Monday, May 7, 2012

You Can Have Broadway, But Make Mine Heaven

Part One

Our family has been on a strange odyssey over the past two years - or maybe more. Our son has always been a high honor roll student (95 average and above) and has slipped academically. He has complained about not liking school more frequently and his grades have dropped in classes that he has always found to be quite easy for him. We've chalked it up to the changes that come with being a teenager preparing for entrance into high school. Our standard for school performance has always been teacher comments. If the teachers say that he is getting work done on time and is doing his best, shows respect in the classroom and actively participates, our requirements as parents have been met. In my heart I've known that he can do much better, but made myself step back and do my best to not add to the pressure he has appeared to be under. When he was younger, we would often get calls from other parents at night. They would want to ask Alex what certain assignments were because their child forgot to write something down or the child could not remember how to do something.

Being in a small Catholic school, staffing can be a problem. Catholic school teachers are quite often paid half the salary they would make at a public school. In fourth grade, he had three different teachers. The first was in over her head with state testing and left after a couple of months if memory serves correctly. The second was there for a few months until a better job came along. The third started just in time to start preparing the children for the state math exams and it became amply clear that no math had been taught by the first two teachers. Our son finally told us that neither of them "liked math so they didn't want to teach it." Our son who had a 97 in math the previous year was suddenly drowning along with most of his classmates. The new teacher, Mrs. A, was a Catholic-in-name-only woman (was so ill-equipped to teach fourth grade religion out of a book, that another teacher had to do it) who had just finished her teaching certification. She was not lacking in enthusiasm, but clearly missing was the same educational standards we have come to expect from previous years. When spring came, our focus was on getting him caught up in math to the best of our ability and that all would be fine next year. Fourth grade would be a wasted year, but survivable. A hiccup.

In fifth grade, we didn't even know who would teach the class until school was about to start. Once again, we were facing staffing changes and were less optimistic due to our experience the previous year. To our relief, Ms. B did a good enough job with the children. Unfortunately, the problem with math the previous year continued on. The majority of the class was still behind and Ms. B sought out the help of a teacher who had a great talent for teaching math. Alex had always received high marks in all classes and was now receiving markedly lower grades in math only. From his perspective, it was his fault and he was unable to do well in the subject. The marking periods that year wavered between honor roll and merit roll. The teacher began making comments to Alex about his need for improved self-esteem. She made no such comments to me and I was uncertain of her professionalism due to her befriending students instead of maintaining a more teacher-student relationship. He had never faced difficulty in education until this point, and his perfectionist tendencies were unshakable. We continued to go with the flow.

In sixth grade, he was blessed to have a religious sister for a teacher. Sister C had a rather dour personality and ran a tight ship, but he excelled in everything except for math. It was our running joke that year with Alex (we had to laugh and try to keep it light) that with a small class of just ten or so children that year, he never got the Student of the Month award. We told him that we'd give him one in July AND August. It just didn't make an iota of difference to us as long as he was doing his best in school. In his mind, he had become a bad kid because his struggle with math continued (when he received extra help, he would be caught up and be doing fine - only to slip back off again) and the only negative comment we ever received was that his locker was disorganized. All other comments indicated a pleasant boy who was respectful to everyone, and did well in all of his classes - except for math. The fact that he never received the dreaded Student of the Month award coupled with his struggles with math began to show up in murmurs among classmates. A couple of girls in particular began to ask him what had happened to him. He used to be good and now he wasn't - at least in their minds. A crack that had been barely visible before began to widen.

In hindsight, seventh and eighth grades blend together in our minds because the same teacher was homeroom teacher for both. Mrs. D requested to be the homeroom teacher for the same class in eighth grade so there was no escaping what turned out to be two years of the attempted dismantling my son, fiber by fiber. I won't separate the two years because year two was just a continuation of year one. Calls from the principal became more prevalent, but to this day I'm not clear as to what the purpose of the calls actually was. Alex's math grade dropped to as low as 76 and rose as high as 90 for a marking period, and the math teacher continued to be the one who had assisted the fifth grade teacher. She had told me herself that math just wasn't Alex's strong suit but I refuse to believe that. I'm not a parent in denial. This is the same kid who can do math facts in his head much more quickly than I can. When I help him with math problems, I struggle to find the way to solve the problem. When I help him unravel the formula, he kicks into high gear and can finish the entire problem quite easily. His confidence was deflated so long ago that he has convinced himself that he cannot do math and never will be able to.

I've digressed. Back to Mrs. D and the calls from the principal, Mr. E. Alex began to talk about a few girls being a real problem in the class. One of the girls had come to the school from another area of the state. Her family lived in a large estate home (compared to the rest of the community) and threw huge parties for their kids. On the girl's birthday one year, a limousine picked up the class. After the first party as a newer student, all parties included the majority of the class being invited except for Alex, and two other children. This girl, F, became a ring leader in the classroom and other girls began to follow her lead. More and more the girls in the class, quite often with F's support and prodding, began to pick at Alex like vultures. Three of the most laughable calls I've received from Mr. E:

  • F & G came down to the office and told me that Alex didn't take notes in Social Studies today. When asked, the Mr. E. admitted that Alex's grade is in the upper 90s in SS, does a good job on homework, and is respectful in class. Maybe taking notes isn't helpful to him and his style of learning?
  • Alex's locker is messy. I gave him lunch detention after he cleaned out his locker and told him how important organization is (Alex told us that the girls had been complaining about the condition of his locker). I told Mr. E. that Alex has always been disorganized, and as his mother, I can assure him that eating lunch in the office will not change his organizational habits. We've bought every locker storage gadget and binder outfit found in stores and it makes no difference. Our family is more concerned with his behavior at school and the amount of effort he puts into his studies. 
  • J, a boy with Asperger's Syndrome, said an inappropriate phrase in class. Alex was sitting next to him. Girl G was sitting next to Alex on the other side and asked what the boy had said. Alex repeated it and G went to the office to report the incident to the principal. J and Alex both were in trouble. Alex shouldn't repeat things J says. So my son is in trouble because the girl knew the boy said something inappropriate, asked Alex to repeat it (the phrase the boy used was 'using the back door') and after Alex repeated it to the girl per her request, she asked Alex if that 'means what I think it means?' and he told her 'yes.' Could you and your snoopervisors possibly waste any more of our time? What is the intention of the snoopervisors who tattle about such nonsense? Is a life in jeopardy? Is the school on fire? Or do they derive pleasure from getting someone into trouble and the principal supports this effort? 
There was an incident with another girl, H, who had attended the same school with Alex since kindergarten. She began telling Alex that he was gay or bi-sexual - she wasn't sure which (he had shared with a couple of classmates that he isn't interested in dating a girl until he is much older) and that she had made a point to tell everyone she came into contact with. He was absolutely crushed and no matter how much he told her it was all a lie, she just increased her effort with joy. I knew that her parents would be extremely upset if they knew about the situation yet Alex begged me to not call and talk to her mother. He was afraid the situation would be made worse. By this point both the seventh and eighth grade troublemakers had joined her effort. I told Alex that I would let him try to handle it himself if he agreed to follow my advice to the letter. He went to school the next day and told her that if he heard one more word, even a whisper of the lies she had been spreading about him, he would pay a visit to our Pastor and call for a meeting with him, the principal, her parents and Alex's parents. The incident died an immediate death and her comment to Alex was that she was "just kidding."

Just in April, he came home and as the evening progressed it was clear that his irritability was increasing. He refused to talk about what was bothering him until I pressed and the boy visibly unraveled. He was inconsolable and his source of irritation was directed at F. and G. and their cronies. F. had told him that day that if he "died, I hope no one goes to your funeral" and "If you were missing, there wouldn't be a search party." Alex also talked on and on about how everyone, including teachers and the principal, hates him at school. He knew he wasn't going to survive at the Catholic high school we had just registered him for. The kids there hated him as well, and that was evidenced by the kids on the track team he was part of. He had clearly lost all objectivity because I knew this just was not the case. He was doing well in every aspect of his life outside of school. All adults who come into contact with him tell me how polite and well-rounded he his. He is frequently requested to serve at special Masses at our parish, his Scoutmaster has great respect for him and he will soon be elected to the national honor society for Boy Scouts, the Order of the Arrow. Even the receptionist at the orthodontist office commented that Alex was so pleasant and how we must be so proud of him. We had never once received any comment from any teacher or the principal about Alex misbehaving in school. At this point the puzzle was coming together, but a major piece was yet to be assembled. Mrs. D was yet to be revealed as the real class bully.

Part Two

The full picture came into clear view just last week. Mr. E had a conversation that day with the entire eighth grade class due to the clique of girls saying unkind things about others and then lying about it, and the boy with Asperger's, J, had lost his temper earlier in the week and called a girl names. He had also thrown a racial slur another child. Mr. E had hoped to finally air all of the grievances, have apologies made, and encourage the students to finish out the year on a positive note. Instead, the girl who had reported a racial slur being said to her refused to confront the boy about the situation. She decided to accuse Alex of repeatedly saying her name in art class and being disruptive. No one else corroborated her story, yet the childish accusation stood. When the principal further pressed her to share the anticipated story, she went after Alex once again. This time, she reported that in a class Alex asked her if there was a problem because she hadn't spoken to him since they worked on a project at her house over Easter vacation (he did indeed ask her the question and I am proud that he did). What never emerged was the true reason behind the meeting in the first place and it was much more convenient to throw Alex under the bus no matter how petty and silly it was. After everyone who wanted to speak had had their say, Mr. E asked if everyone felt better. Alex was the only one who did not raise his hand. When Mrs. D asked why he felt the way he did, he hesitantly commented that he knew it wasn't over. Mr. E could see that Alex was visibly upset and called him down to the office later in the day to 'reassure' him and thank him for being a friend to J who was clearly an outcast in the class.

Mr. E and I had spoken at length back in April and until this past week, Alex had made progress in regard to class relations. He was beginning to see that the girls, primarily F and G, were the ones with a problem; not him. He would still comment about his concerns about not doing well at the high school and even mentioned that it might be better to go to the local public high school. After the class meeting with the principal, Alex felt he was once again brought to his knees because the finger was being pointed solely at him. I exploded in an e-mail fired off to the principal. Mr. E responded that he was shocked by my tone. Alex was indeed a very good kid, etc. I told him what I thought about encouraging tattling for such crimes as not taking notes, repeating something because someone asks, etc. He was offended by the truth about encouraging snitching, so we agree to disagree. I finished my note to him saying that if one more incident of public humiliation were to take place, he could expect to have Alex's locker emptied and I would be at the office to pick up a packet of school work for the remainder of the year. The very next day, "hell on earth" hit Alex.

I received a phone call from the school secretary (the principal was at an out of town meeting all day) at 2:34 (dismissal is at 3:00). First, she assured me that Alex was fine, and she was calling to let me know that Alex had been in In-School Suspension all day. She apologized profusely because I had not been notified earlier. She had assumed the teacher would have called me. Trying to clarify what she was saying, I repeated just about every word she had said back to her. I was stunned. I asked what he did. Her response was that he didn't do anything. She mentioned something about a picture that J drew and he had blamed Alex. I don't recall all of what I said to her, but it did involve something about the teacher, the principal, and that Alex would not ride the bus home. I was going to pick him up. After I hung up, I realized the absurdity of my being able to pick the kid up because I found words flying out of my mouth I haven't used since I was in college. I am not a violent person, but I was so angry that I knew whatever would happen with my presence at school that afternoon would result in a largely regrettable situation. I called my husband and briefly describing the situation, asked that he leave work to pick our son up at school.

