Friday, May 23, 2008

Open House: The Sadness and The Shame

You can feel it in the air. School is winding down. Summer is near, bringing it's promise of more sun and less structure. You can feel weariness in the parents and distraction in the teachers. Everyone has one foot out the door, their minds already settling into a new frontier.

Last night we attended my son's school open house. I read his colorfully, illustrated autobiography, his fictional story of a squirrel, his poems about sports and the deaths of our two dogs. He is a good student, a charming, class clown, well-behaved. I was proud. Yet, as I walked around the second grade classroom and looked at the varied artwork, homemade fossils, and videos of oral presentations, memories of my daughter's first year at the school, in this same classroom, painting the same artwork and reciting the same oral report came flooding back. I felt sad.

Cruising the third grade classrooms, I reunited with my daughter's teacher. The room was familiar and foreign, like visiting your childhood home where the bones are the same but the vibe and the details have changed. I remember checking off homework in the back corner while students shared stories and feelings during circle time. I remember holiday parties, helping the kids decorate picture frames, serving pizza, and singing along with a dad and his guitar.

How did my daughter end up being better that me at math, wearing my clothes, IM chatting, and knowing herself better than I do? When did that happen?

No sooner had I warned the third grade teacher that my son was bold to my daughter's meek and a joker to my daughter's straight man, did my melancholy turn to embarrassment. Going across the hall to meet with another potential teacher, one with whom I have a friendly relationship but whose intimidating reputation precedes her, my son illustrated my observations in an excruciating and painful way.

The following dialogue is paraphrased; I've blocked out the particulars.

"Hi, J. Nice to finally meet you," the teacher offers one of her cheese sticks.
"Gimme," J grabs for the snack.
The teacher holds the cheese out of reach and raises her brows. I interject, "Please, J, say please."
"Puhleeeeze," he obliges as he holds out his hand.
"So," the teacher continues, "are you excited about coming to third grade?"
"What's it to you?" J answers.
"Hmmm," she tilts her head and says, "Well, there are plenty of other nice third grade teachers. I hope you like them."
"How nice for you," J offers the last word.
"That is not okay," I reprimand J as the teacher who stayed late to greet us prepares to leave.
"I'm sorry," I say trying to add levity, "At least you've got a 3 out of 4 chance he WON'T be your student next year."

Walking home I became angry - at J and at myself. I tell him I'm disappointed in his behavior, that I expect better. I tell him that I am not proud at this moment as I was earlier in the evening. I scold him, repeating for the umpteenth time that we treat people with respect and re-chanting my mantras "If you don't have anything nice to say..." and, "That's not funny, that's just mean. There's a difference."

I lash out. I can't let it go. Somewhere inside me is the goody two shoes student, desperate for validation, and mortified of any wrongdoing. I am sick to my stomach imagining the teacher judging me.

Over dinner, we tell J that he will write the teacher an apology and hand it to her in person tomorrow. He refuses. We stand down. We repeat, "It is not okay to treat people with disrespect."

"Then why is it okay for him to treat me with disrespect?" my daughter interrupts.


She's right, of course, and I tell her so.
I've taught him it's admissible at home, why not at school? It's easier to slap J on the wrist, ignore his bad behavior to keep the peace, threaten major consequences but never follow through. Easier to believe it's just a phase.

At home, I sit with him while he searches for the words he wants to write. I ask him why he thinks he behaved that way, and after a few defensive quips and a lot of "I don't knows" he answers, "I was shy."

I, like every mother, know my son better than anyone. I am his fiercest protector. I know his snarky attitude is a cover for his insecurities and discomfort. I know he lashes out with smart quotes from his television heroes when he's feeling shy or attacked. I've discussed with him that what works for tv characters does not work in real life. Nevertheless, I know he thinks (as I did when I quoted Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge), "if it works for them, it will work for me."

I continue to defend his sensitivity (as a child, I was labeled and repeatedly dismissed as "over-sensitive") but the incident last night has jolted me into realizing that I must find a middle ground between my hubby's military style of discipline and mine.

To do something wrong is human. All we can do is our best to make amends and learn from our mistakes. It took me 40 years to learn this, how do I get my kid to get it before I die of shame and embarrassment or he gets punched in the face?

I need a glass of wine.


Twenty Four At Heart said...

Isn't it amazing how our kids can bring out such contrasting emotions? Mine are now 18, 17 and 13 and it is a roller coaster still. My daughter just called to tell me she spent an hour with the police last night becuz someone in her dorm threw a couch out a window. Turns out it happened while she was at work from a room next door to hers. She arrived home from her job and five minutes later the police arrived. When she first began the story I found myself just kind of holding my breath and waiting to hear exactly why they showed up and whether I needed to freak out. Parenting stress never ends!! It sounds like you are a great mom though - really!

slouching mom said...

This is so much like something my own ten-year-old son would do. I empathize, both with you and with your son.

God, parenting can be tough. Tonight I'll be having some wine and raising my glass to you.

InTheFastLane said...

I can so much understand why you felt that way. Good for you for standing your ground and following through. Understanding does not mean that we can't be respectful. But, I am sure all of our kids will embarrass us sooner or later.

Dawn said...

It sounds like you're finding the right balance between respecting who your son is and teaching him how to find appropriate ways to express himself that are respectful to others.

Hang in there. We're all in this together, learning from one another and with one another. I can see myself in your shoes in just a couple of years.

My son is very respectful to teachers and other adults, but not me. I see now that we need to get things in control at home before it begins to spread outward.

You're a good mom. Follow your instincts.

ByJane said...

What struck me immediately was (1) that his peers will teach him, and (2) that may be more painful for him. I was the mouthy one in school (you're surprised, right?) and by fifth grade, a chorus of disgusted "Oh Jane's" silenced my every comment. I can still hear them...

Manic Mommy said...

I've got the son who's more well-behaved for strangers, teachers, and friends' mommies than he is for me. I don't know how to feel about that. Sometimes, I feel like staff. Other times I feel glad that at least some of our teaching comes through.

A friend and I were just talking tidat about the embarrassment of being "that mother." We all go through it and even when the other moms know where we're coming from, we still cringe.

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

What a thoughful post. It seems like everyone expects perfection these days, which stresses out parents (the thoughtful ones, anyway) even more. The mother can't be the one who says, "Boys will be boys", she can only hope someone else says that after the she has apologized or acknowledged a mistake. Then there is peace in the world again. I tip my glass to you for being such a conscious mom and of course, boys will be boys.

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