Thursday, September 10, 2015

Back to School: A Report Card and A Memory

One week down, twenty-something to go. We have a sixth and a second grader, and things are going well -- with some caveats.

Ethan is "king" at his preK-second grade school this year. Since we were away the last week of the summer and missed the special back to school lunch, his teacher was kind enough to let us stop in the day before just to check out the classroom, his locker, and so on. He's got a good buddy in class this year, and barely any homework yet (whew!). There have already been some issues with kids on the bus (that's a blog post for another day), and I ended up on the phone with the principal by the second day of school. By the next day, a monitor was on the bus, and all is happily quiet (or as quiet as a bus full of five to seven-year-olds can be).

Anna has transitioned from a class of less than 10 to more than 200. She's managed to navigate her new middle school without getting lost and is even opening her locker on the first try. As with Ethan, a staff member was nice enough to let us come in at a different time (due to our vacation) and try out Anna's locker and find her homeroom. She then proceeded to give us a detailed tour of the school. The guidance counselor put her on the same "team" as a friend, and after a week of school, the math teacher recommended she transition to a more advance math (no small feat, the way Anna usually struggle with math!).

It's nice to feel that people are on your side.

A friend with a son the same age as Anna was talking about how this whole middle school transition is bringing back vivid memories of her own middle school experience, and she's started recounting all kinds of stories. I know just what she means. Much to Anna's chagrin, I've started doing the same thing.

It's inevitable. You see, I too came to a large public middle school from a tiny Christian school. I too was the fish out of water.

When I drop Anna off at Sage Park Middle School in the morning, I see myself riding the bus up the hill to M. Marcus Kiley Junior High School. I see myself navigating the crowds with my Trapper Keeper, sporting my button down pink shirt and stonewashed jean skirt from Bradlees. I recall walking under the big banner over our heads that screamed: "Catch the Kiley Spirit!" I remember graffiti-scrawled bathrooms with doors missing from the stalls and overflowing trash cans. I remember the whine of the bell, the crush of people in the halls, and the yells of "FIGHT!" when two kids started going at it in the hall.

I can see, I can hear it all: The kids muttering "loser" under their breath when I didn't know what I was doing in gym class; the long rectangular table where the "elite" group sat in the cafeteria; the old lab lady who hated everyone; the shock of seeing kids pull actual real cigarettes out of their jean purses.

I'll never forget: my social studies teacher who would have spent the entire year teaching us about the JFK assassination; the guy with long shaggy hair and high-topped sneakers who was a relative genius but was rarely actually there; the day we bypassed lessons in Algebra to watch the space shuttle go back up in space for the first time since the Challenger disaster.

Of all the memories, out of everything that happened that exciting, turbulent year, there is one incident that most sticks in my mind.

I remember the moment, when the bullying got to be too much. I felt I couldn't take another day of whispers and hateful remarks. I didn't know what to do. And so I took a deep breath and a deep swallow and headed down to the guidance office.

I'll never forget the signs everywhere that screamed "No Smoking!" Yet the smell and fog of smoke was thick in the air. I sat in front of my guidance counselor, who had deep circles under her eyes and her hair pulled back severely by a headband. She listened. She sighed. She shook her head and shrugged. "I'm sorry," she said. "Kids will be kids. There's not much I can do." After a few minutes, I was dismissed.

I walked down the corridor with a new kind of weight of my shoulders. I knew kids would be mean. I knew public school might be hard. But I wasn't expecting adults to seem hopeless; powerless.

If the adults couldn't do anything, I knew -- except for the conversations I held with God in my head, I was completely alone. I was the ship left sinking in the middle of the ocean.

That moment alone was what most worried me about sending Anna off to this school. And so last night, as we sat at the open house and her guidance counselor talked about wanting kids to feel comfortable there, and safe, socially and emotionally, and about wanting to hear if there's a problem, and addressing problems quickly, I had to be grateful.

No one can completely prevent bullying. Things are going to happen and our kids need to be resilient. Schools can't solve every problem and right every wrong. But no child should walk through the halls of school feeling utterly alone -- as if there is not a single person there who cares or who will support them if they run into trouble. They shouldn't feel as if there is no one, absolutely no one, who's going to at least try.

Thank you, Sage Park, for trying.

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