Losing My (State) Religion, Part V

(Read the whole series)

 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:

  1. Give him an abbreviation; “EBD”, in his case, which I think means “Educable, Behaviorally Disadvantaged”.
  2. Use that abbreviation to put him in “Special Education”
  3. 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.

(Read the whole series)

 

 

25 thoughts on “Losing My (State) Religion, Part V

  1. The School District had to leave him in Special Ed, or the money they get would drop. More money for Special Ed kids, ya know, regardless of whether they really cost any more.

  2. Just be glad your kid did not go to Catholic school. Our priest had a rule, if a kid did not sit still, he whacked all the kids sitting around the troublemaker. These kids were then encouraged to take revenge on the troublemaker at recess.

  3. You sure went to a dysfunctional Catholic school, RickDFL. That’s sad.

    The school our daughter starts next year is absolutely opposite of that nightmare. The principal of the school is just that, a principal, not a priest.

  4. Actually, I liked it. By learning discipline and responsibility, I could grow up to be a good liberal Democrat.

  5. Odd. I went to a Catholic school for six months, and I never heard a thing about profligacy, disingenuity, and…well, the whole “abortion as sacrament” thing was kinda new on me, too.

    You musta gone to a different kinda Catholic school.

  6. Rick liked it, because as a good DFLer he’s all for punishing one person for someone else’s crime.

  7. That’s right. Or, more to the point, punishing whole groups for an individual’s non-crime.

  8. I spent 12 years in Catholic schools, and I never heard of such a practice. I suspect Rick is making this up.

    /sarcasm off

  9. Rick, you’re lucky.

    My brother and I are both adopted and we went to a Catholic school. When I was in 4th or 5th, one of the nuns found out that I was adopted and she told me and the whole class for that matter that children who were adopted didn’t go to heaven because they were illegitimate.

    I had no idea what illegitimate meant but I knew that because I was different I wasn’t going to heaven.

    For a couple years after that I had to listen to my ignorant classmates ask me what it was like to not have parents or to know that I wasn’t going to heaven.

    Try answering that one when you’re like 10 years old.

    I was probably in high school before I learned the source of Sister Mary’s moronic interpretation of scripture. In Judaec law, an illegitimate person can’t go to Temple down to the 10th generation.

    She was the same evil witch who told my friend Phil to put his head down on his desk because he was being disruptive then she grabbed him by the hair and smacked his face against the desktop.

    Another really fun thing the church did was tell my mom that she wasn’t welcome in the church until she had her marriage annulled. She told them she wasn’t going to do that because claiming there was never a marriage – even though they had adopted two kids was ridiculous. She never became a member of the church but that didn’t stop them from taking our families check for tuition for school.

  10. Doug-Your story doesn’t pass the smell test….even for mean, old-bat nuns.

  11. Colleen, it happened.

    Whether or not you choose to believe it matters not to me.

    There was a whole lot of other ugly incidents that happened at my school aside from what happened to me. The nuns were actually half way tollerabe compared to the priests. In fact, Father Peters who was the priest when I was there got busted for making naughty with some alter boys a few years after he moved on to another church.

    http://www.bsa-discrimination.org/html/peters.html

    At a reunion about ten years ago, two of my old friends from school told me that Peters once asked them into his office and then asked them how big their penises were, how often they masturbated and how they did it. This was years before all of the allegations of his abuse was known.

    The point is that there is no guarantee that a private school is going to be better for your kids. The crap that happened in my school all happened in relative secret and it messed up a lot of people. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the reason I can’t stand organized religion is because of the crap I saw as a kid in school. At least in a public school system, the stuff that happens is at least more open and transparent.

    Fortunately, one of my friends was a Priest in Youth Ministry at St. Thomas and then had his own Church in North Minneapolis before he died a few years ago. He was an incredible guy and I managed to calm my anger at Catholicism somewhat because of him.

    No system is perfect and no system is capable of handling the needs of every individual student.

    What happened to Mitch sucks yes but I would go out on a limb here and say that his was the exception, not the rule.

  12. Colleen, it happened.

    Whether or not you choose to believe it matters not to me.

    There was a whole lot of other ugly incidents that happened at my school aside from what happened to me. The nuns were actually half way tollerabe compared to the priests. In fact, Father Peters who was the priest when I was there got busted for making naughty with some alter boys a few years after he moved on to another church.

    Google: father peters sheboygan st. clements

    and have a look at the the first hit.

    I posted the link but my comment went into moderation limbo

    At a reunion about ten years ago, two of my old friends from school told me that Peters once asked them into his office and then asked them how big their penises were, how often they masturbated and how they did it. This was years before all of the allegations of his abuse was known.

    The point is that there is no guarantee that a private school is going to be better for your kids. The crap that happened in my school all happened in relative secret and it messed up a lot of people. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the reason I can’t stand organized religion is because of the crap I saw as a kid in school. At least in a public school system, the stuff that happens is at least more open and transparent.

    Fortunately, one of my friends was a Priest in Youth Ministry at St. Thomas and then had his own Church in North Minneapolis before he died a few years ago. He was an incredible guy and I managed to calm my anger at Catholicism somewhat because of him.

    No system is perfect and no system is capable of handling the needs of every individual student.

    What happened to Mitch sucks yes but I would go out on a limb here and say that his was the exception, not the rule.

  13. Mitch, my post went into moderation limbo. I reposted without the link and the second still went into moderation.

    If you release it, disregard the second.

  14. Sorry Colleen,

    I had posted a lengthly response to your charge that I am making this up along with a link to demonstrate what fun I had to deal with in a private school but Mitch apparently hasn’t checked moderated comments.

    But to give you an idea of what happened in my really expensive private school, Google:

    st. clements sheboygan father peters

    and read the first hit.

    Father Peters was the priest at the school I attended.

    Now just imagine if the system in my school had been as open and transparent as the St. Paul School system. The crap that happened would have been exposed immediately and the piece of shit running the school wouldn’t have been allowed to leave a trail of damaged kids throughout central Wisconsin.

  15. Doug,

    Sorry about the moderation limbo. Not sure quite why your posts got sidetracked. My home computer is hosed, so I didn’t get to check things until I got to work.

    Sorry your (pl) experience was such a POS. A college friend of mine popped up on TV a few years ago as a plaintiff in a rather famous sexual abuse case involving a Catholic school here in MN. It’s serious business.

    But just as a point of order:

    Colleen, it happened.

    Now, Doug? You were the one that sniffed and phumphered about my story from the demonstration. You expected precisely what?

    I don’t really believe in Karma, but I do think what goes around comes around…

    At any rate, your story is another wrinkle on the larger point I’m going to TRY to hit in my wrapup…

  16. Both Rick and Doug are describing fringe elements of Catholic education that disappeared shortly after Vatican II. Nuns? Priests? Please. Catholic schools haven’t had either in much evidence since I was in elementary school back in the early sixties. I’ve had my kids in Catholic schools in more than one state over the course of the last twenty years and to complain about priests beating kids or nuns telling whoppers is about as pertinent today as girls complaining about having to take home ec instead of math and science.
    What happened in another era is really not helpful when discussing the enormous problems in today’s public education. Frankly, what happened to Mitch’s daughter, in particular is a far worse case of child abuse than any of the beatings my eighty year old father suffered at the hands of the clergy who ran the Catholic schools back during the depression.
    I haven’t finished reading what happened to Zam, but I know many, many young parents who home school now to avoid ever putting their kids through this kind of harrassment.

  17. Mitch said,

    “Now, Doug? You were the one that sniffed and phumphered about my story from the demonstration. You expected precisely what?”

    I expected precisely what Colleen delivered. While I still believe your story about the groping, staggering drunk from the demonstration is an exageration at best, a fabrication at worst, I conceded that I am completely unqualified to render judgement because I wasn’t there to witness the event or lack there of.

    Colleen is free to chose whether or not she accepts my little anecdote as truth and like you, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if she believe it or doesn’t. As my wife is fond of saying, Mox Nix – It matters not.

    The point of my post wasn’t to compare battle scars anyway. It was to illustrate that regardless of whether your kid is in a public school or a private school, the weakest link is and always has been the system itself.

    Your experience illustrates that the system is f-ed up because of bloated bureaucracy and ridiculously elevated over-reaction.

    My experience illustrated that the system is f-ed up because of zero accountability and systemic under-reaction.

    I’d like to think that my experience is just a historical aberration but it’s not. I have friends that have a kid in private school and they have really pretty art plastered on the refrigerator but have but are having to stroke Sylvan Learning thousands of dollars because their daughter is struggling trying to keep up with reading. The schools approach, rather than looking at where they are dropping the ball has been to just respond that she just learns differently and then offer her more “tactile” and “expressive” learning experiences.

    I’m not going to defend the St. Paul schools because we’re not in that district but I will say regardless of the district, the reason that too many schools are forced to be absurdly vigilant is because far too many parents aren’t. They expect the school to be their kids daycare provider, the baby sitter, the disciplinarian, the health clinic, the therapist, the nutritionist – you name it.

    I honestly believe most parents don’t have a clue what’s happening in their kids school and the pathetically low attendance rate at conferences is a pretty good indication that I’m right.

    Listening to you guys, you’d think that the Teachers union is responsible for every every little problem in the school but the reality Mitch is that the root of the most problems in the schools start in the home. The teachers and the administrations are stuck doing the crap that too many parents either can’t or won’t do.

  18. I still believe your story about the groping, staggering drunk from the demonstration is an exageration at best, a fabrication at worst,

    And you’re irredeemably wrong on both counts, and I discount all your other opinion accordingly.

    Listening to you guys, you’d think that the Teachers union is responsible

    Where in the first seven parts of the series did I (who have been, indeed, a teachers’ union member myself!) say any such thing?

    for every every little problem in the school but the reality Mitch is that the root of the most problems in the schools start in the home.

    Yes and no.

    Yes, some parents drop the ball.

    But schools and teachers constantly usurp parental authority, too.

    The teachers and the administrations are stuck doing the crap that too many parents either can’t or won’t do.

    So say many of them.

    My follow-up question – “what” and “why?”

    Which is where it gets interesting.

  19. Mitch said,

    “But schools and teachers constantly usurp parental authority, too.”

    Mitch, don’t confuse a parent neglecting to excersise proper discipline with a school usurping authority.

    Also, remember that the school has the kid under their charge for 7 hours a day five days a week. Sometimes the school, out of necessity has to be tough.

  20. Mitch, don’t confuse a parent neglecting to excersise proper discipline with a school usurping authority.

    Interesting that you’d jump to that conclusion, when I’d listed no specifics.

    Do you have the faintest idea what I’m referring to?

    Also, remember that the school has the kid under their charge for 7 hours a day five days a week. Sometimes the school, out of necessity has to be tough.

    Well, that’s a fine little platitude there, Doug!

    But the devil is in the details (and the cliches, obviously). Why is there a necessity? What does “tough” mean? Why does the school have to be “tough”, whatever it means?

    There are a lot of “why”s here, Doug, that the bromides and platitudes don’t touch.

    More later.

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