Back to School

I’ve never really left school. There have been very few years in my life in which I was not involved in some capacity with education. I finished high school in 1993, and after four years of working dead-end minimum wage jobs, I started community college in 1997. I had no plan, no idea about a major or a possible career. I just started taking classes. After the first year I had to pick a major, so I chose music. I chose it because I could play the piano and sing, and it seemed like a challenging but fun choice.

As a performing arts major I became heavily involved in the department. I acted in plays and worked in the costume shop, all while maintaining stellar grades. Music theory was difficult at first but after a while I was an expert at it. Unfortunately, what I didn’t excel in was performance. I was horrible at sight reading and could never manage to play a piece of music that was set before me with any degree of confidence and ease. In both Chamber Choir and piano I was expected to read or sing the notes off a page and I was just so bad at it. I had always previously learned through memorization and repetition.

You see, when I became a music major, I thought I was pretty good musician, but it turned out that I was actually mediocre. I wasn’t terrible. I wasn’t that good either. So I sold my piano, decided to drop music and work on getting a transfer degree to the local university.

I started university in 1999 as a junior English Literature major, but almost immediately changed my major to Humanities. English Lit was too confining. I wanted to read other subjects, like History, and Art History, and Classics, and Philosophy. There’s only so much you can do with a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities, so when I got my B.A. I decided to keep right on studying. Graduate studies are generally more specialized so I chose English Literature for my graduate major. This wasn’t as fun as Humanities. Graduate seminars are long and intense, but at least this program didn’t require a master’s thesis. It required twelve seminars and accompanying papers.

There was the option of skipping one seminar and doing a thesis instead, but I chose not to do this. Instead, I began to prepare myself for a teaching career and enrolled in the GTF training program. All of the undergraduate English classes at my university were taught by GTFs (Graduate Teaching Fellows). The training consisted of one term of theory, one term of internship, and a final term of teaching and theory combined. This was a paid position at the university, and they offered a tuition waiver as well. So while I was working on my graduate degree, I was also studying teaching, and eventually I was studying and teaching.

When I finished my graduate degree, I didn’t get a career-type job right away. I didn’t even start looking for about six months. I quit the office job I had while I was studying, and worked for a few months for an online clothing retailer. Then I decided it was time to get serious. I had a master’s degree. It was time to get a real job.

The only “real job” in which I had any experience was teaching, so I focused my search on that. About a year prior to finishing my studies, my ex-boyfriend and I had gone to Japan for a week. It occurred to me that there were lots of openings for English teachers in Japan. I applied to about a half a dozen schools and was eventually hired at one of them. On February 4, 2004, I boarded an airplane for Tokyo where I would truly start my teaching career.

It has been fifteen years since I taught my first undergrad English 101 class at my university. Since then I have moved countries twice. I have worked at secondary schools and upper-secondary schools. I’ve worked at international schools and after-school programs. I have worked as a Business English consultant for corporations.

And now, it’s time for a change. I’ve gone back to school, although, as I mentioned, I never really left. I am a young-looking 42 year-old professional enrolled in university classes 20 years after I first started college. And just like then, I have no plan. I’m just taking classes. And it’s so. Much. Fun! I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed being a student. I’m not stressing over getting a degree or a job. Those things will sort themselves out later. For now, I’m just enjoying every minute of it.

I’ll always be a teacher…

…just not professionally anymore.

“Miss Kitten,” one of my students said to me one day, “Can’t you just work here for the rest of your life?” Those words really sting in a bittersweet way. My god, it’s heartbreaking when I think about them. My students. My kids. I see their eager little faces, rapt with attention. Hanging on my every word. Enjoying the Miss Kitten show. Their eyes lighting up with laughter.

I was that teacher, you see. The one the kids all love. The one the kids all want as a substitute teacher.

“You’re my favorite teacher.”
“You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
“You’re the coolest teacher I’ve ever had.”
“You don’t talk to us like you’re our teacher; you’re more like a friend.”

When you’re a teacher, the kids are everything. They are why you do what you do. And they are amazing, inspiring, and truly remarkable young people. Particularly the latest group of kids I had the great pleasure and privilege to teach. There are no behavioral cases among them. Even the ones who try to get away with being naughty are no match for Miss Kitten. My greatest weapon is my sense of humor and it’s been sharpened and perfected over the years.

“Shut up.” I tell a student who keeps whisper-yelling during a test and hasn’t responded to anything less direct and more polite.

“Hey, you can’t say that to me!” He responds with feigned dismay, which I know is entirely for the benefit of his classmates. Every class has its clown.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Please shut up.” I say, and the entire class erupts in laughter. You can’t out clown the master.

*sigh*

But I am tired. Sick have I become. Old and weak. Well, maybe not that old. However the sick and weak part is true. Sort of.

In January of last year I experienced a breakdown that led to me having to stop work. I was diagnosed with acute stress reaction, which was caused by a number of factors, all of them work-related. It’s very common for teachers to experience this due to the nature of teaching as a very demanding high-stress job, but usually you can transform the stress into productivity. In my 15 year career I never experienced anything like that before, what I can only describe as a kind of paralysis. I simply could not do it anymore. I had to stop working and went on sick leave. The doctor prescribed me some anti-anxiety medication and told me to get as much rest and relaxation as possible. It was incredibly hard, because I was also dealing with depression and guilt for having abandoned my students. Every day I questioned whether I was really sick. I was convinced I was faking, that this was all in my head. That I just needed to pull myself together, forget about my stupid problems and get back to work. My students needed me. I realized much later that this reaction is completely normal for highly productive people (aka: workaholics).

The medication and instructions to relax were the only treatment I received. I only found out later that usually some kind of therapy is recommended in such cases. In Sweden they have a system in place whereby if an employee is injured on the job, they are referred to a company health care service. The company is responsible for rehabilitating the injured or sick employee and for fixing the problems that caused the injury or sickness in the first place. No such assistance was forthcoming from my previous employer. They had this service available, but they elected not to refer me to them, saying I should get treatment through the local health care service. I was told that this is their prerogative. In the end I was put on paid leave because they either could not or simply would not fix the conditions that led to my breakdown. I couldn’t go back to work, so they decided to pay me for the remainder of my contract.

This arrangement seemed reasonable and fair. Eventually I started feeling like myself, ready to start teaching again, but determined to be very selective in the type of school at which I wanted to work. I wanted to work at an international school, so I applied at all three of the international schools in the area. I got interviews at two of them, and was eventually hired. It was only a part-time position, which was perfect because I was in no way ready to jump back into a full-time position after my breakdown.

The school was wonderful. The students were, as a previously described, amazing young people, and my colleagues were fantastic. It was an international staff, reflecting the profile of the school. Yet, even though the work was satisfying and rewarding, after a few weeks the symptoms started creeping back. My employers were well aware of my previous breakdown. I informed them during my interview, and they were not at all surprised, knowing full well how common it is for teachers to suffer such breakdowns. They were very reassuring and supportive.

During my initial interview, they gave me a tour of the school. It was a small building but there was an atmosphere of positivity and happy looking students working on projects everywhere. However, there was something very unusual about this school and that was the location of the Home Economics classroom. This was the position I was interviewing for. There was, in fact, no Home Ec classroom at all. There were four kitchen units set up, oddly enough, in a busy hallway. I’d never seen anything like this before. The practical Home Ec lessons were taught in an area that was completely exposed. I would find out later how just how impractical it was to teach in that space.

However, at first, it was kind of exhilarating. Home Ec lessons are usually very lively, smelly, and noisy. I was used to teaching Home Ec so all the chaos didn’t really bother me. We were reminded on several occasions to try and keep the noise level down, since there were other classrooms nearby. We were also located right in front of the principal’s office, and just around the corner from the assistant principal’s office, as well as student toilets, staff toilets, and the staff lounge. This meant that colleagues were walking through the area constantly. Students weren’t supposed to go in there during practical lessons and were instructed to use different toilets when lessons were taking place. Our solution to prevent students from walking through there was to place traffic cones at the entrances to the hallway. The older students knew to keep out, but the younger ones frequently walked right past the traffic cones and right through a lesson. It was also normal for a colleague to walk through the hallway during a lesson, pushing a large cart of iPads or laptops, and forcing me and students to move out of the way. In addition, when lessons were happening, we were very entertaining. Students and colleagues alike tended to stand just outside of the hallway and watch the show.

It sounds completely crazy, and it was. However that was simply how Home Ec lessons were taught at this school. I actually enjoyed it. The exposed situation made it really exciting. At least at first. After a while, however, it made it increasingly difficult. I had no control whatsoever over that area, even though I was responsible for it. On the days when there was no Home Ec, the hallway was used by other teachers. The kitchen counters were used to place computers and books, pretty much anything. Each kitchen was equipped with a set of utensils, dishes, and cookware, and these were constantly being removed when I wasn’t there. At least once every lesson, I would have to hunt round the staff kitchen for a missing whisk or a skillet or something that was definitely there before, but which had since disappeared. No one seemed to understand or respect that that hallway was, in fact, my workspace. To them, it was just another public area.

Eventually it became unbearable. My anxiety level increased and I started having panic attacks. I couldn’t stop thinking about work. I obsessed about those kitchens, and the state they would be in the next time I had a lesson. Before each lesson I would have to spend time putting them back in order, checking that each kitchen was fully equipped, tracking down items that were missing, removing books or other items that had been left on the kitchen counters, make sure we had enough clean dishtowels and start a load of laundry if we didn’t, empty the dishwashers from the previous lesson, check to make sure we received all of our grocery delivery, and whether it had been put away, anticipate a trip to the grocery store in case anything hadn’t been delivered (a regular occurrence). It was a lot of responsibility for one person, and too much for me.

During lessons, I had to supervise up to four groups of students working in the kitchens, while attempting to minimize disruption from other students and colleagues walking through the area, as well as trying to keep the noise level down so as not to disturb other ongoing lessons. In other words, we (the students and I) had to accommodate everyone, but no one would accommodate us. I still enjoyed the practical lessons very much, but after a while, the conditions made it almost impossible to maintain a proper classroom environment. I’m usually a very effective teacher who has no problem with classroom management, but under these conditions, I had no control and ownership over the environment and this made it extremely difficult to have control and ownership over the class.

I know I’m making it sound like it was complete chaos, but it wasn’t actually that bad. The worst thing about it was the psychological toll it took on me. After this experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to get out of teaching, for my own sanity. It’s time for another career. What that will be, I have no idea, but after fifteen years I’m pretty sure my time as a professional teacher is over. I don’t make this decision lightly. I always promised myself that I would keep working until it was no longer “fun,” that I would quit before I turned into one of those totally burnt out and bitter teachers, who obviously hates their job but keeps on working out of spite or lack of ambition.

The kids deserve better than that and I won’t let that happen. Who knows what the future holds…

A Day in the Life of an Expat

I read the news today. Oh boy.

On Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, I awoke in the five o’ clock hour and just lay there in a half-asleep state, my brain still feeling the effects of the sleeping pill I had taken before going to bed. I use them only rarely now, when I know it will be impossible to shut my brain off in order to fall sleep. This was one of those nights. The day before was the 2016 presidential election back in my home country, the USA. In Sweden we are several time zones ahead, so when I finally pulled my groggy ass out of bed at six AM, it was still going on. The polls had closed but they were counting up the votes. I went to sleep the night before feeling relatively confident that Hillary Clinton would win, hopefully with a sizable landslide. Of course she would win. Everybody said she would. They had totally dismissed Donald Trump’s chances and were already talking about her presidency in the present tense. When she wins, they said, the cult of personality started by Donald Trump and its zealous adherents will still be around, and they will be very pissed off and very loud. She will have to figure out how to deal with them and heal the country. This was the constant narrative being repeated during the final weeks leading up to the election.

But then, the totally unexpected happened, was still happening as a matter of fact, as I opened up Facebook fully anticipating the messages of triumph and joy from my American friends. However, those weren’t the messages I saw. Instead, I saw a lot of updates written in full caps, about the shock and despair and horror they were feeling. Wait a minute…

Thus began the Five Stages of Grief.

