First day back at school for Ben and Molly, and I’m holding my breath in anticipation…
Miss Molly? No worries there. She’s back to the same routine, same preschool, and was practically out the door honking the horn before I could finish saying, “Time to…”
Besides…it’s Molly. I could drop her in the middle of the jungle and she’d have the gorillas dressed in ball gowns and tiaras enjoying a rousing game of “Magic Fairy Princesses Dragon Battle Tea Party” before you could say, “Gee, I didn’t know Rapunzel had a sword.”
Ben, on the other hand…
Ben had a tough time last year, and I’ve been kicking myself since May for not recognizing it sooner.
Nine times out of 10 grown-ups meet Ben and love him.
That 10th time though, for whatever reason, it’s a mismatch – Ben has an off moment, or that person has an off moment – and it’s almost impossible to recover from. My greatest fear for Ben last year, going into a new school, was it would be that 10th time…and unfortunately for Ben and his teacher it was.
I could tell right away Ben and his teacher weren’t a perfect match, but I kept hoping things would improved as she got to know him…and I kept defending her to Ian, who in retrospect really had a better handle on it from the get-go.
…And when Ben told me about a girl pinching him under the table and I emailed and the teacher said she addressed it by switching their table groups, I thought that sounded reasonable.
…And when Ben started coming home with notes in his agenda about how he “made poor choices” or “had trouble remembering hands off other kids” I chalked it up to new atmosphere and new peer group, reminded him about the school rules, and left it at that.
…And when his teacher proudly declared at Meet-The-Teacher how she has high expectations, doesn’t lavish praise, and applies rules equally across the board, I thought, “Sounds about right, I guess,” but a little voice in the back of my head whispered, “they’re only in grade 1.”
…And when Ben came home with bumps and scrapes from “accidents” but shrugged and said, “My friends looked after me,” I reminded him again to tell a teacher if he’s hurt.
…And when his teacher called to talk again about how Ben’s behaviour was getting worse and his schoolwork was suffering – “It’s like he’s just not trying his very best sometimes” – I promised to have yet another talk with him.
…And when we had that talk, and he said he misses instructions because his brain makes him focus on other things and I suggested he ask Madame to repeat them, and he said, “No, because I don’t want her to say, ‘Well, you should have been listening to the example,'” he imitated her irritated voice so handily that I wondered how many times a day he hears it.
…And when he told me about his “worst enemies,” and how he can’t wait for the month to be over so he’s not sitting with them any more; how they say his work is no good and then ask if they can copy it; how they get him to play “Dare or Truth,” daring him to throw his pizza slice across the room, and when he doesn’t they lick it and put it on the floor…and I remember they’re the same boys who call themselves the “bug clinic destroyers” and spend recess wrecking the game Ben and his friends play…and I remember that the other times I’ve mentioned them to the teacher, she’s said, “That really surprises me, because they are such *nice* boys,”…and it’s like the picture is coming into focus and I’m recognizing something I wish I’d seen months ago.
…And when I email to tell her all this and Ben comes home and reports she’s taken the group aside to say they *all* have to make better choices at lunch, because there is no throwing pizza, and she’s told Ben he’s not the boss of the bug clinic – “She doesn’t understand,” he says, “I’m not bossing the other kids around; I’m a boss like daddy is at work – I make the schedule and business cards and trophies for the best workers each month so we can help the bugs,” suddenly it’s in high-def and I’m finally getting a crystal clear picture of how this year has been for Ben.
…And then when he finally breaks down, crying, “I AM bad – I do bad things all the time – just look at all the things Madame has written in my agenda about me,” and flips back through his agenda, page after page, I hug my sensitive, perceptive, gifted boy and sob along with him.
So finally, finally…in the last month of the school year…we had the meeting with Ben’s teacher I wish we had in October.
And finally, in the last month of the school year, I get her to realize his outward classroom behaviour doesn’t match his internal emotional state.
Ben is so sensitive to people’s moods – he perceive the inflection or expression, and if he senses negativity, he assumes it’s his fault. Since his teacher is strict and curt, he assumes she’s always mad at him – and that she doesn’t like him.
And he won’t go to her with problems – if he misses an instruction, he won’t ask her to repeat it – he’ll just try to figure it out on his own. And in the end he gets it right, but sometimes he’s the last one finished because he’s done the exercise 3 times with 3 different methods before figuring out which one he was supposed to do.
And if other kids are picking on him in class or outside, he won’t tell – so the issue with his work has been that the other kids at his table were picking on him, so he couldn’t concentrate on his desk work.
In this meeting when I talked about the other kids, she said, “I just don’t understand. I mean, Ben has dealt with much worse before. I mean, earlier in the year there were other kids being MUCH worse – like, really being mean, and it didn’t bother him, so I don’t understand why this is bothering him now.”
…and I calmly explained this is obviously the entire issue, because Ben doesn’t GET upset – he internalizes. So if other kids are being mean, he won’t get mad at them – he’ll assume he’s done something wrong. And then he comes home and breaks down and tells me “I’m bad – I do bad things all the time – just look at all the things Madame has written in my agenda about me.”
And that’s when I cried.
And we explained that right now he’s only seeing and hearing negative, so he’s assuming he might as well just keep messing around because what does it matter anyway?
And then she tried to reassure us that these are perfectly normal classroom behaviours and she’s not concerned about them in grade 1.
And then I said as a social worker, if Ben was my client and he told me the things he has told me about his feelings, I would be VERY concerned and want to address them.
Because I don’t give a crap about the behaviours in and of themselves, but in Ben these particular behaviours are concerning because they’re a reaction to something going on with him emotionally.
And at that point, she finally stopped being defensive and started listening a little harder, and for the last month of grade 1 we agreed on a plan for lots of positive feedback, and lots of checking in, asking if he wants to talk about anything, to build trust – if not with her, at least with the teachers in the school in general.
It took nearly the whole year, but I finally made sure Ben’s voice was heard and his needs were met, at least for a few weeks. Whatever happens, this year I’m not going to be afraid to be *that* mom.
I was a basketcase putting Ben on the school bus this morning – fortunately he didn’t share my trepidation.
…and I take that as a good sign!
Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good.
~ Feelin’ Good, Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse