind of, you know, peakèd. One of these two disturbing things is true: Either I let my kid electro-torture a living creature for his own idle amusement...or it was really dead, as the boys insisted, and they brought it back to life.
It could conceivably be, as a friend suggested on Facebook, that Charlie and his friend "metaphorically rolled away the stone from in front of the tomb door and let the resurrected grasshopper out. A whole new branch of grasshopper religion just cropped up and they'll probably be handing out pamphlets on street corners by lunchtime."
Sure! Why not? It could have happened. I believe! Look, if I have to choose between recognizing myself as a parent who blithely lets playdates go vicious, or hailing my son as the new grasshopper god — well, I think I just got religion. Now let us all bow down before Charlie and lick his sacred batteries.
Who walks in the classroom, cool and slow
If I'd been blogging it all along, cataloguing it day by discouraging day, I wonder if it would seem inevitable. I'm a little bit afraid, instead, that this comes out of the blue: Charlie's changing schools. After three years at the public elementary, this fall he'll go to what I self-consciously call Hippie Do As You Please School.
We've known since October of his kindergarten year that he needed lots of structure and support, and I'm grateful to say that he's gotten it: the 504 plan; the occupational therapy; the physical therapy; the daily social learning; the kindness and heroic forebearance of teachers, staff, and students. (Thank you for pretending not to notice when I tear up in meetings. Thank you for telling me you like my kid — that feels like a gift. Thank you for not shoving back when there was any way you could help it.)
And he's come a long way. If you could stand the six-year-old version of Charlie next to almost-nine, you'd be amazed at the difference. And then you'd sternly tell the younger that wedgies aren't funny, to keep his hands to himself, to stop making that noise, my God, it's boring a hole in my brain. And then you'd have to stop almost-nine from a decisive response — Hey, Charlie, stop hitting yourself — because if The Highlander has taught us nothing else, we know there can be only one.
He's really doing great, our kid. So the obvious question is why we'd want to leave that behind. I guess the briefest way to answer that lies in the comments that bookend his school years so far. As we first started exploring the problem during kindergarten, the principal summed up our concerns: "Some of Charlie's light is going out."
And we ended the final team meeting of this past second-grade year, Paul, discouraged, observed, "All we ever talk about is getting Charlie through the day."
Now, of course that's a prerequisite to learning, right? You can't get an education when you can't move past the bullshit your brain's churning out. And the hard work of his team, coupled with Charlie's growing maturity, our own determined efforts, his determined efforts — God, my kid works hard — and a little pill I like to call You Can Take Our Methylphenidate When You Can Pry It Out of My Cold, Dead Claws That Will Probably Have Big Chunks of Skin Under Them from Fighting You off, You Bastard
...Sorry, I just got lost in a pleasant reverie. Clawed-up Christopher Lambert break.
As I was saying, a lot of factors have helped him reliably — mostly — get through the day, to the point where we feel that shouldn't be the team's main focus. We feel he's ready to take on more. See, Charlie, well, he's smart. I don't want to go all special-snowflake on you, but, daaaaamn, is my child beautiful, delicate, and possessed of a magnificent crystalline structure unique only to him and visible only with a microscope. And we're finding, to our chagrin, that the school has no real plan for letting our snowflake...not melt.
(I could do this all day.)
In our state, in our district, at this school, there's no real vehicle for gifted education. No mandate, no money, despite all the good will in the world. Although the team has made a good-faith effort to differentiate in class, it's not enough. Plans to ship him off to other classrooms for higher-level learning have foundered for various reasons. And although he has great ability in its purest sense, he also makes what I'd describe as errors of attention — answering one problem in the space meant for another, or not answering a question at the end of a longish worksheet — which prevent him from demonstrating the kind of administrative mastery that satisfies a formal school curriculum. He's not failing, not by a long shot, but that doesn't seem like enough.
The upshot of all of this is that Charlie spends his time at school, the biggest part of his day, feeling dispirited, unmotivated, and unseen. His significant gifts go unappreciated and undeveloped. He notices it, and he feels angry. And although I understand (and have myself succumbed to) the temptation to roll your eyes and mutter, "Suck it up, kid," this past spring I bucked my own substantial prejudices long enough to start asking myself, Wait, why exactly should he suck it up?
I accept that, irrespective of the talents, the love, and the efforts of the individuals within it, the public school's first job is to see that our child performs as well as his cohort. By contrast, our job as his parents is to help him perform as well as he can. If there's an environment where he might feel excited about what he's learning, why shouldn't we try it? If there's the chance that a different model could let him feel invested in his education instead of alienated by it, why wouldn't we look into it? If we can let him know that that matters, we're listening, we care — well, I can't see much that we have to lose by trying Hippie Do As You Please School.
This has gone longer than I thought it would. (You've gone old and gray by now, my love, but you still look really good.) I promise I'll be back to talk specifically about HDAYPS, to answer any questions any few remaining readers have, to react defensively to even the slightest perceived criticism — hahahahaaaa, as if a blogger would ever do that — and to freak the fuck out over my own significant ambivalence while there's still time to change our minds.
Passeth all understanding
Elementary school art classroom
Helping with Charlie's school's Peace Tiles project
Okay, everybody, come sit in a circle. Circle. No, circle. That's the round one...So now that you're all seated, let's talk about what represents peace to you. ...Nice. The way you describe that, I can almost see it. A swim in the lake on a hot day sounds soothing. Good one -- I like fireflies at twilight, too. Oh, yeah, snuggling in front of the fire with a pet...sunsets...sure... Ah. Well. Yes. I, too, have always found hard-boiled eggs to be...peaceful...I guess.
Now we're going to start on our collages. At each table there's a stack of magazines, and we have paper, paint, fabric...all sorts of...sure, I'd be happy to help you find some pictures related to your peaceful idea. Let me just look here. You know, I can't seem to find any pictures of semi trucks, but...oh, you found one of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Way to be flexible! That's like peace on wheels right there. ...Meaty peace.
Ah, I see you're already cutting some stuff out. What was your peaceful thought? Oh, right, the ocean -- when you said that in the circle I could just imagine myself sitting on the beach with the waves lapping at my toes, too. I...huh. I didn't imagine sharks, though. Wow, you sure found...a lot of them. Yeah, the red paint is over there, but I really think the picture already looks exciting enou...well, okay, now, isn't that vivid. ...Yeah, you'll want to let that dry.
Oh, yeah, there are a lot of pictures torn out of that National Geographic, huh? Well, I'm not exactly sure why. I guess someone else wanted to use them in their peace collage.
I agree, it's really cool how that snake is completely misshapen by...whatever rodent it just swallowed. So do you think that's...peaceful? Well, but even though it swallowed the...armadillo?...whole, without chewing, it's still...right, nature in general is something that makes us think of peace, but...wow, you certainly did a careful job cutting around its fangs.
I'd add the dripping venom later. Not today.
But seriously, folks, I'm here till recess
Speaking of trying hard, Charlie and his class were charged with the task of doing a report on notable women for women's history month. Charlie's choice surprised no one, though his title did strike me as maybe a little too hip for the room:
Marie Curie: Radiation Lady
The "trying hard" part wasn't the research he did, grumbling the entire time. It wasn't the exquisite restraint Paul exercised in getting him to organize his notes into some semblance of coherence. It wasn't the long self-sacrificing dive I took — "NOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooo!" — between him and the laptop to prevent him from adding "Gangnam Style" as the soundtrack to his slides.
No, the "trying hard" was how resolutely I stood in my refusal to let him add to his scripted talk, "So really, when you think about it, she was actually kinda asking for it."