Later we were to learn the whole story. J had drawn an inappropriate picture and had thrown a fit in religion class that was prompted by F refusing his request to borrow a marker. While the religion teacher escorted J to the office, the girls gathered around the pictures gawking in dismay, and F rushed the booklet down to the office. J said that he didn't do the drawings, but that Alex did. J turned on the waterworks (I failed to mention that he was sent home earlier in the week because the secretary felt physically threatened by him) and Mrs. D believed him though is prone to lying. She removed Alex from math class (!!!) and asked him if he made the drawings. He told her that he did not and that they were J's drawings. She asked him why he was so confident in his refusal, and he told her that he was confident because he was telling the truth. He was told he was a liar (edited to add: 5/18/12 - Alex said that she told him that both the teacher AND principal (???) know that he is a liar) and sent to the office for the rest of the day. He spent the day in the office doing some classwork, missed all instruction time, and neither of his parents were notified. For doing nothing. The teacher did go to the office just prior to dismissal and apologized to Alex for accusing him of lying.

Since Alex is on the track team with a few other classmates, and one boy rides the bus to our house before practice, I asked K what happened at school. He repeated verbatim what we had been told by both Alex and the secretary. K also added information we could never have found out. After escorting Alex to the office, she returned to the classroom and gave the students the full report. Alex lied about drawing the pictures, but he did admit to laughing at the pictures when he saw them, and smirking when she confronted him about lying. K assured us, backed by Alex, that she always reports what happens with other students. This past week, we've been greatly enlightened by Alex's class/teammates as to what has taken place on a regular basis in Mrs. D's classroom. We added to that random things that Alex told us that we did not consider to be important when taken out of the context we have come to understand. The shocking laundry list includes:

  • Alex and J were in the office doing announcements over the public address. When finished, J flicked the switch so that they could hear the kids in their classroom. They heard Mrs. D talking with the class about how Alex was never going to survive high school. Also identifiable was F's voice and one or two other girls.
  • Mrs. D rarely eats lunch in the teacher's break room. She eats lunch with the class instead. One day she asked Alex how track was going this season. He told her that at the beginning of the season it was tough, but it has gotten better. She pointed at him and told him that the coach does a lot for the team and that he needed to be more appreciative. (so much for trying to share a moment with her)
  • Mrs. D asked each of the kids on the track team if they had a schedule. As she asked each student, they told her they didn't have it. When she ended with Alex, he told her 'no.' She berated him for using a disrespectful tone. (When I asked K if Alex had said it rudely, he laughed and said he had no idea why she berated Alex. "Maybe it was his flat tone when he said no?")
  • Mrs. D goes through the report cards before she hands them out to her students. She regularly makes comments to each child about their grades in front of the entire class.
  • When administering the state exams, she would look through the tests and point out to students how they should not have missed certain questions - in front of the whole class. 
  • Mrs. D has commented both to Alex and behind his back to the class how he'll never make it in high school with his attitude. No one has ever been told what that attitude is, exactly.
  • Mrs. D's pet student is F and this is not just Alex's perception. F has been heard by the entire class admitting to be Mrs. D's favorite student.
  • When we refused to let Alex attend a workshop sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Mrs. D felt the need to confront Alex about it. She made it obvious to him that it was quite odd that his parents refused to let him attend.
  • We took Alex to see the film "To Kill a Mockingbird" at a local classic movie theater. Alex shared that with Mrs. D and she told him that he "really should not have done that." She was angry because she had been considering reading the novel in class. 
  • We have never, absolutely not ever, been told by the teacher that there was any problem with Alex in her class. The only comment I've ever heard her utter about our son was when he was in sixth grade. She remarked that when in her ELA class, he was very intelligent. She told to the other teachers at the table that he's even writing a novel of his own.
  • After all of this became clear, I looked back at old report cards. Last year, in Mrs. D's class Alex had a 99 for every marking period. So far this year, he's had a 95 every marking period. Last year there were no comments. This year, all of the comments by other teachers indicate a boy who is enthusiastic, respectful, gets assignments in on time, does well on tests, etc. Her comment? "Works well independently." When I read that, the circle of truth was complete.
  • I had told Alex that our Pastor shared with me that they were going to use different overnight accommodations while on their upcoming Washington D.C. trip. He and another girl told Mrs. D in school and she told them that they 'always stay at the same place every year and you are both lying. Unless I have Father tell me that to my face, I don't believe you.' When my husband and I attended an informational meeting about the trip, Father did mention that the overnight accommodations had indeed been changed, and she smiled and said, "Oh, how nice!" The 'liars' received no apology.  
  • I have been told by other parents over this past weekend things she has said to them and their children. Some are equally offensive, but I will not share them here as they are not part of our story
Part Three

