I recall with extremely vivid detail the one time — ever — that I had my recess taken away. I was in fourth grade. We were studying some sort of crustacean, we had live specimens in the classroom, and we were learning to distinguish the male ones from the female ones. For reasons that I cannot explain, (because it remains totally inexplicable as far as how out of character it was for me!) I was not paying attention to the lesson at all. My teacher called me out by asking me if I was “bored” and I — completely sincerely — confirmed that, yes, in fact, I was quite bored. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went after that, but I very distinctly remember sitting along the fence during the subsequent recess period. Given my people-pleasing nature, the whole ordeal was horrifying at the time, and still leaves me shaking my head today — I seriously told my fourth grade teacher that his teaching was boring? To his face?
I’d never crossed any such behavioral line before that day, and — with the exception of a small handful of instances of underage alcohol consumption (okay…just two…and I remember both of those just as vividly) and one instance of hosting a party while my parents were out of town — my young life was agonizingly and compulsively free of anything that would fall into the category of “getting in trouble.” [FN1: If and/or when my parents read this blog, they will be shocked — perhaps, at this point, even impressed?! — to learn that I pulled off hosting a party at which high schoolers consumed alcohol while they’d left me home alone for a weekend.] I was not just a rule follower. I was a compulsive rule follower.
My daughter has a lot of my same tendencies, at least when she’s not interacting with me. [FN2: This is the same daughter that swears like a sailor when she’s mad. Among other unsavory sorts of things. But only with me.] I consistently get reports from her teacher that she’s “so helpful” and “if everyone made choices like her, teaching would be a dream” and so on. My son, however, is a living, breathing, walking trip to the principal’s office. And I am trying to figure out how I feel about this.
Yesterday, the so-many-th-I’ve-lost-count email from my son’s principal popped up in my inbox. [FN3: In the time between starting this blog post last night and finishing it this evening, I got another email from the elementary school. This time, from the art teacher. Same song. Different verse.] I have a lot of respect for my son’s principal — he fosters an educational community of genuinely mutual respect, and he and his staff spend a lot of time and energy helping the students develop independence by allowing them to make a lot of choices and then experience the consequences — both positive and negative — of the choices that they make. It’s work that, in theory, I am totally on board with.
In practice, however, it’s more complicated. Yesterday, I guess, my son’s infraction was participating enthusiastically while one of his classmates made “extremely unkind” comments about their physical education teacher. This, of course, is not a good thing. I don’t want my son to be the kind of kid who participates in saying “extremely unkind” things about anyone. Ever. So I’m glad that the school took action. One of the other teachers had a conversation with him about it, and then he was assigned to write an apology note at home (which, I will say — he did on his own, without me even knowing about it much less doing any sort of reminding him to get it done — soooo…celebrate the small things??) and then he and the principal talked about it, and then the principal sent me a matter-of-fact email about what had happened. And that was that.
Except it wasn’t that. The principal is fully aware of all of the chaos going on in my son’s life. He knows that Child Protective Services got involved last summer after my therapist made a “mandatory reporter” report about suspected emotional abuse going on in our home. He knows that my ex has, for all sorts of complicated reasons, chosen to be minimally involved in my kids’ lives. [FN4: In a post that I’ve been noodling around with for three days, I am wrestling with how I think about, feel about, talk about, and write about my ex’s side of the story. My default is to be diplomatic. I’m not sure that the situation deserves such diplomacy…but I haven’t finished wrestling enough to embrace “how I really feel.” At least not in writing. Yet.] He knows that my son has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and that he’s in All. The. Therapy. And that we’re working through the neuropsych evaluation process. He affirmed his recognition of the aforementioned things right in the email.
When I started this post, I was thinking that perhaps I was really bothered by the whole thing because I was feeling ashamed. That my compulsive rule-follower-self was overwhelmed by vicarious embarrassment. Or that I was feeling a sense of failure as a parent, or something like that. It probably didn’t help that I’d gotten a patronizing-ish mini-lecture from my daughter’s librarian the day before when she handed me a damage notification and let me know my daughter had turned in a book that had gotten wet in her backpack, and did I know that the book had gotten wet, and did I know that she put the book in the book return slot instead of notifying the librarian, and…then I stopped listening and started thinking about how dry and wrinkly pages is nothing compared to the damage that our precious puppy does to unsuspecting hardcovers (and my work shoes, and our couch cushions, and especially large stuffed animals…) But yes, I had known that the book had gotten wet, and I’d actually been the one to decide it was worth drying it out because all of the pages were intact, and all of the words of the story were still there…and it seemed like a perfectly functional library book to me. But I didn’t say anything to the librarian. I just took the damage notice and promised to send my daughter back with a check and walked out feeling – overwhelmed. A little embarrassed, for sure — but mostly just overwhelmed. It doesn’t take much to push me right to the brink these days.
So when I got the principal’s email, and when I started formulating the thoughts that ultimately became the start of this blog post…I think those initial thoughts were ones of shame and failure. But as I talked to one of my special education attorney colleagues, and as I brainstormed with my dad over the phone on the commute home, and even more as I’ve been typing these words onto the screen — I’m realizing that the primary feeling I’m feeling isn’t one of vicarious (or even direct) shame or embarrassment. I mean, I’m having all of those feelings. But those feelings are dwarfed by what I can now point to as the primary feeling. I’m scared.
I’m scared that no matter what I do, or what I try, or what I say…it just isn’t going to get better. I’m scared that he is going to keep struggling and keep suffering and keep getting into trouble which is going to further the downward spiral that he’s been on for what seems like forever. I’m scared that my failure to see and name what was going on in our home — especially the emotional abuse that my therapist reported the very first time I met with her (because, in retrospect, it’s so obvious…) — has contributed to emotional and neurological damage that will never be undone. I’m scared that he’s just going to keep being miserable, and he’s going to keep coming home and telling me how awful I am and how awful everyone is and how awful his life is. There might be a deep-down part of me that believes it can and will get better…but that part is deep down. More than anything else right now, I am scared.
And I think the reason all of this feels so scary — for my compulsive rule-follower self — is that grief and trauma don’t follow “rules.” They’re messy and unpredictable and one-step-forward-two-steps-back sorts of experiences, which are not the sorts of experiences that I would willingly put myself into. I like order and control…and life, these days, is providing little of either. And that’s scary. And THAT, I think, is that.