Parenthood


Little Girl

Image by Mr Bultitude via Flickr

A friend of the older girls disappeared earlier this week setting off a fast, frantic furious search launched by concerned friends via social media and flyers plastered on buildings in an ever-widening circle.

She hadn’t shown up for work. Her car was missing but her cell phone was not.

I didn’t know her but for a handful of encounters at the house she shared for a time with Edie. She smiled but looked away or down more than she looked at you. I chalked it up to shyness or the awkwardness of your roommate’s  parents descending and upsetting the singular atmosphere of house-sharing as it exists among the young today.

Twenty  and employment challenged, she’d settled into work at a nearby youth hostel. You would have noticed her had you seen her, long wild red locks, round cheeks and ethereal in a Renaissance Fair kind of way. She was beautiful in that fleeting way that we women never appreciate about ourselves until decades later when we run across old photographs and wonder why we didn’t see it when we looked in the mirror then.

She wasn’t missing long.

And when they found her, she was already gone.

She driven to mountains. It’s a city we always pass through on our way to the Okanagan. A destination whose significance was known only to her and it’s where she died.

Edie and Mick were postering at a local park when they heard the news. Friends were already gathering for a candlelight vigil. Edie posted it to her status on Facebook, the town crier of our modern life.

Rob was still out, driving the babysitter home. We’d been out to formal work function earlier.

I greeted Rob on the back porch with the news.

“How’s Edie taking it,” he asked.

“You should call her, ” I said.

I listened as she told him the news through choked sobs and sniffles. Worry on his face mixed with the urge to do and knowledge that “listening” was all he had to offer at the moment.

Mick has lost friends to suicide. He asked if she was okay. Edie said they were together. Dare was there and Silver was on his way. They would not be alone.

She noted that this would be her third funeral this year. She still is surprised by death. It didn’t strike close until she was an adult. That lulls some people I suppose. I was eight the first time, and it doesn’t surprise me anymore. The way it can come in waves, taking without regard to age and leaves you grappling with feelings and thoughts you try to avoid most times.

Edie told Rob that she’d just seen her friend a week ago.

“I didn’t see this coming,” it was hard to tell if that was surprise or self-recrimination.

“It’s so hard to understand,” he said.

It is. In cases when there are mental health issues evident, serious mental illness, there is at least something concrete. I taught in an at-risk program at my first middle school, and one of my favorite students lost his father to suicide.  The group’s counselor and I took all his classmates to the funeral. The man had thrown himself in front of  a train. I’d met him maybe just the once. Jon lived with his mother. His dad’s mother and sisters made sure he had plenty of supportive family around, but his father’s mental illness hung over him. He was afraid he’d end up like his dad, hearing voices and trying not to listen or do what they told him too.

At the funeral, the grandmother told the counselor and I that she was glad her son was at peace. The voices, she said, had plagued him since he was a small boy. He was just too tired to ignore them anymore.

But some people’s deaths can’t be pinned to obvious causes. They hide them in plain sight secure that their game faces are just like ours, or  – perhaps – they just don’t have the strength to live in the world. It’s not really Eden after all or even property east of it. Some people just can’t imagine themselves far enough in the future to wade through the now. They tire. They slowly stop treading and go under, and we are too busy swimming ourselves to notice.

My late husband lost two friends to their own hands when he was in college. After the second, he was so distraught he thought about it himself. Loaded the shotgun even. What made him pick up the phone and call his best friend that night, he really didn’t know he said when he told me about this years later.

“If anyone knew what there was to live for, it was Wally,” he said.

He could have just as easily not called though and I would be somewhere else today. And it wasn’t as if anyone had an inkling of how he felt or what he planned to do. It was just … one of those fateful things that can’t be explained even in retrospect.

Edie’s friend left behind a mother, who’s devastation I could not bear to imagine, a boyfriend, a few extended family members and many, many friends who loved her and searched fervently for her – if only she had known, and maybe she didn’t take her phone because she couldn’t carry that knowledge with her where she needed to go.

Rest in peace, Kylen.


"It's YOUR time to SHINE in 2009!"

Image by eyewash via Flickr

And at the risk of sounding shrill as I repeat myself, “unless someone is dead or nearly so, don’t call me!” Really. I mean it.

The latest non-life threatening emergency that presented itself for my immediate attention is the ongoing drama surrounding my older nephew’s premature entry into the adult world.

I am standing in the check out at Safeway yesterday and the phone ringles. It’s the oddest ring tone but the least annoying of the generic options available to me as I don’t (yet) possess a smart phone with all its sci-fi tone upgrading capabilities.

Snatching it up as quickly as the confounding zip locks on my purse will allow, I am expecting a request from Rob. I’d spoken to him a bit earlier, so he knew I was shopping and I thought perhaps he remembered something he wanted me to pick up while I was still in town.

It was Mom.

Since day one of cell phone ownership, Mom’s treated my cell as a homing device. I knew she would. In fact my chief objection to getting a phone was Mom.

“She will see this as permission to track me like an endangered animal on the plains of the Serengeti,” I told my late husband, Will.

He wanted me to have one so that I would “be safe”, but the truth was that he just liked having the same type of instant access to me that I didn’t want to hand over to Mom.

“You can screen her calls with the caller ID,” he said.

“Because having her call me over and over until I picked up would be better than just picking up,” I replied.

I still lost on the issue of carrying a cell phone and Mom went from her habit of leaving me multiple messages on the answering machine to simply stalking me by cell phone if I didn’t answer the home line. The cell phone thing has worked out nicely for everyone but me no matter how one looks at it.

Because it’s the middle of the day on a Tuesday, I know right away that Mom isn’t calling to ask me how my day is going. Like DNOS, weekday calls mean that something is wrong.

“I need to talk to you,” she began.

“I’m standing in the check out at the grocery. Can I call you when I get out to the truck?”

“Okay,” and she hangs up on me before I can even say “good-bye”.

Naturally, I am in the lane of the cashier who least loves her job. She is a dour woman, who moves at the speed of drying paint, so by the time I get to the truck, I have run through a dozen desperate scenarios – which all involve dead or near so relations.

“I’m so worried about N1,” she tells me. “He was up here yesterday for a visit. I made him his favorite lasagna and he couldn’t even eat.”

Mentally, I note that the drama queen gene is overly represented in my nephew, but say,

“Why is he upset this time?”

I’m expecting that he’s made another pitch for a car or asked her to co-sign a lease on an apartment for him because he and his dad are continually at odds, but she tells me that she thinks it’s about his wanting to go to community college and study mechanics.

It’s about no such thing, of course. N1 launched a campaign over the summer to be allowed to move back to D-port, where he went to high school. His dad moved them there a couple of years ago. N1 fell in with a group of older kids – drop-outs to varying degrees – lost interest in school and then quit himself when his dad moved them back to DBQ last winter. He’s moped about ever since, plotting to move back and get a place with some of them and work at a fast food place that someone’s grandmother owns.

It’s a seventeen year old plan and that about sums up the long, short and every which way of it. There is no merit to it. It won’t further his life in any meaningful way because at the end of the experiment (which is where he loses the job, can’t pay his share of the rent or make up the difference his friends won’t be paying either and Mom is stuck with the bill), nothing is gained by way of N1 being even marginally closer to the “contributing adult” status that is fervently wished for by all.

“I think he might be severely depressed,” Mom went on. “Who knows what he might do?”

And I’m thinking now? What the fuck? And why couldn’t she have burdened DNOS with this nonsense after she got off work?

But my wiser younger sis, DNOS, refuses to have anything to do with the half-assed attempts to first aid our nephew’s life. As far as she is concerned, when N1 gets tired of lying in the lumpy mess of a bed he’s made for himself, he will do something related to “constructive” and until he makes a move in a positive direction without help or coercion, he is best left to flounder.

Good point on the “he needs to do this himself” front but it overlooks the fact that N1 is a kid who has mostly been raising himself, and badly, since he was 13. Even before that, parenting isn’t something he’s had too much of.

After fifteen minutes and much reassurance, I talked Mom back off the ledge she tearfully teetered on and promised to talk to N1.

Who wouldn’t give me his damn phone number when I messaged him on Facebook for it.