My husband took Alex to school the next day and after going over the 'unfortunate' situation, it was pointed out that Alex's greatest 'sin' at school is that he does not want to make waves. When everyone is heading to the teacher and office to tattle, Alex is sitting in silent agony. When my husband asked the principal about how widespread Alex's problems with other teachers was, he reported that no other teacher has ever made any complaint about Alex. We did not yet know the extent of Mrs. D's unprofessional conduct within the classroom as shown in the list above. My husband did share with the principal how the entire class was given a full report of Alex's alleged transgressions following the drawing accusation. He promised to speak to the teacher. It was also made clear that we were not beyond removing him and finishing the year out at home if need be. When asked what benefit our son stood to gain from attending this school for the remaining seven weeks in that hostile environment, the principal had no clear answer. He dodged the question like a true politician. And he blamed the decision to have Alex remain in the office for the entire day on the poor secretary.

The entire class is planning a trip to Washington D.C. later in May and we are concerned that one of the chaperons is Mrs. D. Why pay $250 and send Alex on a three-day trip with this woman? The other chaperons will be our Pastor, the principal, and the mother to the boy with special needs will also be going.
At this point, we are not 100% committed to his participation in the trip. None of us have any reason to trust that anything will improve at school and believe our son's mental health to be far more important than a trip in the company of others who have treated him so poorly.

He returned to school today and the principal was supposedly going to talk with the teacher. Alex requested that he be allowed to eat lunch in the school office instead of the cafeteria with the teacher and her entourage. I assured him that the principal was so concerned about making this issue a non-issue, that if Alex wanted to spend the day suspended from the ceiling by one leg, he'd be certain to do everything to accommodate him. When he came home from school he reported a teacher that seemed remorseful and he had a pleasant lunch all alone in the office. He said she was very careful to not talk negatively about others and no mention was made about any of the occurrences that took place last week.

Alex's teacher has a daughter who is a frequent topic of conversation in class. She is a student at the high school Alex plans to attend. Mrs. D is doing her best to help make her daughter's dream of being a Broadway star come true. According to Alex and other students in her class, she rattles on and on about how smart, gifted, and mature her daughter is. When her daughter was barely 14 and a freshman in high school (she skipped ahead a year), she was allowed and encouraged to date a senior who drove her around in his car. Just today she showed the students how to vote for her daughter in an online talent contest on her iPad. Her son was on Alex's track and cross country teams prior to his graduation. We never saw his mother in attendance at his cross country meets. She did attend the track meets, however. Of course her daughter the star was on the track team as well. We all have hopes and dreams for our children and you can tell a lot about a person by witnessing where their focus lies. Mrs. D longs to see her daughter as a world-famous musical stage performer in front of the footlights. We long to lead our child to the font of eternal life. +

1 comment:

Renée said...

I am sorry that Alex has experienced the cruelty of a bully teacher; unfortunately, he has much company. Fortunately, Alex has parents who teach him the Truth... and ultimately, that is all that matters.
Sadly, the "progressive" nature of the American culture is on display in the classroom and on the political stump.
Love you Kelly!! Great blog (: