Shitty Pizza, The Past, The Future…

…and The Now

Last night, John Oliver did a bit on charter schools, primarily the regulation or the lack thereof.  Believe it or not, Opinionated Public School Teacher’s Step-Daughter has no clearly defined opinion on charter schools.  I have seen models which are disasters.  I have seen models which are successes.  My son is currently number 78 on the waiting list at a charter school in our area.  We find that mildly hilarious because number 78 should really be “OHAHAHAHAHA!  Why bother?”

After flirting with and subsequently becoming involved in a two year relationship with private schooling, I have arrived at the conclusion that there is one significant component missing from private school – baseline (quantifiable and measurable) standards for performance.  This conclusion helped me realize that private schooling may not be the best approach for our family.  It’s simply too loosey-goosey and subjective for my comfort level as a parent and that is before we address the annoying political bullshit of dealing with the private school mentality.  I am a busy human who doesn’t have time for that nonsense and even if I did, I find that sort of thing too tedious to entertain.

In Oliver’s closing, he summed up charter schools by addressing the business aspect of the “scheme” (or scam, depending on one’s perspective).  While tangentially related to private schooling, based on the tax status of the school, that isn’t as relevant to this essay as his last statement which I have highlighted for emphasis.

If we are going to treat charter schools like pizza shops we should monitor them at least as well as we do pizzerias.  It’s like the old saying ‘Give a kid a shitty pizza, you fuck up their day.  Treat a kid like a shitty pizza and you can fuck up their entire life.’

The reason why this statement is so impactful is because it isn’t limited to any particular form of schooling.  This can be applied to charter schooling, private schooling, home skooling and public schooling.  This statement is the most succinct summary of my son’s first year in JuniorMAPP (otherwise known as a combined first and second grade classroom) at his old private school.  It defines our current reality and every single obstacle we as parents have to help him manage, that he as a student must overcome and that his teacher has to work with by luck of the draw.

Last year, my son was treated like a shitty pizza.  The toppings were one teacher (nicknamed “Lizard” by my son) and one autocratic, considerably neurotic control freak of a school administrator who goes by various names depending on the source.  The side-effects of said treatment have been generalized anxiety, erosion of self-esteem, stomach ailments, occasional vomiting and nightmares for the child.  For the parents, a leave of absence from work was required to manage the exhaustion as I could not keep up with the demands from work, an ailing parent and the train wreck that was happening to my child at school on a daily basis.

The shitstorm began approximately five weeks into the new school year for the Milkface with minor, aggravating issues.  Initially, I thought he was just being petulant and having issues adjusting to a new teacher given that his previous teacher was so stellar, anyone who had the misfortune of following her would be bound to fail in some way, shape or form.  I was quick to coach and possibly quick to dismiss some of his concerns.

It took Milkface’s bursting into tears and refusal to leave the car during morning drop-off to make me understand something was critically wrong.  Milkface had been in daycare and/or a preschool environment since 12 weeks old.  The only other instance when he refused to get out of the car was while he was being bullied at the YMCA camp.  It was at this moment I realized there was a serious problem and requested a conference with his teacher.  His teacher, following protocol, extended an invitation to the school’s director.

In spite of what we (Dock and I) thought was a productive conference identifying gaps and weaknesses, along with developing a plan to keep Milkface focused, busy and engaged, nothing improved.  Milkface remained disconnected and physically ill.  His teacher continued to verbally intimidate the students, yell and refused to engage six and seven year-olds in a manner which six and seven year-olds should be engaged.  Milkface was legitimately terrified of school for the first time ever.

Over the course of the school year, what seemed like millions of emails were exchanged, heated conversations were had, unpleasant conferences were attended and accusations were lobbed by all parties.  Dock and I had enrolled Milkface in the program with the intent that he would stay there for his entire K-12 education.  Milkface approached me and asked if he could explore other schools to attend for the following year (hence the charter school reference).  I approached the director and asked if it would be possible to skip his second year in JuniorMAPP (as he had started first grade at the second grade academic level) and promote him directly to SeniorMAPP (and a different teacher) to avoid the horrible Lizard.  We made it clear there would be no re-enrollment until we had a guarantee that Milkface would not be looping with his current teacher.  Then, we started the search for another school.

Around the beginning of April, after another trip to the doctor for vomiting and stomach upset, Milkface decided he couldn’t take any more of his current school.  He stoutly refused to return to the school in the fall.  He did not care about leaving behind his friends and other teachers he adored.  He did not care about ending up ridiculously out of contention in the charter school’s lottery.  He did not care about being the new kid in a huge, public elementary school with a year-round calendar.  Milkface wanted out and that was it.  Dock supported Milkface’s decision.  I did not.  I reluctantly completed the enrollment paperwork for the public elementary school near our home but held off as the director said she would have her answer for us on May 1st.

Then, this happened:

Sad Max

I promptly enrolled Milkface in his new school and sent an email to the director the next day informing her of our decision.

So, that’s the past.  The relatively recent past.  The close enough past that we’re still dealing with Milkface’s nightmares, his uncertainty about his academic performance (which was excellent in KinderMAPP), his low self-esteem and his anxiety about school.  Fortunately, we don’t seem to have any more issues with nausea and vomiting from nerves.  Thank goodness for that.

There are days I will vent to my friends who are still involved with the school on one level or another even though three months have passed.  I vent even though Milkface has started his new school three weeks ago and appears happy in the new environment, is making friends and managing the new kid blues really well, has a lovely teacher, the school runs like Mussolini’s trains and he’s catching on to Common Core quite well.  I mention the past because it’s not so long ago and the differences between the two institutions are so significant, his new school makes the old school look like some faith-based home-skooling network run by Trumpanzees and Duggarfangurls.  I mention the past because when you leave Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, you become a Suppressive Person; not unlike Scientology.  You made noise and challenged authority.  You pointed out the flaws.  You may have even said unkind things while your child was being treated like a shitty pizza.  Worst of all, you showed your emotions because observing any child being treated like a shitty pizza upsets you in ways people who do not know you (or don’t know you well) will never understand.

The past isn’t exactly the past.

Your friends will tell you, encourage you, to look toward the bright, brilliant future your child has ahead of him.  Focus on the positive!  Be happy you made a great decision for your child (or, in this instance, listened to your child as he made a great decision).  Think of all the negativity he is avoiding.  Enjoy the fact that he is thriving.

This is wonderful advice.  It comes from the right place.  It is said out of love and concern.

Unfortunately, it overlooks the immediate:  The Now.

Today, because my son was treated like a shitty pizza by shitty adults, I have a child who is damaged to the point where he is afraid to seek help or clarification from his teacher because the previous teacher wouldn’t allow that behavior in her classroom.  She either refused to help the children because they had to be “self-sufficient” or “independent” (she is a lazy one, that one) or she would yell.  As Milkface adjusts to Common Core, he has questions but is reluctant to ask for help.  When Dock asked him when his library books were due,  Milkface said “I suppose I could ask Henry.”  Dock coached him “Well, isn’t there anyone else you could ask?”  Milky responded “Logan is very nice.  I could ask him.”  Dock prodded a bit more “Milkface, think for a second.  When you have a problem, you ask a…grown-up.  Who is the grown-up in your classroom?”  Milkface said “Oooh!  Mrs. T!  I guess I could ask her.”  But the latter part was said with a great amount of apprehension.  Milkface remains terrified to engage his teacher unless he is engaged first.  He is entirely reactive in this situation.

It’s not limited to asking questions, either.

Last week, Milkface melted down over instructions for his Math Mountain homework.  The word “and” threw him for a loop and it took him well over 30 minutes to calm down enough to approach the worksheet again.  Math has always been his strongest and favorite subject.  By the end of last year, he was so deflated and demoralized by being told he wasn’t smart enough to learn material that he was already learning on his own, he has zero confidence in his skills or his intelligence.

I can look to the future but not right now.  Right now, Milkface needs me to help him get through The Now.  Milkface needs all of the adults to help him find his safe zone, rebuild his self-esteem and restore his confidence so when he makes a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.  In our family, mistakes have always been a learning experience.  A wrong answer is still, in a round-about way, a right answer because we learned what not to do.

The Now is so negatively impacted by the past; we do not have the luxury of time to fuck around.  We are in the process of rebuilding what was considered an ideal student because two adults didn’t do their jobs.  And this makes me angry, hurt, devastated and sad.  This makes me a ball of negative emotions I have to hide when my child is around.  This makes me feel terrible.  This makes me question my decision making:  was I right in leaving Milkface in a toxic environment for an entire school year to avoid the trauma of forcing him to be the new kid in the middle of a school year somewhere else?

While it’s natural to think that I’m overreacting because that is something a mother would do, it’s important to understand:

  • My child was in the first grade last year.  His first year of elementary education was phenomenally negative.  The foundation of his education was traumatic.  One of the most important years in a child’s education was an emotional nightmare.  This is wholly unacceptable.
  • The behavior on the part of the teacher was not an isolated instance.  Complaints were lodged by other parents in previous years.  This is a problem that should have been solved years earlier.
  • Administration’s response was, at best, marginal.  The issue clearly was not a priority if the bad behavior was permitted to perpetuate year over year.  For a person who speaks of her institution as “her life’s work,” she seemingly overlooks a crucial detail:  a parent may view their children as their life’s work.  Mutual respect goes a long fucking way in my world.

How does one let go of the past when it is present and requiring attention?  One can look forward and set all the goals they wish but that amounts to nothing more than daydreaming if you are not addressing The Now.  Willing things to happen, wishing for things to happen does not make things happen.  Working on things, fixing what is broken and healing will make the future happen with positive outcomes.  Ignoring the past, living in denial and pushing aside the past’s problems that exist in The Now is merely perpetuating bad behaviors.  Pure and simple.

(and I say this not to chide those who are encouraging me and helping me through a really difficult time)

After Milkface’s experience, I want him to have what I have always wanted him to have; what I want every child to have:  an emotionally stable, safe, secure environment in which he can grow and learn to the best of his capabilities.  An environment which fosters respect for others, a love of learning and fun.  I want him surrounded by positive behaviors exhibited by children and adults, alike.

Neither Dock nor I are perfect parents, let alone perfect people.  We’re flawed.  We fuck up.  We parent in ways people find atypical, nontraditional or entirely bizarre.  And you know what?  We give zero fucks because this works for our family.  When we make a mistake, inflict harm or screw up as it relates to Milkface, we own our foibles and apologize, just as we expect Milkface to do in turn.  We also do not expect any other person in our lives to be perfect but we do expect accountability.  We saw very little of that at Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns last year which, in comparison to the year prior, contributes even further to our heartbreak and pain.

The past is not the past.  Not yet.  It’s still very much The Now for all of us.  Maybe, this time next year, we can all look back and all that we will have to talk/laugh about with regard to PCSGU is the music teacher who cannot sing, the amazing friends made and that magical first year.  Maybe, this time next year, Milkface will be whole again and his new school will be his domain – a place where he can come out of his shell, entirely, and his love for school will not be dampened by adults who let their pettiness, selfishness and personal grievances snuff out what little professionalism lies within.

Teachers and administrators remember:  Treat a child like a shitty pizza and you can fuck up their entire life.

No amount of rationalization, blame-shifting, saying the problem is with the student or his parents will change that, either.  The burden for the student-teacher relationship never falls on the student when the student is six years-old.  Additionally, if you have enough time to spare to critique parenting methodologies (yes, the erstwhile Lizard tried to blame Milkface’s performance issues on us), you have enough time to ensure your administrative tasks are complete and correct (something Lizard never seemed capable of doing).  And, portraying a well-behaved child as a discipline case only makes you look inept when the next school sees no evidence of what you tried to pass off.  It’s your own form of bad press.

For us, The Now will consist of repairing the broken child and guiding him towards a (hopefully) auspicious and happy future.  This entails working with him to ensure his self-esteem is not defined by a very unfortunate experience.  His new teacher is aware of what she inherited and is on-point.  Milkface adores her (“She doesn’t yell, Mommy!), so we’re fairly confident that he will do his best to please her.  Furthermore, we have seen his excitement for school return in the way he approaches his homework.  There is very little grumbling or pushback.

But, I also have some work of my own to do for The Now.  I need to remember while I’m healing Milkface, I need to take some time to make sure I’m healing myself because this process took quite a bit away from me, too.  Watching your child hurt is brutal.  Hurting along with your child isn’t exactly a good time.  Openly hurting and feeling as if others are not only watching you but judging you for what they do not understand is frustrating at best.  Heartbreaking is more appropriate.

Throughout this entire ordeal, I forgot to do one of the things I’m really quite good at:  giving zero fucks because people, as a rule, don’t understand what makes a person who they actually are.  They don’t know the experiences that formed you.  Shit, people don’t know what you had for lunch.  As you go through a significant trial with an audience, you suspect you’re being judged for whatever loopy behaviors you may exhibit (and maybe you’re merely being slightly narcissistic because it could be that no one gives a damn); crying, puffing steam through your nostrils and ears, kicking rocks, laughing manically, babbling to yourself in a foreign language you don’t necessarily speak well.  For a long time, until PCSGU entered our world, I didn’t give a good goddamn what people thought of me.  I have no idea what changed my attitude but I found myself less Kang and more Maxsmom.

Fuck that.

I’m 45 which should be “old enough to know better.”  I get angry when children are treated like shitty pizza and I’m done explaining myself or apologizing for it.  If you don’t want the side-eye of doom or my wrath, don’t treat kids like shitty pizza – directly or indirectly.  An adult’s series of bad days can very well become a child’s legacy and battle scars.  If you’re not remotely prepared to accept that level of responsibility and accountability, you need to get the fuck out of education and stay the fuck away from children.

English, motherfucker, do you speak it? J/K - it's ok if you don't.

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