Denial:

My husband made us coffee as I sat there reading those updates, not fully comprehending what I was seeing. “Uh…so it looks like Trump won,” I reported. The words hit me like a sledgehammer. My heart was pounding in my chest, like I had just finished running a marathon. At first I actually thought this had to be a joke, that my friends were mistaken. Or they were trolling. I mean, there’s no possible way that Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States. Right? That’s just ludicrous.

“Whaaaat?!?” His response was undoubtedly being repeated around the world.

I should have been getting ready for work, but at that moment all I could do was sit there, ignoring my coffee and trying to figure out what had just happened, because it hadn’t really happened.

Bargaining:

After all, they were still counting up the votes and neither candidate had reached the 270 vote threshold in order to win. He was ahead but there was still hope. There was still time. It hadn’t happened yet. Hillary could still win. And she was AHEAD in the popular vote! But Trump had taken North Carolina and Ohio and…Florida. They said that if Trump took Florida then he would win. It was well and truly over.

Depression:

I somehow managed to shower and dress myself and board a train to take me into the city to work. I sat there on the train feeling completely numb. I no longer wanted to look at Facebook. The updates and articles being posted were just too goddamned depressing. I needed to try and focus on the day ahead of me, on my students. I teach Home Economics at an international school in Växjö, Sweden, and I went over the things that needed to be done. The ninth graders would be baking little meat pies and spinach-feta pies and I had to make sure I bought Quorn crumbles for the vegetarian students so they could substitute those for the ground beef in the meat pie. The sixth graders were making candy apples and caramel popcorn, and I was wondering where I put the Popsicle sticks.

I had to switch to a bus when I got to the train station in Växjö. It was a minus four (24 Fahrenheit) freezing cold morning, as November mornings in Sweden typically are. The bus was late, and as I stood there on the totally exposed bus platform, for fifteen minutes, then twenty, and then twenty five minutes, I watched bus after bus which wasn’t my bus drive by. I thought about jumping in front of one of them. I didn’t want to live on this planet anymore. Nothing made sense. Donald Trump had won the election. He had done every single thing wrong, lost all three debates, committeed gaffe after gaffe, and got caught doing and saying things that would have been deal breakers for literally any other candidate. And yet, he won. Hate had won. Sexism had won. Racism had won. Bigotry had won. Islamophobia had won. Xenophobia had won. Anti-Intellectualism had won. Stupidity had won. The Ugly American had won.

By the time the bus finally arrived, I couldn’t feel my toes, so instead of throwing myself under it, I boarded it and felt its delicious warmth surrounding my body.

Anger:

I eventually got to work. Groceries were bought and I welcomed the distraction of lively practical lessons. Every now and then, an American colleague would ask me, “So, are you a proud American?” in a can-you-believe-this-shit-is-happening kind of way. Swedish colleagues would ask me how I felt about the election, and I would tell them that it hadn’t really sunk in yet. Right before my last lesson, there was some kind of minor drama involving two students’ lockers. They both started chattering at me in rapid Swedish and I couldn’t really understand what they were saying. At that moment, I couldn’t have cared less, and I told them so. “I don’t care.” I was fighting back tears at this point. If I get an email from a parent informing me that they didn’t appreciate me telling their kid that I didn’t care about their problem, then I would apologize and tell them that Donald Trump had just been elected president and I was barely holding it together emotionally. And they would totally understand.

There was a staff meeting directly after my last lesson, but I decided to skip it. It was almost miraculous that I managed to show up to work at all. Throughout the day, a various times I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “WHAT IS HAPPENING????” As I sat on the bus on the way home, it finally sunk in. This was reality. And the tears finally came.

Acceptance:

For some reason, my left ankle was killing me all day. I must have taken a bad step and twisted it. I limped through my lessons and when I got home, my husband took a look at it and said it was all swollen and bruised, like it was sprained. I have no idea what happened. I certainly do not remember spraining my ankle. But I must have. Nothing to do now but deal with it.

Pantsuit Nation

please note:  my usual laziness and ambivalence will be suspended for today.  As various ideas pop into my fragmented mind, I may or may not blurt them out in manic fits of euphoria, paranoia or confusion.  It’s been a difficult election cycle for all.  On the verge of potentially (as a Philadelphia sports fan, I know better than to hope for any positive outcome) witnessing the election of a female president, I’m finding myself genuinely overcome with emotion.

During my years as a member-facing consultant, I never procured a single pantsuit. That was a pointless endeavour, as I’m short and didn’t feel like spending money on a tailor after buying an expensive suit. Skirts it was. Sadly, no pantsuit in the wardrobe for me today.

Undeterred, I yanked out one still-on-the-hanger-from-the-cleaners navy blue jacket and paired it with a red and white striped shirt, dark grey skinnies and my sugar skull boots which are embroidered with the phrase “Don’t walk in fear.” Kang’s version of a pantsuit will have to suffice for the only time I leave the house: the carpool.

Rock on, Pantsuit Nation.

Almost every woman you know…

…has a story of sexual assault. Some of us have several stories.

The first time I can remember it happening I was probably about eight years old. I was riding my bicycle home on a sunny afternoon in a calm Los Angeles suburb. A man walking in the opposite direction waved at me, indicating he wanted to talk to me. I slowed down and stopped obligingly, and he asked me if I knew where a certain street was. I started to tell him that yes I did know where that was, but as soon as I started describing the way, he walked closer to me and shoved his hand down the front of my shirt. He felt up my bare chest for a few seconds, then pulled his hand out, and walked away, giving me a self-satisfied smirk that told me that he had just done this thing to me and there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t speak or scream or react at all. Mortified and ashamed don’t really describe what I was feeling. I felt violated. Completely and totally violated. I’d never been touched that way by anyone before. But at eight years old I didn’t know how to process those feelings. I rode the rest of the way home, turned on the TV and watched cartoons. I tried to block out what just happened. I tried not to see his face. I was determined that I would not cry because I didn’t want anything to seem out of the ordinary.

I never told anyone or spoke about it until recently, when I told my husband. This was my introduction to sexual assault. I was eight years old and it happened in broad daylight. Other things have happened to me since then that make this first incident seem pretty mild by comparison. It had long since been buried and forgotten.

Then Donald Trump’s “grab’em by the pussy” scandal hit the news. That’s when women started sharing their stories of sexual assault, about how powerless and violated and weak it made them feel. It’s the guilt and shame that makes us never want to report it or talk about it. We know that we will be told that we must have wanted it if we made no effort to fight them off.

As for that, I can tell you that when it’s happening to you, these are the thoughts going to through your mind:

Oh god, this is really happening to me.
Please, please, don’t hurt me.
Please don’t kill me.
Please just let it be over soon.
Please don’t kill me.
Please just go away when you’re finished and leave me alone.
Please don’t kill me.

You’re not thinking about fighting back. You’re just hoping it will be over soon and that he won’t hurt you or kill you when he’s done.

To men like Donald Trump, woman are not thinking and feeling human beings. We are nothing more than play things to use and abuse whenever he feels like it, and then discard when he tires of us. We’re not really people and therefore we don’t need to give consent. Merely being in his presence is consent enough. After all, if we didn’t want to be grabbed, we shouldn’t have been within grabbing distance. The onus is always on the woman to not allow herself to assaulted or raped. Men like Donald Trump say they are unable to control themselves. She was drunk. She was wearing a short skirt. She was there. They see a pretty thing and they just act, and they know that most of the time they will get away with it.

This is not an indictment of all men. Far from it. There are so many wonderful, strong, loving, caring, supportive men out there. Men like my husband. This is about the pussy-grabbing, cat-calling, child-molesting monsters out there. A man-like creature who has the pretensions to the office of POTUS is one of them, and that must not be allowed to happen.

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.

No joy in Kangworld…

…today.

And, lo, there it is: the same sinking of the stomach, the same welling of the tears in the eyes, the same weakness in the limbs, the same momentary stall of the heart.  It comes as it does, without warning and without regard for whatever I may be doing at the time.  Without respect for the remainder of my day.  Without regard for whatever mental state I may already be in.  And it levels me.  It makes me want to hide under the sofa or retreat to my bed, places where I can be alone with the clichéd misery and seething pain that comes with chronic grief.  It’s the unyielding, never ending reminder that my best friend is dead.

Five years, two months and one day later, one would think I would have some sort of coping mechanism in place by now.  Yet, I don’t.  A few years ago I accepted that I never will.  There are certain losses from which a person cannot recover.  This is mine.  This will always be mine.

Today, as I go about the Saturday morning routine of catching up on email, dithering around on the internet, trying to avoid thinking about work, wondering how I’m going to do all the tasks I can’t during the week (and ultimately end up postponing) and cramming in my workouts, I did something incredibly reckless:  I looked at the stupid “On This Day…” thing on Facebook because there was an adorable picture of my kid from two years ago.  Lured by a picture of my then four year-old son with his face painted like a dog, I started scrolling further down memory lane.  And there it was.  One of my darker days.  The day after I “eulogized” my dead best friend, I was leaving Atlanta.  I was leaving behind all future opportunities for shenanigans and high jinks.  I was leaving behind my safe place, the place I went when feeling unusually vulnerable, confused about life or exceptionally depressed.  The place where I went to celebrate ridiculous things.  The place that held over fifteen years of memories in a friendship nearly twice as long.  I had, unbelievably, survived the memorial service but it was really time to go, time to move forward and accept life as a darker, lonelier, scarier existence.  Oddly, as we were driving on I-75, the old iPod spit out Elliott Smith.  I could think of nothing more appropriate (even if Kate didn’t listen to him).

Pain.  All pain.  All pain, all the time.

Kate’s dad once said something along the lines of “the pain is still present but it’s less acute.”  In certain aspects, he’s correct.  But there are days when the acuity of the pain is so severe, I feel as if I cannot draw a single breath.  There are days I look at my child and think “Only because you’re here, am I.” because that sentiment is true.  Be it out of obligation to my child or the fact that he really brings me that much joy, I’m here when I’d much rather not.  An anxious depressive who loses her anchor is an anxious depressive who isn’t fighting a battle – she’s fighting a goddamn war.  With a fake smile on her face.  With a heart that doesn’t want to beat.  With a brain that wishes it wouldn’t work.  With a spirit that is simply crushed.  With a mass of negative emotions she can only lessen with a happy pill or temporary withdrawal from the world around her.

All of this after a dreadfully painful year prior and no immediate end in sight.  This landmine that must be crossed is a big one.  And, unlike in the past, I have no safe haven in Atlanta.  No place to heal.  No place to put myself back together.  No friend to curl up next to, under a blanket with a giant bottle of wine and massive amount of carbs, and shoulder to cry on.  No one to lean on who immediately understands the pain without requiring some sort of explanation as to why certain things bother me as much as they do (and, let’s face it, when one is already upset, having to go into a detailed explanation is exceptionally frustrating).

So, yes.  I’m being very selfish today.  Whiny.  I’m feeling sorry for myself.  I’m misbehaving.  I’m throwing a tantrum.  I’m doing all the rotten, shitty things I do when things don’t go my way.  And I’m doing them largely alone, as I have done since 19 December 2010.  It’s going to be one of those days where doing one nice thing for someone (as Kate would do) isn’t going to lessen the sting, either.  Nope.  Today is going to be one of those days when the dam breaks, the emotions flood my world and everyone around me has the good fortune of drowning in my misery because sharing is caring.

At some point, I’ll get my shit together and head out for a long walk – my ersatz Kate (coping mechanism, evener of the keel) – stomp out any aggression and hope the mood elevates a notch thanks to a flood of endorphins and some music.  Then, I’ll likely find a pile of blankets and stuff my head under a pillow.  Days like this, the chronic grief usually wins and everyone else usually loses.  No amount of therapy will ever lick that, either.

Today, there simply isn’t any joy to be found.

Thoughts of a Teacher Heading Towards Burn Out Bridge

Most schools I’ve worked at have a full time student councilor, and those that don’t at least have a part time one who comes in once or twice a week. This is someone to whom the students can talk when they’re feeling overwhelmed by the various pressures of their adolescent lives, such as having to deal with school, parents, friends, crushes, that sort of thing. Very rarely is such a service offered to the teachers. Basically if they are feeling overwhelmed, overstressed, or overworked, then they’re supposed to handle it on their own, which I think seems a little unfair. Teaching is a particularly stressful job, especially for newcomers, and it would be incredibly helpful if they could have someone to talk to when they are having “one of those days.”

