I learned a few things – or at least reminded of some things I should already have known – this past week. Here’s my account of those lessons. Maybe some of you will get some sense of feeling like you’re not alone in your struggles with schools, and society, and being unique and special, and boxes.
I should also point out that my wife, Leah, got to #6 and #7 LONG before I did, and for that I love her madly.
1. A school is an institutional system, and like any other institutional system, it is designed to maintain and preserve its own equilibrium above all other considerations. Don’t get me wrong – there are people at my son’s school who have gone to great lengths – in some cases above and beyond the call – to help my son, as an individual, thrive and feel safe. I also believe that practically every employee at the school would take a bullet for my kid (and any other kid) if some asshat were to walk in will ill intent and a deadly weapon. And I admire them for that. But in the far more common day-to-day aspects of educating, a school will do whatever it can to maintain a standardized box into which every kid must fit, because they’re convinced that’s the only way that order can be maintained, and also the only way that they think they can do the most good for the most children with the limited time and resources the school has.
2. In the mind of an educator, there can only be one story. There are no “sides”. There is only what the teacher says happened, and any attempt to look more deeply into that amounts to an outright accusation that the teacher is lying. It is very difficult to try to bring any context into a situation under these conditions. You can say that you believe the teacher is honestly giving an account of what happened from her perspective, but that you also believe your child has given an honest account of what happened from HIS perspective, even if the accounts differ in some important details. But to a teacher, that’s an accusation. Because in order to keep the system’s status quo in place, in order to keep things within the box, a child can’t have a perspective, at least not one that has any weight. There is only the teacher’s perspective. Anything else amounts to total chaos.
2.a. Due Process? Ha! Yeah, right. Your property – property in possession of your child that is being used as part of his Individual Education Plan (IEP) – can be confiscated and kept by the school for an extended period based solely on a teacher’s suspicion that the property is being used at an inappropriate time. And because the teacher’s authority MUST be kept sacred under all circumstances, no extenuating circumstances will be considered, and no argument that the weight of the consequence might be too burdensome given the circumstances will be considered.
3. Educators will tend to have each other’s backs and defend each other’s actions without question. I don’t know what color the line is for the public education system, but just like the Thin Blue Line philosophy that Law Enforcement has, when faced with pushback from outside the club, teachers and administrators will present a united front and also act personally offended that any mere civilian would question or critique the system. As part of this phenomenon, the people who you’ve been previously able to count on as allies in the struggle to help your child cope and thrive will suddenly start giving curt, one-sentence responses to emails and sit in meetings silently looking down at their laps, as if they’ve been warned to toe the line.
4. There must be some sort of college class for people getting degrees in education that teaches potential teachers and administrators how to act and speak in a way that kinda makes it seem like parents/advocates are being listened to and taken seriously, while at the same time conveying a subtext of “How dare you question us?” that invokes Jack Nicholson’s indignant rant as Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men. Because seriously. How else can you explain their knack for acting like they’re listening and absorbing your concerns while also making it pretty clear they think you’re basically just trying to get your kid special treatment and wasting their time?
5. Our society is set up to make all of the above things seem perfectly reasonable, perfectly acceptable. The school is technically not doing anything wrong by spending its energy to maintain its institutional system. Yes, I’ve colored everything above with my own bias, but taking my frustration and bias out of it, the school is merely following policies and procedures that are intended to be as fair and balanced as possible. Keeping the system functioning in a well-ordered way, maximizing limited resources to benefit the broadest spectrum of students and preparing them for eventual life in The Real World is the point. Preservation of the status quo in that system is essential – or, if change is proven to be necessary, it must happen slowly, incrementally, and in an orderly fashion. From the system’s perspective, working to keep kids inside the box is not a bug, it’s a feature. When you have hundreds of children to deal with, you can only treat them as individuals with specific and unique contexts up to a point. Student with special needs who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), will be helped as much as they practically can, but overall even kids with special needs have to live and function in The Real World and they need to be taught to fit in and go along.The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. I get it. I accept it, sort of.
6. BUT WAIT! NO, I ACTUALLY DON’T ACCEPT IT! Even if that’s the reality of what the education system has to do – even if that’s the only way the system can responsibly function, even if that’s the system’s Big-Picture job, It isn’t MY job! My job is to do everything I can to enable my child to flourish AS HIMSELF, with his own personality, his uniqueness, and his individuality intact. Yes, there has to be a balance of some kind between individuality and functioning within a society – I get that. As much as a part of me may want to, I can’t say, “Screw the world, my kid is the most special of all special humans and everybody is just gonna have to accept that!” As a parent I need to teach him to respect other humans and negotiate a balance between his needs and theirs, his uniqueness and theirs. And I think to some extent I’ve maybe been confused about where I, myself, should strike that balance. How much should I be telling my child to buck up, grow up, fit in, and get along, versus my desire to encourage him to embrace who he is, not be ashamed of his particular challenges, and proudly exist outside any boxes that he doesn’t want to climb into? Well, I think maybe that’s the biggest lesson of the week …
7. The world and its institutions and systems are set up to put us into a box. Eventually, they will get what they want, because we all end up in a box eventually. But until that final box-putting that we can’t avoid, the world doesn’t get to put me, or my loved ones, or my friends, into boxes. Not without a fight. Not without my strong, informed, attentive resistance. In other words, my biggest lesson of the week is, the school already has the full force of its established institutional system working on its behalf. THEY DON’T NEED ME TO JUMP IN ON THEIR SIDE. They don’t need me to empathize with how tough it is for them, they don’t need my unquestioning cooperation, and they sure as hell don’t need me giving my passive permission to put my kid into their box. Instead, MY KID NEEDS ME TO GO ALL-IN ON HIS SIDE. My child needs an advocate. And no, I don’t need to vilify or demonize the school or its staff or my son’s teachers, because yes, they pretty much ARE just doing what the system requires of them. But that’s the point – they have their system and their policies and their self-assured confidence in the time-tested rightness of their mission. My child, on the other hand, has only his parents. He has my wife, and he has me. And although he has a few allies among the school staff who have gone out of their way to support and encourage him, their influence and ability to act on his behalf will always be curtailed by the policies and procedures of the system. So in the end, the only people that my child has who can be completely and unswervingly on his side in this rigged game are my wife and I. And therefore I need to be that person for my kid, without reservation.