In the last installment, we talked about my daughter Bun’s problems with…
…well, no. Let me stop right there. Go back and read Part IV of this series. The problems were not my daughters! Oh, the creeping emotional trauma in her life was real enough. But the schools’ response was too stupid for words.
Still, the damage it did was real enough.
And as difficult as her situation was, and as much damage as the schools’ one-size-fits-all mania for following academic “models” to the exclusion of common sense did to her, it was piker compared to my son Zam’s journey.
Zam, like most boys, was a lot more physical than verbal. As the divorce picked up steam, he acted out – and, being pretty typical for a boy, his acting-out was more physical than emotional or verbal. He didn’t mind in class. He got into scuffles with other boys. Nothing especially serious, really. The kind of thing a kid just needs to work through, learning how to deal with emotional issues in ways other than taking it out on people around you, especially at school.
It was a long process; it’s still going on in a lot of ways.
The school district’s responses? There were three:
- Give him an abbreviation; “EBD”, in his case, which I think means “Educable, Behaviorally Disadvantaged”.
- Use that abbreviation to put him in “Special Education”
- Bury everyone – me, Zam’s mom, everyone involved – in paperwork.
The upshot? Zam spent the next five years being coached, relentlessly, in what amounted to “how to sit still in his chair and do what he was told, when he was told to do it”.
Of course, to make time for this, something needed to give. That something was Art class – the part of the day he most looked forward to, naturally. Zam was, and is, a talented artists; he taught himself how to sketch and draw cartoons, and eventually how to make little clay sculptures; he won the State Fair art contest in his age bracket in fourth grade, in fact, for a ceramic of a guy sitting in a chair, reading a book next to a reading table piled high with other books and a reading lamp. It was clear that it was what he did best, what engaged him, the conduit to all other learning he did. The Art teacher said that he was attentive, helpful, intuitive – a total joy! She was the only one, unfortunately; Zam didn’t sit still well, which caused endless problems for every other teacher in the building.
The school’s response, naturally, was to pull him out of Art, to make time to sit in “Special Ed” and learn how important it was to sit still, do what one is told when one is told to do it, not stand out from the crowd in any way.
It never really worked out.
One thing the school district did excel at was remembering everything Zam did – as long as it was trouble. Reading his record was, and is, a journey through eight years of every tic, zig and burble in Zam’s behavior, in immutable black and white, never to be forgotten until the district finally disposes of him (or any other child under their control).
One item – “Weapons Violation” – jumps out at the reader.
I was working in Chanhassen in 2002 – during the high-tech recession, it was literally the only job I could find when the dotcom I was at laid me off. It was almost 40 miles from home; the morning and evening commutes were an hour under perfect circumstances, and perfect circumstances were few and far between. Zam’s school was on the North End of Saint Paul, near Larpenteur and Rice.
I got a call from the school’s Assistant Principal – a doughy, audibly-portly, humorless woman I’ll call “Doctor Carlson”, with the emphasis on her newly-acquired PhD in Education. “We have an issue here”, she said with her sing-song, emotionless voice; “We will have to suspend Zam for three days, due to a weapons violation. You’ll need to pick him up and take him home.”
I left work and drove the 45 miles to the school, my guts roiling, in a cold sweat, wondering if Zam had truly snapped and had been waving a machete around the playground.
I got to Doctor Carlson’s office. She waddled into the room and oozed into her chair. “Zam was caught on the playground with a weapon. Under the zero tolerance policy, we have the right to expel him.”
“What was the weapon?” I asked, starting to panic a bit.
She reached into the straining fabric of her pocket, and pulled out…
…four tiny plastic balls.
I sat, dumbfounded.
They were the little plastic pellets from one of the little toy guns that you can buy in the checkout line in the supermarket, the ones that lob the plastic pellets through the air at a stately ten miles per hour with a satisfying “snick”.
I sat, speechless, panic giving way to anger, unable to process it.
Doctor Carlson, in her unctuous monotone, continued; “Some kids on the playground reported him. They were afraid”.
I measured my words carefully; “These are not weapons”, I said, not unclenching my teeth.
“Under the zero tolerance policy, I’m afraid they are”, she said, visibly disinterested. “As I said, we have the right to expel Zam – especially given his disciplinary record. He’s lucky we’re only suspending him for three days”.
What could I say?
I drove Zam home. There was a perfunctory lecture about never, ever bringing anything to school but books. And there was the creeping realization that the Saint Paul School system was more interested in building a paper trail to justify their inability to “reach” Zam, than in actually teaching him anything about reading, writing, math or science.
That was third grade. In the next four years, there were no more “weapons” violations. Indeed, his behavior moderated quite a bit – he learned to control his urge to hit, to lash out.
Indeed, I was proud of him; he developed the sense to not hit back at all when he was attacked, eventually, as happened in seventh grade, when a kid tackled him as he was sitting at a table in the lunch room. Zam, according to all the witnesses (including a teacher) didn’t even hit back!
Of course, he was still suspended for three days – because of the “zero tolerance” policy, and because of…
…his “disciplinary record”.
And of course, he still couldn’t master the most important skills, as far as the school seemed to be concerned; sitting still, speaking when spoken to, raising his hand politely to ask to go to the bathroom. So he remained “EBD”.
Oh, his mother and I (by now long-divorced) tried our best. Realizing that “Special Ed” was just a room he sat in for a couple of hours a week (literally – that’s all he did – sit) rather that going to Art, was tried to pull him out of the “special ed” system. We were met by an endless cycle of bureaucratic hoops designed to keep him in special ed, even though the “special ed teacher” admitted they really didn’t do anything with him. His behavior was, after all these years, just fine – but, rather than put him in art class, they wanted to “monitor” him.
It was seventh grade – and the endless cycle of hoops was about to be interrupted.