Tag Archives: education

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

I’m hiding out in my bedroom with the door locked, pretending I don’t know anyone’s home. I don’t want anyone to bother me or tell me what to do. I just want to play my records and write in my journal. More than anything, I don’t want anyone to make me study for that test on Friday. Oh, but wait. That’s not me. That’s my son. I’m not the one in 7th grade. I’m not the one getting D’s in Math and Science, or having grumpy teachers send notes home telling me I better get my act together. I’m a grown woman. I’m the mother of two. Or am I? I’m starting to have doubts.

I remember well. I graduated high school back in the 80’s and when I did, I threw off my cap and gown and said, screw this shit. Thank God I never have to go back. I went on to college, then grad school, met someone, got married and had kids. I struggled and I overcame adversity. And when I had my very first, tiny little bundle of joy, I promised that things would be different. That he would not have to suffer through what I did when I was a kid. That he would never know the horrors of looking down the gaping mouth of a screaming teacher, telling him to “wise up.”

But sadly, that was a crackpot notion. I was promising to stop a runaway train with my bare hands. A feat that simply cannot be done.  Kids have to go through their own personal struggles and no one can protect them after a certain age. Lesson learned.

Or not.

My sixth grader brought home a D. So, I sit with him night after night after night trying to get him to understand how to multiply and divide fractions. But I’ve forgotten myself. How do I multiply fractions? I haven’t done it in years. The frustration of not getting it returns.

  1. Simplify the fractions if not in lowest terms.
  2. Multiply the numerators of the fractions to get the new numerator.
  3. Multiply the denominators of the fractions to get the new denominator.

I send him back to school on test day, sure that he will get an A. I wait. I wonder. I pace the halls. I Freudian slip and say, “I wonder what I got?”  But he returns with another D, and I’m crushed. How was that possible? The both of us went over this a million times. So, I do what any desperate parent does who lives vicariously through her kids: I yell at him and take away his video games. Maybe, by accident, it just slips out, I even berate him for not being able to understand the material. The guilt-laden words, “C’mon, what were you thinking?” make their way from deep inside my stomach, up my throat and out my mouth.

To top it off, I get the dreaded letter sent home about his performance. He’s not paying attention in class; he’s fooling around with his friends; he needs to be more respectful to his teachers; he needs to stop drawing cartoons in his notebook; this is his third detention in six months; if his behavior and his grades don’t improve he will likely be kept back.

Sure, it’s his behavior under scrutiny and they’re his grades. But really, they’re mine. It’s me back in middle school, floundering around, doggy-paddling to stay afloat. I was a rotten student. And every bad grade he comes home with is a blazing reminder of my own poor performance back in the day. Every detention he gets, it’s me who sits with the shame. And every parent-teacher conference or note sent home is not about his behavior, but mine. Of course, you could say this is narcissism at its finest. Whatever happens to others becomes internalized and thus, happens to me. The apple is the tree. It’s all about me, me, me. Yet, my children are an extension of me. There’s an interconnectedness there that cannot easily be disconnected.  And so, I empathize with their plight, particularly when I too have lived through the same. Isn’t it called compassion? At least that’s what I tell myself it’s called.

In fact, I sat through one of his conferences just recently and listened to all of teachers say the same thing. And I’m sure I heard it this way: you need to stop fooling around, Tracy. School is no joke. It’s time to get serious. And as I sat in my little 7th grade chair, so low to the ground, like a shrinking violet, with my knees knocking under the desk, I could feel my heart pound and my face get hot with humiliation for not being a better student.

It’s not just me. My sister-in-law is about to register her son for Kindergarten, but she’s in a panic. Once he gets on that bus, all by himself, she said, she can’t protect him. She was a shy kid too. She knows how rough it will be to take that twenty-minute ride to school, knowing no one, and having no one to hide behind or talk to.

Another friend of mine watches in horror as her teenage kids get into trouble, oftentimes with the law. “I was so bad when I was a kid,” she told me. “And now I’m watching my sons get into the same kind of mess.”

The wheel goes around for everyone. And yet, there’s a reason we as parents must shoulder our kids’ burdens. Isn’t it too much to ask a shy five-year-old to handle a bus ride by himself? Isn’t it too much to expect a seventh grader to perform flawlessly in every subject when, like his mother, he is a dreamer too?

I so often believe it is.

And so, is the lesson learned here to hold on for dear life? To live through things again and again until you get it right? Even at the expense of others? Or does the girl with zero confidence who is still holding on for dear life, need to let go of the death grip she has on her son who, by no conscious choice of his own,  reminds her everday of her own past failures? Perhaps the lesson is to remember  how rotten it felt to not be believed in or, to not be loved above all else, despite your limitations. Lessons, lessons, lessons. They are learned at all ages, And perhaps I need to let go. Not of my son, but me. I need to forgive the girl who made so many mistakes and lazed around the house without an ambitious bone in her body or a shred of self-motivation. I need to let go of that wasted time that I often foolishly think I’ll ever get back. Humans! The only animal on the planet capable of so many deep-rooted pschyological weirdness. Alas,  I did bloom. I was a late bloomer. And as Sharon Olds says, “anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” But, in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s about the tree shaking the apple off its limb and letting it roll where it chooses. It’s about saying: I may be suffering right along with you. You’re not alone. But you’re free. You are your own person. And I love you unconditionally. 

My son is a dreamer; deal with it

 

My boys’ conferences were yesterday and I was already preparing for a hard time from Dani’s teacher. It’s not that I dislike her. It’s that she just doesn’t  understand that her job is not about creating perfect kids, it’s about teaching. 

Dani will not conform. He plays around, is easily distracted, draws cartoon characters all day long, never knows where he is in the lesson, and can’t sit still. Classic A.D.D if you ask me. But it’s more than that and I think that this is where schools go terribly wrong. If the kid isn’t society’s definition of PERFECT, then he needs a label. A new label. He needs to be redefined to fit another perfect model. The perfect model of A.D.D. perhaps, or worse. Schools are horrible proponents of stripping children of their identities so that they may be taught in a specific way. And if they cannot be taught, they then become candidates for “behavioral modification” or drugs. 

So she says to me, as if I didn’t already know, “Dani’s not stupid, y’know. He’s very bright. He just doesn’t pay attention.” And if he paid attention, he’d be perfect. Right? And you’re job would be a hell of a lot easier.

So, I say to her, “from the time we had our last conference, I have reinstated the math tutor, I have reprimanded him, taken away the computer and all other electronics, I have hugged him when he gets an A, and sat with him nightly over homework to help fend off the Ds and Fs. I have preached the importance of paying attention and getting good grades and have admonished him for telling “lies” and trying to avoid work. On your part, you have made sure he takes all the right books home and you’ve gotten on him for not following along in class. I agree. He can be lazy. He is scatter-brained and he doesn’t have the capacity to remember what you asked of him two seconds ago. 

“But let me ask you, after all that effort on our parts to make him a better student and he is STILL the same, what then is the lesson here? Is it that WE are to blame for not getting on him enough? Is it that HE is to blame for being so lazy and not paying attention to US? Or is it something else? Might it be that no matter what, he is simply Dani and that it is his nature to not conform to our way of doing things? There’s only so much effort you can put into forcing the left-hander to write with his right hand.”

She wasn’t convinced. 

I told her about randomness and the theory written up in Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives. How the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, lectured to a group of pilots, years ago, on positive reinforcement and how it is supposedly applied to making better students. He initially said that positive reinforcement causes people to achieve and become better at certain tasks, but negative reinforcement does not. But when Kahneman mentioned this during the lecture some of the flight instructors said that it wasn’t true and contradicted their experience.

“‘I often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. ‘And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers and by and large the next time they improve.”

Kahneman took this contradiction and realized that it was, indeed, true. That the reason for it could be attributed to something known as “regression toward the mean.” That is, “in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely by chance, by a more ordinary one.” When we reinforce a good behavior or reprimand a bad one, it appears that our criticism or reinforcement is causing the behavior of the student to change. But in actuality, it is not. The student exhibits his own level of experience and knowledge at the rate he, personally, has the capacity to or, in my son’s case, the willingness. Of course, positive versus negative reinforcement will have an effect on the student’s emotional well-being, but not his ability to perform tasks or skills. 

 

In Dani’s defense, he is simply a Dreamer.  He’s dreaming up fight scenes, and animation moves, and traveling to Japan to save the kingdom. Obviously inappropriate behavior during class. And quite frankly, it bothers the hell out of me when I ask him to clean up his room or do the dishes only to have to remind him a MILLION times. And don’t think I don’t feel pain for him that he can’t understand how to divide fractions. But on the flip side, he is creating amazing things. He has self-taught himself a computer animation program and is making actual cartoons. His vision, skill and love of drawing is amazing. And his stories of adventure are characteristic of a soon-to-be writer or artist. 

What’s more, he has a huge capacity to learn. When he wants. He’s merely opposed to it as it is offered in this particular setting. 

He is ten years old. He is beautiful inside and out. He is creative. He is a dreamer.  And in my book, he is allowed to be all those things. I understand that schools must set a standard of behavior so that teaching and learning can occur. And I do understand that if Dani wants to go on to college some day or get along in the world, he will eventually have to play by others’ rules. But any teacher that is going to tell me that “he’s not stupid” as part of her description of him, is not someone with any sensitivity or knowledge as to who children are and what they’re all about, inherently.

Perhaps, I am just a disgruntled mother.

I secretly wanted to say, “Well, Mrs. M., it’s not that you’re stupid, but I just don’t think you’re cut out for this job.”