Alas, no. In my fifteen years as a teacher, I’ve seen many fresh out of school teachers arrive full of enthusiasm and eager to begin their careers, and then witness their slow decline into misery. The bright-eyed look on their faces at the beginning of the year is gradually replaced by a deer in the headlights stare of bewilderment, as they are eaten alive by their students and offered little to no support from the administration. They thought they wanted to become a teacher because it would mean job security and long breaks and it would be fun to work with kids. But they weren’t prepared for the reality of dealing with a room full of obnoxious and indifferent teenagers, most of whom don’t really want to be there. To use a military term, they wash out.

If you can get past this stage then you can look forward to a long career as a teacher. You develop your own teaching style and methods for managing unruly and disruptive students. You learn to be effective, and inspirational, and learn ways to stimulate your students’ thirst for knowledge. These kinds of skills can only be developed over a long period of time. In teacher training, you study methods of “classroom management,” but pretty much all the education and training you receive is useless once you enter the classroom. I consider myself to be a pretty decent classroom manager, but I still make mistakes from time to time. Sometimes there are students that you just cannot reach, on whom all of your tried and true methods do not work. Those are the students that stamp out the fire that burns within the teacher, the flame that burns with a passion to bestow one of life’s greatest gifts: knowledge.

Unfortunately, once that fire is out, it’s very hard to get it going again. As a teacher, that’s when you’re burnt out. That’s when you have to make a difficult decision, whether to continue to work in this burnt out state, when you are nothing but a tiny wisp of smoke, a shadow of the confident educator you used to be, or you can admit you’re burnt out and you can quit. This is the crossroads at which I find myself now. I’ve had a long and varied career as a teacher, but right now I feel like I’m on a train heading towards Burn Out Bridge. Once I cross it, my career as a teacher will be finished, or at least on hiatus for a while.

It isn’t just one or two particularly obnoxious students that are pushing me toward that bridge; it’s a variety of factors, personal and professional. The stress has taken its toll on me, physically. I’ve become overweight and unhealthy. I’ve recently developed a headache that hasn’t gone away for over a month. It might be related to an accident three months ago that resulted in a head injury. I was hit over the head by a malfunctioning railroad crossing boom at the train station, but that’s a story for another time. The doctor said it was more likely a tension headache and he advised me to stop taking pain relievers and try stretching and massage instead, which does actually work, albeit temporarily.

Professionally, I feel overwhelmed and inadequate. I have a teaching credential in one subject only, which is English. Yet, I am teaching four subjects, in three of which I have no credentials, and even though I’ve been assured repeatedly that I’m “doing fine,” I don’t feel confident that I am. The students deserve someone who knows what the hell they are doing, who knows how to teach these subjects, not someone who was asked to teach the subject because there was no one else available. At least the subjects I teach aren’t very crucial ones. They are practical subjects, so I try to make them as interesting and fun as I can, but I know next to nothing about the theoretical content I’m supposed to teach, since I never read most of these subjects, nor have I received any training in how to teach them.

Finally, the school at which I work has recently changed ownership and not all students and staff are entirely on board with it. We chose this school because its name, image, and philosophy all appealed to us. However, that all changed at the beginning of the year. The school that we knew and that we chose over all the others is now gone. It went from being a small neighborhood school to part of a large corporation. Additionally, our principal, the man who hired me last year, resigned because he didn’t agree with the demands placed upon him by the new owners. It’s a lot to take in. We’re still in the “let’s wait and see” phase of the transition, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

So here I am, uncertain about whether I want to continue working at this school, or indeed whether I want to continue working as a teacher at all. I don’t want to leave my job, and yet I do. The work is still fun and stimulating, and my colleagues are good people, but I feel that my career as a teacher is nearing its end. I’ve always held firm to the belief that one should only be a teacher as long as one’s heart and mind are completely committed to it. There’s nothing worse than being taught by a sad, overwhelmed, and jaded teacher who crossed that bridge a long time ago.

I feel like I should get off the train before I get there.

Paris…

…how you see the world and how you will teach your children to see it, too.

About a month or so ago, Milky said to me “(classmate) says Paris is a dangerous place. There are bad people there.” I did some digging and discovered that she must have heard this after Charlie Hebdo. Her father is an art director for a magazine. It makes sense that her six year-old perspective would be such.

Paris is a special place for me. If you spend 10 years of your life studying a language and a culture of a particular place, the epicenter of said language and culture means something. When Dock and I took our first taxi ride into The City of Lights, I openly wept. Sweden owns my heart. France owns my brain. Knowing that I would soon have a chance to walk around this magical city, the core of it all, was simply too much to process. It was 10 years of studying, six years of using my knowledge at work (albeit intermittently), two weeks of slogging my way through trenches, forts and bunkers in the making. I was excited but overwhelmed. The teachers who never knew they inspired me would likely never know the dream would be realized. And all of those hours spent making a stained glass window in high school would pay off the minute I stood in La Sainte-Chapelle (which also made me cry).

I turned to Milky and said “Paris, like any big city, can be dangerous. It can also be safe. Big cities require big city posture. You and I call that Philly Style, right?” Then, I explained Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. To a six year-old. To a six year-old Jewish kid. It was arduous work, thinking of how to minimize the fear, especially since Milky will be taken to Paris, at some point. The city is too important to Dock and me for us to keep Milky away.

Towards the end of the conversation, I shared my story of one time when I was in Paris, when in the hunt for cheap lodging, away from tourists, I decided we would stay near La Marais. Being the history fiends that we are, I wanted to inject a little Jewish history into our adventure. I admit, I’m not quite ready to experience anything Holocaust oriented, at this point. My stepfather’s family died in the Holocaust. It’s too painful.

We ended up in a predominately Arabic district in Paris six months after 09.11. The general mood was quite peculiar. The French, as a whole, were thrilled to see Americans returning. One bar owner said “You have been gone too long. We miss you.” which is something I expect from smaller towns and rural areas. It is not something I expect in Paris proper. It’s not something anyone with a lick of sense should expect to hear in any large city (so, kindly refrain from saying Parisians are snotty. They’re not. They’re urbane, just like every denizen of every large metropolis.). We courteously thanked him. He was also gracious enough to speak English to us which is also sort of an anomaly because very few people in France speak English to me. Dock, yes. Me, no. I learned too well and no matter how exhausted I am from a day of translating, no one gives me mercy.

As we wandered around our little temporary neighborhood, it was evident there was an American in one’s midst. Dock felt slightly uncomfortable. I shrugged it off. I shrugged it off to the point where I left Dock and our traveling companion behind one afternoon and took off for a walk by myself. “That’s how dangerous Paris is,” I tell Milky. Mommy, all 63 inches of her, all 130 pounds of her, can go for a walk by herself in a big city and feel just as comfortable as she would in Philly. Or anywhere else. And, being me, I bought souvenirs for friends and candy (it was near Easter and chocolate eggs are ubiquitous) for my colleagues. I also scouted for kebab stands because Dock and I love authentic kebab.

This tangent is important: Dock looks very WASPy and American. He doesn’t dress typically American when he travels but his general appearance is very much American or Scots-Irish. I, on the other hand, am ethnically ambiguous. Thanks to my paternal DNA and the ability to speak more than one language (well enough to survive), it’s hard for the locals to determine where I’m from. Most natives know I’m not from their country but thanks to my table manners, my appearance and a few other factors, they just cannot figure out where I’m from. My father reports the same thing only everyone assumes he’s Middle Eastern (he looks eerily similar to Yasser Arafat).

We arrive at the kebab shop I found earlier and the shop keeper stops us at the door. He looks at me, looks at Dock and then says, in French “No. You can’t come in here. You’re American.” I respond, in French, “Why not? We’re hungry. I speak French quite well. We don’t have proper kebab at home.” He twists his face, pauses and relents “Fine. Come in.” As I’m eyeballing the menu he says “No. Go sit down and I’ll make you something. You’ll like it.” Now, it’s challenge time. Do I accept food that could have expired or do I trust the man? I trust him, grab Dock’s sleeve and sit down. We look around and we’re the only non-Arabic folks in the restaurant. I whisper “Imagine what would happen if he finds out he’s feeding Jews.” in a joking way. For all I know, the shop keeper could love Jews but really hate Americans after 09.11. He had no way of knowing that Dock and I fundamentally disagreed with the Bush Administration. The meal was the best kebab I have ever eaten and neither one of us became sick. We thanked the shop keeper, left a standard, small gratuity as appreciation and went on with our evening.

Another night in Paris. Another night in a beautiful place, brimming with culture and brimming with diversity. Another opportunity to show that not all American tourists are hideous, chest thumping beasts.

I shared that bit with Milky, as well. We all have our implicit biases. Sometimes, it’s up to us to knock down someone else’s wall. Most important, in a post-09.11 world, it was imperative for Americans to not treat all people of Arabic descent like garbage for then we’re the problem.

Paris is not dangerous. Paris is not a scary place. Paris is not rife with evil. Paris is hurting. This year started horrifically for Paris. It appears that it will end horrifically, as well. When Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher happened, I said that Paris shouldn’t be defined by this, that Paris has survived much worse (you think it hasn’t?) and that Paris will recover. 2015 is a very small period of time in a city with a history dating back to the 3rd century…BC.

Today, I ache for Paris. I ache for the world. I ache for my child and children everywhere. Yet, I remain determined and committed to keep moving forward, keep pressing on – for this world can be better. Even if it’s only one kebab at a time.

The Magic Slide…

…a dreadful ride.

When I became pregnant, the already weird family dynamics became even more so.  I’m not entirely sure what caused the giant explosion but there was one and little bits of dysfunctional family whatsits lay higgledy-piggledy throughout the Central Atlantic region.  By the time the Milkface arrived, X wasn’t speaking to Y.  Y wouldn’t acknowledge Z’s existence.  Kang tried to mediate which proved as fruitful and productive as herding the metaphorical cats.  Only one thing came out of that attempt and it was a spate of vicious emails.  My sister (we have a mutual disdain for each other) said to me “Just you wait.  After you have been a parent long enough, you’re going to become really angry and here is why:  being a mediocre parent is easy.  Being a good parent takes a lot of work.  Being a shitty parent takes a lot of work, too.  Think about it.”  Then she hissed something about that being her rationale for speaking to no one in the family (save the most dysfunctional, imho, branch).  From my esteemed perspective, my sister’s emotional fuels of choice have been anger and resentment.  They propel her.  It’s her base.  My base is sadness and confusion so I cannot relate.  I’m too busy scratching my head, crying and trying to figure out why everyone acts like a blistering, selfish asshole which, I hasten to add, is a total fucking waste of time (my insatiable compulsion to understand the incomprehensible).

That wisdom was filed in Kang’s “Big Book of No.”  The Big Book of No is, essentially, how I parent.  I look back on my experiences as a kid.  I think of what my parents did.  I do the opposite 90% of the time.  Right now, the outcome is one Milkface who is compliant, happy, well-adjusted, exceptionally intelligent and a genuine pleasure to be around.  Granted, I’m only five and a half years into the whole parenting gig but I’m confident I’m on the right path.  The Big Book of No, combined with advice from anyone remotely sane seems to be working.  Suck on that, those who say you can’t break cycles and unlearn bad behaviors.  This bitch isn’t accepting that excuse at all.  This bitch has also been in therapy for fourteen blissful years trying to be anything other than some of her parents (when you have more than two parents, you get to use the word some).  It’s not fun.  It’s not a comfortable admission.  But, it is the truth and my reality.  Furthermore, if it makes Milky’s life better – then, by all means, I’ll spend another 14 years’ worth of time and money in therapy and maybe my darling shrink can get another boat out of it, as well (The man works hard and puts up with my shit.  He should actually get two boats.  Possibly three.).

This past weekend was graduation at Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.  The graduation ceremony is dramatically different from the traditional ceremony we have come to accept.  To me, it was lovely but emotionally exhausting – pretty much like a majority of my experiences with the school this past year for I have learned that being in a loving environment when you’re not exactly used to such a thing is fucking overwhelming.  Each of the students had a letter read to them by a faculty member.  The letter was actually written by the family (parents or grandparents).  It was loving, supportive and nurturing.  Then, each of the seniors prepared speeches.  As with most things PCSGU, the students are encouraged to put themselves out there.  Filtering is not something that happens at this school.  Exploration is desired.  Expression is encouraged.  These were positively amazing expressions of love, support and gratitude.  For someone raised in an environment where there was very little of this, it boggled my mind.  Emotional feral cats don’t receive this.  Wait – I really shouldn’t use that term without a qualifier.  I wasn’t entirely emotionally deprived.  I was on the receiving end of a good amount of emotional feedback; the majority of it was of the soul-crushing, esteem-destroying variety, however.  While I had more of my fair share of the negative, I was starving for the positive; distended belly and all.  By the grace of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I did have some decent adults in life:  my father (with whom I did not live), Kate’s parents (who become more and more heroic to me as my journey down Parenting Lane grows longer), my Swedish parents (to whom I will never ever begin to articulate how much they mean to me or how they actually saved my life) and some amazing teachers and school administrators who knew to look beyond the propaganda (the smear campaign towards anything related to Kang’s paternal side) and see the hungry child beneath the surface.

Approximately a third of the way through the commencement exercises, I was a legitimate mess.  While fumbling through my sack of magic tricks, I managed to locate the tissues but realized the much needed bottle of Klonopin had been left on the kitchen counter.  On the verge of becoming overly emotional and feeling like I would cause I scene, I excused myself and slithered to the bathroom to get my shit together.  Because while the glowing words from the parents were read and the seniors spoke candidly of their experiences, something was overriding everything in my head.  My selfish bitch wouldn’t stop whispering “Soooooooo very different from your graduation, innit?  These kids are really lucky.”

My graduation was different.  It was typical.  252-ish students packed in the circle gym of our high school (we had two gyms – check out the badasses up in here) in the stagnant June air.  Everyone in their nice clothes, polyester blue robes, caps, etc…  Aqua Net, Drakkar, Ben-Gay and boy sweat (the boys had the circle gym, the girls were stuck in the creepy, old, wooden gym) fumes permeated the room further contributing to the inability to stay awake while people droned endlessly about whatever it is we’re supposed to drone endlessly about during occasions such as these.  I was separated from Kate because her last name begins with an M and mine begins with an L.  The bobby pins holding the mortarboard in place were stabbing me in the scalp.  My coworker tied my hair into a nice french braid but it was a bit too tight so I was crabby about that.  The darkest cloud came from looking in the stands.  I saw my father, his girlfriend, my then boyfriend (a college lad…ooooh) and my aunt and uncle.  So, 50% of my parents were represented.  50% were not.  Incidentally, the absent party included a teacher in the school district.  One who worked directly across the street from the building we were in.  And if you didn’t think that wasn’t the dominating thought of the evening for me, you’re wrong.  It was so present and cause of so much shame for me, it was a large contributing factor to why I drove the 40 minutes back to my father’s house instead of going to a post-graduation kegger.  Yes.  40 minutes to a house that wasn’t even in the school district.

What?

You see, my mother’s house had a very unique feature:  The Magic Slide.  If memory serves me correctly (and it does because I have one of those weird memories that recalls just about everything vividly), my sister and I came up with this one day at my dad’s house.  Where my sister lived.  She lived with him from the age of 14 onward and not by choice.  My mother decided that she no longer wanted to parent my sister so my sister was shoved down The Magic Slide and landed straight in my father’s yard.  Locks were changed.  My sister was banished.  I only saw her on my father’s custodial visitation schedule.  I was seven years old and I basically became an only child.  This was only mildly upsetting since my sister wasn’t exactly the nicest person to me, even then.  But still, personal contempt for my sister aside, shoving her down The Magic Slide, separating siblings and the trauma it caused her was pretty horrific.  I also knew that I would eventually suffer the same fate.  The only questions were “when?” and “how long could I evade it?”  My father moved out of the school district to a more rural area and this bitch wasn’t going to a cowtown high school in the middle of nowhere.  This bitch had visions of going to college and nothing was going to get in the way of getting the fuck out of dodge for good.  Sweden was a legitimate way to run away but that was only a temporary escape.  Even I knew that.  Returning to America remains one of the saddest days in my life.

My mother and stepfather were long convinced that I was a loser with zero prospects in life.  They would have lengthy discussions at the dinner table (my presence irrelevant) about how I would amount to nothing, how I would be lucky if I could score a place at the lowly (they looked down upon it yet my stepfather eventually taught there so go…irony?) community college.  I was my father’s daughter and therefore I was only partially human.  The fact that I had a solid B GPA was irrelevant.  The fact that I wasn’t a troublemaker at school, also irrelevant.  The fact that I worked two jobs in high school also did not factor into any character assessments.  Rather than spending time parenting me, I was, more often than not, grounded for the slightest infraction.  Granted, I did develop quite a sarcastic mouth and contempt for their authority but it’s next to impossible to respect those who have zero respect for you and spend most of their time shitting on you for things you cannot control – like your own fucking DNA.  That I loved my dad did me no favors at all.  That I didn’t care for their incessant trashing of me and that I would stand up for myself didn’t bode well for me.  After a while, when you realize whatever you choose leads you to punishment, you start to care less and less.  You cannot change the opinions of others so why bother?  Survival mode kicks in and all you do is try to make it through the day without sustaining some form of abuse.  You cling to your friends, your hopes and your dreams.  You build a strong work ethic and save your pennies to get the fuck out of the hell you’re in as quickly as possible.  You stop caring altogether yet you don’t because there is no possible way to fully accept that the person who is supposed to love you the most, your mother, not only doesn’t love you – she hates you.  She hates you because you remind her of a mistake she made.  You remind her of her bad judgment.  You’re a scar but you’re human so you can’t literally be thrown away.  You can, however, be used as a pawn, belittled, emotionally destroyed, mocked, slapped around, deliberately deceived and outright tricked.

I knew I had a game to play if I didn’t want to go down my sister’s road to cowtown high.  I had to eat the shit, develop ways to minimize the damage to me (as my father referred to them, “catatonic fits.”) and generally try to be as invisible as possible.  Unfortunately, being a teenager and knowing everything, I was a bit too precocious and audacious so I would battle back.  It’s unrealistic to expect a human to be trampled on so many times before they rise up and say “Really?  Fuck this shit.” and return fire.  I returned fire one too many times.  My punishment:  hearing in May of 1989 that my ticket for The Magic Slide had arrived.  My mother declared that she was done with being a parent and that I was my father’s problem now.  Like my sister before me, I was given my termination date as her child which would be repeatedly barked at me in a harrowing, taunting fashion.  No one stopped her.  No one corrected her.  She was rife with fury and completely out of control.  In her mind, she had “suffered” enough and was done.  Her horrible, evil ex-husband was to pick up the slack he never did in her mind.  The minor child of whom she had custody was no longer her problem.  Let’s completely disregard what the law would say about that, too.

Here’s the thing she never fully understood:  be as angry as you want at your ex-husband.  Rage all that you want towards your ex.  You do not, under any circumstance, let your child see that shit go down for every time you do, you send the message to the child that 50% of that child is a piece of shit.  You send the message to the child that you think the child is garbage.  You send the message to your child that you don’t love your child because you don’t love your ex.  You send the message to your child that you hate your child because you hate your ex.  And this is exactly what 17 year old Kang received for high school graduation.  Validation that her mother hated her.  Plain and simple.  Then, after packing her bags with the help of some friends (because she received none from the parents who were all too anxious to get rid of her), she was pushed down The Magic Slide, just like her sister before her.

The school district, having seen this happen with my sister, had mercy on me and allowed me to finish the year and graduate as a student in spite of no longer residing in the district.  They knew the score.  They felt badly for me.  My college recommendation letters from staff and faculty had references to my stellar home life.  “Look at what this kid did in spite of…” Yay.  I was marketed not on my achievements but on the fact that I came from a fucked up family and managed to survive.  And this is why I loathe pity from others.

The Monday after my magical ride down The Magic Slide, I foolishly returned to my former residence to collect my mail.  It seemed like an obvious thing to do.  I was paying a good amount of my own bills then (because I was treated like a tenant rather than a child).  I arrive at the door, stick my key in the lock and turn.  Nothing happened.  I had been gone less than 48 hours and the locks were changed.  It was then I accepted that my mother didn’t love me and likely never would.  I walked to my car and broke down in tears.  To be dismissed and rejected by your own mother is a special sort of agony.  It’s a pain that doesn’t abate.  Ever.  You will always walk around with that and wonder if people know that part of you.  You can convince yourself that it says more about the other person.  As a parent, I cannot wrap my head around this behavior and think it speaks volumes of a parent’s failure and character flaws.  As an individual, it’s a shame I’ll never be able to scrub off, no matter how many showers I take, no matter how many times I may be decontaminated, no matter how many years I will spend in therapy.  Not only was I told by my mother that she was done being a parent, the locks were changed.  The message was driven home – not only was I not welcome, I no longer existed.  It set the tone for the rest of my life.  And for as many times as I tried to build a relationship with her after (why on Earth would I even try, I have been asked – because…no matter how hard you work to get better, being rejected by your mother is insuperable and I’m only human), I know in my gut, she will never love me.  So, I tried building a relationship with her for the sake of my son.  It has been a very hard struggle for me.  I feel like I have built a constructive relationship with my stepfather (finally…he approves of me and is proud of me).  My mother – not so much.  Today was another exercise in stepping on an emotional landmine and I’m not sure how to proceed or if I should even bother at this point.  I will not have my perspective devalued nor will I sit and be screamed at.

Sixteen years ago, I made a promise to myself to take myself out of the line of fire.  Two years ago, I put myself back on the range as a target to do the right thing (I maintain zero regrets there).  Two years later, knowing full and well that people don’t change, I remain heartbroken that lessons haven’t been learned by either party.  Fourteen years of missed opportunities – a wedding, amazing career progression on my part, the arrival of a grandson – have taught her nothing.  Fourteen years of deep introspection and I’m left to wonder if I’m making a huge mistake letting certain people into my life.  And what do I do about my child who has developed an attachment to a potentially harmful person?  He can’t be pushed down a Magic Slide but he can be hurt if he doesn’t toe the line to the exacting specifications.  Right now, he’s perfect.  What happens when he isn’t?  What kind of mother will I be if I set him up for a similar disappointment – to be emotionally dumped on the side of the road because of whatever reason my mother deems fit?

The families who experienced the joys of commencement on Saturday – outwardly – had a blissful, wonderful experience and I’m genuinely happy for them.  I hope that the same is going on behind closed doors.  Shit, a reasonable facsimile would be fine with me.  Anything other than my experience, at least.

I think I’m still going to wrestle with the positivity that surrounds PCSGU for years to come.  Milky thrives there.  My struggle to manage the feels and the good vibes will not become his burden.  I’ll slink off to my car and save the tears from the overwhelming feelings for the ride home or share them with my dear friends who understand the same pain, the random internet people who read this rambling nonsense and the wise shrink who has made me well enough to parent my child in a very different fashion than the models I had.  Eventually, I will learn to accept them as familiar.  I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully embrace them as normal, however.  My normal is different.  My normal is rooted in confusion, heartbreak and consistent disappointment.  My normal, no matter how far away I get from the hellscape that was my childhood, is always going to have an undertone of “Why?” and “How” and “Why?  How?  Who?”  To be able to entirely let go would be ideal and the desired outcome but I’m realistic.  I don’t think that will ever happen.  There is a part of me that doesn’t want it to happen (for now, at least), either.  That part of me allows me to remain hyper-vigilant and ensure that my son’s childhood isn’t mine; that he grows up knowing his parents love him, that his parents will always be stable and reliable and will do anything and everything it takes to make sure he is secure and provided for.  It’s my touchstone.  It’s my Big Book of No.  It’s my parenting manifesto, if you please.

And to those who may think that I’m disconnected from reality or not focused on my son – they should take a long, hard look in the mirror.  When Milky was a few months old, my father stopped by to visit.  Milky was fussy that afternoon and crying a bit.  I turned to my father and said “I don’t want to fuck this up.  I want to be a good parent.”  My father turned to me and said “You’re already a much better parent than most.”  And with that, I knew that things would be ok for my kid.  That, at the very least, my priorities were in the right place and the behaviors weren’t inherited.  There would be no Magic Slide in my back yard.

The cycle was broken.