I’d had it, couldn’t find it and asked him to send it to me. Little monster would only talk to me via “chat”.

Grrrrr.

And no, I didn’t tell him how much like his mother he was behaving though I was sorely tempted. Baby won’t talk to me in real time either.

Back and forth over the course of the afternoon and evening led me to the conclusion that N1 was playing the drama card for a bit of sympathy from Grandma. In fairness, she is as close to a mother figure as he’s got. It didn’t have to be that way, but I failed time and time again to get custody of N1 while he was growing up. My last attempt came just before he entered middle school and I warned my parents then that it was unlikely that I would be able to take him once he hit his teens for real and they would rue the day they turned me down.*

As per her request, I called Mom back that evening to let her know how N1 was. We discussed again my brother CB’s offer to have N1 come out and live with him in Cali.

DNOS is adamant that N1 not go, but she is hopelessly biased. Baby really hasn’t said how she feels about it except to reiterate her inability to foot his room/board in any way. I don’t know how his dad feels. At the moment, his father seems to be wallowing in regret over his own wasted life**, so he isn’t much use.

For all his faults, CB has been a pretty good father and N1 needs a father. CB was also once a 17-year-old high school drop-out with nothing but more ideas than capital and a GED. He certainly has the right credentials for understanding just what N1 is up against in the real world that the kid hasn’t clue one about navigating.

N1 admitted to “thinking about calling Uncle”. We went back and forth and then he stopped responding.

What he will do now, I haven’t the slightest idea. He’s a lot like his mother. He hates the unknown and invents all sorts of worst case scenarios to justify avoiding change, and while he makes friends easily in new situations, he loses them just as quickly. Partly because he trusts where he shouldn’t and distrusts where he should be more open. It’s a gift he inherited from Baby, who has only rarely lucked into good friends and never into a good relationship.

The last meddling I did was at Mom’s behest. I contacted CB and asked him to talk to N1.

And now, let’s all remember – dead or nearly so – anything else really needs to be referred to someone who actually lives south of the Canadian border.

*And I get no pleasure out of this particular “I told you so” because N1 needed a parent. I can only guess where he’d be today if Baby would have given in and let me raise him the first time I asked when he was two, and there is no sense crying over the spilled milk, but few things make me as angry as adults who waste the little lives that life puts in their care. A wasted child is one of the saddest sights. I encountered so many children as a teacher who were ruined by crappy and/or indifferent parenting.

**He was a 19 year old high school drop-out when Baby got pregnant. She was 25 or 26. N1’s dad was a foil. She used him to try and make the real objective of her attention – a mutual friend of theirs – jealous. This guy, though a royal sleeze, was wise enough to realize that Baby was looking for a baby-daddy. She missed being on welfare.


Minneapolis

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At some point, coming or going, where a trip to Iowa is concerned, Minneapolis looms large and essentially unavoidable. A metropolitan area that all but defines the term “urban sprawl”, we found ourselves once again attempting to circumnavigate it with as much expediency as possible on our return trip to Canada last week.

Coming up I-35 and entering the interstate labyrinth from the southern edge, it can easily take well over an hour to break free. Compounding this was Rob’s quest for another two bar stools for our new kitchen breakfast nook. The pricing on everything under the sun hovering just below insanely cheap in the States, we’d found two chairs at the Pier 1 in Dubuque and determined that another two could be secured in another store in Michelle Bachmann territory.

Dee is an extraordinarily intrepid traveler for her age. Broken to the backseat during her 5th year and first in Canada by the vast expanse that is Alberta specifically but Canada generally, she can ride six to seven hours with nary an “are we there yet?” But a week of intense spoiling by her grandmother softened her a bit and the endless city of Minneapolis quickly mushroomed into a Groundhog’s Day experience.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“Minneapolis,” Rob said.

30 minutes later her attention wandered back to the seemingly unchanged landscape.

“Where are we now?”

“Minneapolis,” I told her.

And 30 minutes after that?

“Are we still in Minneapolis?”

“Yes, we are,” Rob said.

“Well, I don’t know why they call it Minneapolis,” she announced a little while later. “There is nothing ‘mini’ about it.”

