Monday, May 19, 2014

A Call for Context

Today I had to take off my teacher hat and put on my mom crown.

Having taught for eighteen years with three children of my own, this isn't the first time the chapeau-switcharoo has had to occur.  Conferences, social issues, injuries and illness... I've heard it and dealt with it all.  My eldest's seemingly never-ending fascination with all things Titanic... that time when my daughter punched and bloodied a kid twice her size because he tried to prevent her from coming to tell me that he was harassing her... and the ever popular "s/he isn't turning in his/her homework" conversations.

Oh yes.  I've been there.

Today was different however, and I've decided to share the story of it with you partly out of professional courtesy, partly out of professional frustration, and partly because I believe education professionals need to be reminded of a parent's perspective regarding the sharing of disciplinary actions in the public school system.

My youngest is a second grader, and has attended the school where I teach since preschool.  He was diagnosed early on with developmental and communicative delays, likely caused by contracting pneumonia at two weeks of age followed by surgery while still an infant.  He continues to receive speech/language services as well as modeling and practice time with a social skills group.  Learning how to express himself clearly and appropriately has been a long term goal for him, set by my husband, myself, and our stellar school team.  Now, at age eight, he loves dinosaurs, planets, the mysteries of Egypt, and all things Minecraft.  Thanks to the anything-but-petite builds of both me and my husband, The Second Grader is very tall and stocky for his age.  It won't be much longer now before football scouts start knocking at our door, if you know what I mean.  His size makes his outbursts, exuberance, and silliness seem larger than life compared to many of his classmates.

You.  Can't.  Miss.  Him.

This morning, my instructional time was interrupted when I was asked if I could help handle a situation that arose with The Second Grader not fifteen minutes earlier.  Apparently, while lined up outside of his classroom, he was speaking with a classmate, venting his frustration that yet again, his birthday fell during the last week of school, preventing him from being able to enjoy a birthday party during the week.  Despite the fact that he's 1) eight years old, 2) into all things Minecraft, and 3) developmentally delayed (most notably in the areas of communication and social skills, with an IEP in place), an adult became greatly concerned after overhearing The Second Grader speaking to his classmate in the hallway, saying something along the lines of how he wished he could "blow up the school so nobody would have to come to school the last week," and then "blow up all of the schools in the country" so no one would have to spend their "birthday week at school doing work."

I know.  Deep, slow breath in.  Now... exhale.

"Blowing up the school" out of context IS very alarming sounding.  I've been a teacher during the time of  9-11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and other school-related horrors and tragedies. I've been trained in school safety, and performed fire, tornado, and intruder drills with my students.  I have been fortunate enough to have been partnered with parents and families who have protected their kindergartners from the terrifying images, sounds, and reports of terrorist attacks and unexplainable massacres in real time and when rebroadcast year after year.  I too, have protected not only my students, but my own children from details of the atrocities that humanity can wreck upon itself.

I know.

Though ~not~ a "credible threat," The Second Grader's comments initiated a DEFCON threat level response from the adults around him.  Not quite DEFCON 1, but certainly not DEFCON 4.  His comments weren't questioned, nor was the context determined by the adult who overheard them.  His comments without context were reported to his teacher.  His teacher, concerned that the comments would be shared elsewhere before she could address them had to make sure that higher ups were aware that the comments had been made and that she would be getting more information about what had transpired in the hallway between the Minecraft-savvy students.  Adults other than myself were notified and asked to intervene, despite the fact that I am only four doors away.

Thank goodness for professional courtesy. One adult came straight to me to ask how to proceed.  You can imagine my confusion and my concern as I had to rapidly downshift from teacher to parent unexpectedly.  Appreciative that my aide could take over calendar and story time, I was able to leave the room to question two of the folks involved, though not the adult whose concern initiated the scene.  The Second Grader admitted saying he wanted to "blow up the school."  When I asked him why, he replied "because it's my birthday this week and A-G-A-I-N, I don't get a party until it's the weekend.  I don't like having my birthday during school."  When I asked if he wanted to blow up our school, or our school that he would build in Minecraft, he replied "The school in Minecraft.  I can build it exactly like this one, and have lava explode from a volcano, or have it flood, or make it explode from bombs.  I don't know how to make real bombs, but you can get bombs in Minecraft to get rid of stuff so you can build again."


(photo here)

What eight year old would express him or herself with "Oh, I strongly dislike having my birthday during the school week.  Do you think we could ask the principal if all of the students could just take the week off so that we could celebrate our birthdays and have parties like we want to? Perhaps we can open up this topic for debate and a vote utilizing Robert's Rules of Order?"

You've likely heard something similar to what The Second Grader is purported to have said.  Your children have said things like it to their friends.  Perhaps in your youth YOU even muttered something along the lines of "Oooooh, I can't stand my mom.  She won't let me go to the mall today.  I wish she'd just die" or "I could just KILL my dad, he's driving me crazy over prom!"  Children reference what they know as they learn how to navigate not only their feelings but how to express them.  My son knows Minecraft.  I knew Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies (and so did many of you).   You didn't really drive a bowie knife through your father's chest because he was stressing out over a formal dance, and I didn't invite Freddy Krueger over for tea and crumpets with my mother because she didn't like a boy I thought was cute.  Similarly, The Second Grader isn't going to track down ordnance in order to blow up a building so he and every other child can stay home and enjoy birthday cake, presents and a party on their weekday birthdate.

Unfortunately, thanks to events such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, adults now believe they must respond immediately and severely for the good of the many, often at the expense of the individual.  Parents are forced to expose our children to details of adult fear and horror so that they won't unknowingly risk accidentally crossing a line in places like school, day care centers, or play dates.  Educated professionals, who are supposed to be schooled in child development and psychology are trained to react first, and ask questions for clarity, understanding, and context for appropriate interpretation later.  What a relief it is, knowing that my son's innocence, lack of experience, and peace of mind were sacrificed for the good of his classmates and teachers, those folks who were never truly in danger anyway.  Common sense has given way to hysteria, and the professional trait of knowing when to immediately react and when to calmly respond is nowhere to be found.

Too bad for the child who ate around the edges of his Pop Tart, identifying what was left over as a gun shape.  If only he had shared that it also resembled the letter "L," or the states of Idaho or Florida.  If only the adults responsible for the guidance of his lifelong learning experiences had taken a breath, controlled their internal fears and biases, and taught him how to recognize alternate possibilities and forms for his creation, utilizing acknowledgement, redirection, and encouragement to explore other possibilities.

You know, those things that we as educators are supposed to do.

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