“Minne is a native word,” Rob said.

“It probably doesn’t mean small,” I added.

“Probably not,” Dee agreed.


Ary Scheffer: The Temptation of Christ, 1854

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A friend’s Facebook status reminded me that today is Easter’s infamous vigil. It’s the Christian equvilant of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva”, which is the mourning period for the dead. Instead of a person, however, Christians today mourn/anticipatory celebrate Jesus’s death and descent into hell.

I am not versed in how this day goes in any other religion except my natal one, Catholicism. My friend is of the Eastern persuasion, and her recollections on Easter differ from my own as they spin Holy Week in a more positive way than the gore, guilt and unworthiness focus of my Catholic youth.

But as I remember the lesson from my Catholic schoolgirl days, Jesus died on Good Friday and descended into hell. There, he rallied the souls of the faithful departed and led them to heaven. It’s a zombie version of The Rapture. The gates of heaven were locked against humanity after some snit God had in the Old Testament. Christianity, as a whole, makes a lot less sense when the Old Testament is examined too closely, and the nonsensical idea that God is anything other than capricious and scary as … um … hell, can be found all over the bible’s earliest books.

I bring this up because of a conversation I overheard Dee having with a friend who stayed over the other night.

Her little friend is Catholic and Dee herself was baptized in the faith back when I still entertained ideas of leaving her belief system up to the tutelage of others. I didn’t catch the opener but as I walked by her bedroom, I heard an audible gasp and then,

“But you have to believe in Jesus!”

I cracked the door a bit and observed Dee’s friend staring at her as though she was possessed and spewing green bile.

“I don’t believe in Jesus,” Dee assured her with a calm and determination that made me proud and a bit awestruck.

Later as we were driving the friend home, I caught a whispered conversation as the little girl tried to convince Dee of the consequences of not believing.

“If you don’t believe in Jesus, there is this place you go to after you die that’s not nice,” she said, quite earnest and clearly concerned for Dee’s afterlife.

“I don’t believe in this,” Dee said, again with an assurance that seemed a bit too large for her tiny 8 year old self. “I believe that when we die, we go to the underworld and our souls are weighed with the feather of truth.” (she did not add the part about the hippodoodel that eats the wicked who wasted their lives and then try to lie about it – and it’s interesting to note the Egyptian that has crept into her Greek mythology).

“How does she square this with her idea that her grandfather and Daddy Will are in heaven?” Rob asked me as I related the story to him later.

“I have no clue,” I said, “but it’s not any worse spin than most Christians employ trying to reconcile the inconsistencies in their beliefs.”

There is a tiny residual bit of Catholic in me that worries about what I have wrought, but mostly, I was really proud of her. She wasn’t the least bit worried about what her friend would think of her beliefs. They were her beliefs and she held fast.

Rob and I are doing a far more awesome job than I realized with this raising a kid thing.


Jesus resurrected and Mary Magdalene

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Driving Miss Dee home from Brownie’s this evening, she cheerily brought me up to speed on the “culture” badge they’d earned via the meeting’s activities.

“We made an egg holder shaped like a bunny and Browny Owl had some culture bread, which we ate while she talked to us about culture and then we wrote about our own culture in our books, which we got to make up.”

“You ate culture?”

“It was good too,” she chirped.

“Was this about Easter?” I asked, needing to nail down the cultural aspect of the evening.

“Yep,” she replied.

“Well, Mick and her old friend/new boyfriend are coming this Saturday for Easter,” I told her, having only just found out during a conversation I had with Rob before picking her up. She’d called to update him on her new job, confirm for dinner and remind him that Dare is deathly allergic to nuts. He’d recently had an incident at the restaurant where the older girls work because he was too polite to mention it to Mick’s co-workers.

“Easter is Saturday?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “it’s Sunday. Remember? You wanted to call it Easter Eve instead of Holy Saturday.”

“But I thought it was Friday,” she said.

“Friday is Good Friday.”

“According to the Catholics,” she said, using a tone that sounded a lot like her dad’s when he talks about organized religion. A cross between “how quaintly foolish and we must put this evil down – hand me the hammer and sharpen the stakes”.

At this very moment, we drove by the Separate school in Ardrossan. Separate schools are Catholic but operate under the banner of the public school system and are funded by the province.

“Look, Mom,” she waves her finger at the building. “There it is! What is it?”

We’ve had this conversation and it’s never ended satisfactorily. There is something on the building that catches her eye every time and she describes it in such vague terms that I have never been able to tell her what it was.

But this time, I think I know what it is.

“The cross?” I ask.

“Yes! What does it mean?”

Oh, how to explain this unique symbol of death. Eureka, I decide to use Easter.

“Well, you know Easter? And Jesus?”

Affirmative to both.

“Jesus was nailed to the cross on Good Friday. Died. And then on Easter, he was brought back to life,” no sugar-coating is the best way to split this knot.

And I hear the chirping of crickets from the back seat as Dee tries to make sense of this news.

How to relate it?

“You remember Osirus?” I ask.

Of course she does. She’s an excellent pagan.

“Remember how he was chopped up and Isis pieced him back together? He came back to life as the Lord of the Dead?”

More silence.

“That’s like Jesus,” I am feeling confident about having related a story I can’t even remember being told, that’s how etched it is in my psyche, to my daughter who knows next to nothing about anything that isn’t polytheistic in nature.

“Except, for the chopped up part,” she points out.

“Right, there’s that difference.”

“And Jesus is not the God of the Underworld. He is in heaven.”

Give me points for her knowing his geographical location at least.

“Yes, God raised him up to heaven,” I agreed.

“What’s God’s name?”

I flip quickly back and forth between Yahweh and Jehovah in my mind before offering them both.

“Why is he called that?” her tone clearly indicates that she is not impressed with his moniker.

“He called himself that.”

“And is he the god of?”

“Hmm, well, he’s just God.”

“And what did he do?”

Because Gods “do” things and have “jobs”.

“He created the world, they say, and humans.”

“But Zeus did that,” she said.

“Well, that’s what Catholics believe about him,” I said.

“Catholics,” she said, in that tone. “I’m baptized like a Catholic, right? So I am Catholic.”

Knowing, as I do, that it’s not really that simple – though many of my fellow cradlers aren’t that well-versed – I try to explain the “choice” thing.

“It’s not like being half-German or Irish, sweets,” I tell her. “Being Catholic is a choice.”

“Is Brookie a Catholic?”

Brookie is the neighbor girl who goes to the Christian school in town. I sigh inwardly. I really don’t want to branch off into the schism and confuse her with the splinter groups.

“She’s a Christian, which has many groups and Catholics are one of those groups.”

I can hear her eyes glazing over before she mercifully takes the conversation along another track.

“N2 was baptized like me. Is he a Catholic?”

“Yes, but he and DNOS and Uncle don’t practice it much anymore.”

“Because they are too busy with hockey?” she asks.

“Yes, hockey is time-consuming.”

“Like being Catholic?”

I am not sure that counts as a light-bulb moment, but I take it and steer the conversation away from religion, and it occurs to me that I bit off far more than I realized when I decided to teach her about religion rather than simply handing off to the church via Catholic school and catechism as my parents did.


illustrated math problem

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr

Dee has struggled in school since the beginning and as I have mentioned, I questioned and poked/prodded her teachers about glitches and gaps all along only to be told that “it’s normal for children her age”.

Of course, that was bullshit. Her peers didn’t struggle as mightily or as consistently as she did in certain areas. Perhaps having been a classroom teacher, it was more apparent to me than it would have been to other parents or maybe because I lived it myself as an elementary school student, the alarm bells rang louder for me. Whatever the reason, I knew from the start and her school has only just clued in and she has lost nearly four years in a battle that is going to be uphill and probably not very enjoyable.

The assessment was inclusive. The term “unusual” came up a lot because there is no real recognition of her particular learning disability. Dyslexic, autistic and the behaviorally disordered are the squeaky wheels in education. That is where the research focuses and that is where the funding flows.

Dee has dyscalculia. In layman’s terms it’s like a math based dyslexia – except it’s a bit more complicated than that. Her spatial and time sense are affected. She is hypersensitive to stimuli and has a hard time tuning extraneous noise out or filtering it for specifics. For reasons unknown, she can’t memorize formulas and committing base information to memory – like how a word is spelled, math tables, or phonic decoding skills – takes longer.

She wasn’t actually classified as having dyscalculia. Unlike the inability to read, having difficulty with math is not viewed as a big tragedy. Math is so universally loathed (because our school systems insist on teaching higher math forms to everyone despite the fact that it’s not necessary) that one is considered “normal” to be bad at math. But for Dee, it goes beyond math and one thing can’t be addressed without addressing all things.

I have dyscalculia. I discovered this inadvertently through my team teaching with special education teachers when I worked in the middle schools. Even they were only vaguely aware of the condition and didn’t have any advice for me in terms of doing something about it.

“Well,”  I was told, “you certainly managed to overcome it on your own at any rate.”

Yeah.

And that’s the problem. I had to “overcome” it on my own.

I came home from the studio last evening to find Dee at the dining room table working on a math table Rob had designed for her. She had a math test the next day and the teacher sent home a note asking that she study.

The test was word problems.

Word problems were the beginning of the end for me in school where math is concerned. As I watched her at the table, wiggling, sighing and in general being annoyed and annoying, I was cast back to the hours my dad had me anchored to the kitchen table with my math book and homework.

I did not act up because unlike Rob, my father had no patience and I was quite scared of him at that point in my life. Having watched he and my mother take after my younger brother physically, I had no doubt that this could happen to me too. So I sat, stone-faced and so focused on not crying that even if what he’d been trying to explain made even the slightest sense to me at all – I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“Oh,” my mother reminisced when I told her about Dee, “your dad had no patience with you. He could do any math at all in his head and couldn’t understand why you couldn’t.”

She didn’t add that my failure to do well at math was a huge disappointment to him. And not one that I missed. Even now as I listened to Rob’s exasperation with Dee when he told me about his attempts to help her study, I could feel again the awfulness of wanting to understand and just not being able to. I remembered the nights I sat at the table instead of being able to watch television or play outside.

And I remembered the words that showed up on Dee’s assessment “she just needs to try harder” because “the knowledge is there”.

Except it isn’t.

I couldn’t tell time on analog clocks. I had to use my fingers to count once the big hand slipped off the hour – even now, I count minutes past the o’clock, the thirty or quarter to or past.

I can’t judge distance. I can only subtract and divide because I can add and multiply and I still don’t have the entire times table locked and solidly loaded. I have to think about it whenever numbers are concerned and I transpose addresses and phone numbers regularly.

Grades three and four were easily the worst years of my academic life (until 9th grade algebra*). Neither of my math teachers had the time to work with me one on one as class sizes regularly hit the mid-30’s. None of my peers could explain what I was doing wrong or how to fix it though they generously gave me answers in an effort to help me avoid the regular dressing down I received in front of them.

Mrs. S, my grade three teacher, had a wicked way with the sarcastic put-down. Where my Dee is small and sweet and cuddly, inspiring the tender side of her teachers, I had perfected an air of indifference that read like defiance – and maybe it was a little – and I would meet her eyes and take the insults without comment. I would have sooner stuck splinters under my fingernails than cry.

In grade four, Sister assigned her student teacher to work with me exclusively when she grew tired of my stubborn refusal to learn.

That’s how it was viewed. I was not learning on purpose. Perhaps because I enjoyed being chapters behind and wrong every time I was called on?

He worked hard but nothing much stuck.

I had done so much copying – cheating really – the year before to survive that I was determined in grade four to do the work myself. But all that resulted in was falling further and further behind everyone else. So the day after Sister had forced me to stand by her desk, facing my classmates, as she berated me and asked me if just “enjoyed being stupid”, I sat down next to my cousin Gwen and asked to copy her work.

A week later I turned in every single assignment that was missing and I failed every single test that I hadn’t yet taken. I am not sure what went through Sister’s mind and I no longer care, but I do remember she smirked when I turned in the work and didn’t look at me when she handed back the red pocked tests.

I feel as though I should be able to better help people understand what it means to have dyscalculia, but I find I am not able and I worry for Dee.

Third grade was the year that school became an endurance race, a marathon that I plodded through without joy. It was a time-suck whose rewards were endless homework, tutoring and summer school.

Of all the things she’s inherited from me, this is by far the worst gift. Even her near perpetual habit of looking at the glass as half-empty, which she got from Will, is not nearly as poor an inheritance.

Having endured the misguided perception that hard work can overcome, I am a bit downcast at the prospect of going through this again with Dee. Hard work is unavoidable, but it will do nothing except possibly help her endure. I still have dyscalculia every day of my life. I struggle to keep PIN’s and passwords straight and to follow Rob’s reasoning when it comes to investment strategies. I hope that no one realizes that I haven’t gotten their name memorized yet or matched with the right face. I am relieved when I am not asked for directions because I can’t give them using street names or that no one thinks it’s too weird that I don’t know my own cell phone number after nearly four years. The truth is that I worked hard and got to a point where some things were easy to cover up and other things? I deal. And that is all and Dee will learn to do the same, but it won’t be fast enough to suit anyone.


A teacher writing on a blackboard.

Image via Wikipedia

Being the parent as opposed to the educator is a bit of a task for me. Balance eludes me even though Dee has been in public school for six years now when preschool is factored in, and I still find it hard to silence myself or pretend not to know what I know about the politics and practice of being on the educator side of the desk.

Last night was Parent/Student Conferences. This year conferences have been separated completely from report cards, which won’t be sent home for another month. The entire affair is student-led with the purpose being student demonstrating what they have learned.

I facilitated student led conferences in some form or other – on and off – since the late ’90’s. By and large, they are neither good nor bad practice where evaluation is concerned. Many parents despise them and with good reason. Most kids are woefully unprepared to present evidence of their own learning and progress.

There is a lot of work and preparation involved in getting kids ready to lead a conference or even perform the most minor dog and pony show for their parents. And most teachers don’t have the time to prepare kids properly with the end result being painful for child and parent alike.

Dee is  painfully shy under the spotlight. It stems from her slightly OCD tendencies and her fear of being wrong. What exactly she thinks will happen if she messes up, I don’t know. Rob and I try to reassure her that grade three is simply not – in the long-term – such a big deal that making mistakes here and there don’t matter, but it’s a fine line. After all, we don’t want her to develop an impression that elementary school isn’t an essential part of what she needs to do in order to move on from childhood to teen to adult. But honestly? It’s lower stakes than one is led to believe by raving politicians and media analysts.

But it’s not stake-less.

Basic skills like simple arithmetic, ability to write a complete sentence and eventually a paragraph or two and the ability to read gradually complex materials with understanding are huge.

It’s no secret that Dee struggles with her reading. She has since preschool – where yes, they were pushing reading already.

I have questioned – closely – every teacher Dee has ever had about my feeling that Dee perhaps had  problems that went beyond the need to work a little harder. And they all brushed me off.

In grade one, the brush off at the fall conference was followed by a later admission that maybe Dee did need a bit of intensive one on one. She was put into a program designed to catch up kids who were lagging but not special needs and she did indeed make strides. But reading was still not easy and it seemed to exhaust her.

Grade two, I had to go in and arrange a meeting with the teacher mid-year to insist on Dee receiving some additional assistance. This also seemed to help but didn’t solve the problem. Dee simply can’t sound out words. She can sight-read. Once she knows a word, which can take repeated exposure, she remembers it, but it can be an exhausting process.

This year, I voiced my concerns early and was again told that Dee’s issues fell within the realm of developmentally accepted parameters.

I accepted this – only after checking with my friend, Sis, who is a Title One teacher back in my former school district. I had her run Dee’s “symptoms” by her supervisor and a few other reading teachers we know and they agreed that it could be the case.

Not long ago, however, I’d had enough and insisted on Dee being tested. Frankly, I wanted her tested in grade one and was told no.

We’ll have the results soon. I am pretty certain I will be vindicated but not pleased with the fact that too much time has elapsed since I first voiced my concerns.

Dee was able to cut losses the last two years because her teachers had time to work with her one on one. Alberta sets class sizes for grade two and lower that are small by US standards. They also allow for more remedial and special education for the youngest children, but not the older ones. She is now, unfortunately, not likely to get much help because most special education funding is eaten up by physically and behaviorally disabled kids.

There is an autistic boy in the grade behind Dee who has an aide all to himself who – according to Dee – “plays with him in the hallway all day”.  I’ve observed this little guy up close on a few occasions and my guess is that in terms of being educable – he isn’t. Not that this should condemn him, but I question a system that spends a lot of money to babysit a kid in a school setting that he will not benefit from while kids like Dee, who could be helped greatly with just a tenth of the attention, are left begging.

The biggest issue this year is my own fault.

On the first day of school, I read the names of the other kids in her room and realized she was once again a buffer kid.

I know buffers. I rearranged class lists and seating charts with them.

A “buffer” is the quiet, obedient student you use to put space between the pains in the arses in your classroom.

Dee’s teacher refers to these kids as “characters”, which is the politically correct way of referring to the “time sucks” that every teacher has and sometimes in overabundance.

And yes, these charged up characters deserve their education and the time and attention they receive, but the truth is that they get it at the expense of kids who are quiet and sweet and sometimes in more academic need than they are.

Dee has spent the last three school years as a buffer kid. I should have gone straight to the office and planted myself there until she was moved to the other class. But Rob and I didn’t want her to get the idea that she could simply rearrange life when it wasn’t to her liking.*

So we told her to “suck it up, Buttercup”. And, being our daughter, she did.

But the cost has been heavier than just her social life.

Dee, for personality and learning need reasons, requires a calm learning environment. From the first, loud look-at-me kids have repelled her. Part of it is just who she is. Confrontation seekers or kids seeking to dominate her are not welcome in her sphere. She is not a leader herself but she is no mindless follower. If she follows, it’s out of genuine attraction to people. Anyone seeking to make her a pack member had better parse their invitation with care. Additionally, when she is engaged in activities that take quite a bit of effort – like reading – any distraction will derail her. Once off-track, she frets and worry leads to inertia in a hurry with her.

Her teacher assigns seats, changes them frequently and doesn’t allow the children to choose their work groups. None of this is out of line, but because the boys really outnumber the girls, Dee sits and works with rough, tumbly “characters” a lot more often than is good for her learning style**.

The only break we’ve caught all year is the fact that she doesn’t share a cubby, but otherwise, her poor little psyche is under assault for hours a day and as a result her progress has ground slowly to a halt from which I don’t see an easy jump-start. At this point there is no way we could hope to get her moved to the other class because of the numbers. Grade three is huge. But, next year we will not be gracious at all if Dee ends up with the Loud Boys again.

My final observation is one of irony. Back in my old Iowa school district, the province of Alberta is looked upon as a model of education practices. From what I have observed, the schools here face the same short-ball mentality that plagues the US, so the government continually bleeds the system with cuts that pretty much mean the Canadian version of special education is teacher assistants in the classroom and individual education plans that may or may not be implemented if the budget is short that year.

Dee was to be subjected to the Alberta version of standardized tests., PAT’s. If not for that, I wonder if her teacher would have broached her concerns about Dee’s reading at all. From the look on her face when Rob announced that Dee wouldn’t even be in school the week of the tests, I get the feeling that she or the school or both are evaluated based on the tests outcome.

My personal opinion of standardized testing is based on 20 years of having to give them and on my own experience writing them – they are slippy tools.

One can make a test sing and dance to just about any tune one likes and because of this, they are mostly valueless.

It would be easier, I think, to send my child to public school if I’d never taught in one, but having no alternative save home-schooling – which I am not ruling out – I work on my balance.

And my balance is being sorely tested.

*In addition to her classroom being “bad boy” heavy, none of her friends were in that class. She gets along with everyone, but she has no one in the class with whom she is close. She often talks about how no one shares notes with her or talks to her at lunch or asks her to join in games when weather forces them to remain indoors for recess. She is such a social creature and craves being included that I am amazed she doesn’t complain more than infrequently.

**Although I am guilty of using students as buffers, I avoided placing struggling learners with tumbly characters regardless of how mild-mannered they were. Ultimately, a child’s learning was more important than the control factor level of the room.