Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Exerpts, a story of Scott and another microcosm

This event happened about 18 months ago during the last month of Scott's kindergarten year (May 2006). This is the story as I recounted it to my cousin:

I've been on the front line of a very uncomfortable dynamic at the boys' school. It started the week just before memorial w/e when Scott came home weepy and said he'd hit his best friend Jack. That surprised me a lot; he'd just been at the boy's birthday party the weekend before and they'd gotten along so well. They've been pretty good buddies since school started and it just seemed odd.

Scott's not been as easily assimilated into a school model as Connor was in kindergarten.

So I haven’t been able to completely relax about him in school the way I was when Connor was at this stage. He’s one of these children that you’re never entirely sure if he’s ‘getting’ you. It’s like a language barrier, really, as if he’s not a native English speaker. His indexing is very different from ours, so what we’re thinking we’re telling him may not be what he’s taking in. It’s disconcerting and can be irritating. It also can be dangerous for him because adults assume he’s getting what they’re telling him and expect him to behave accordingly. There’s a difference in someone who doesn’t do as expected because he doesn’t understand what’s expected (and the adult knows it), vs someone who doesn’t do as expected when he does understand what’s expected. I think that Scott may be mistakenly classified sometimes in the latter group. If it was clear that English was his second language I think he’d be treated with a little more understanding. If he was in a smaller classroom (28 kids, 21 of whom are boys) a teacher would have a little longer to consider the subtleties. Actually his teachers have been pretty kind, kinder consistently than I am, I’m afraid. He’s been receiving speech therapy since he was 3 (delay issues and now intelligibility issues) and I went in for his annual meeting. Got the report I was expecting: doing well in his speech progress, not quite settling down the way many of the other kindergartners have at this stage. Easily distractable, impulsive.

This is probably a classic case where having a depressed mother directly impacts a child. Optimally I’d have kept him home another year to let some more maturity come into play. [I don’t know if I could have done it though, and stayed sane.] Optimally I’d have been a frequent and regular volunteer so I could keep my finger more surely on the pulse of his well being. [I don’t know if I could have done that and stayed sane. My need for this solitary time that they’ve been in school has been voracious and nearly insatiable. The thought of any obligations caused some real anxiety. It was a conscious choice I made to not volunteer this year.] I haven’t had to give what he probably needed most—some really focused attention during this first year of his academic life.

ANYway, he came home and told me he’d hit his best friend. This is the first time he’s done this. He was genuinely tearful. I e-mailed the teacher and cc’d the principal because I’d not heard from them. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t hearing from them because this had been resolved satisfactorily between the kids in the classroom. The note I got back from Mr. S., the teacher, assured me that was the case. It had not risen to a level of seriousness requiring a principal’s intervention, or a need to contact me. So I was blindsided when I got a call from Jack’s father later that week saying that his son was saying that Scott had ‘punched him in the nose’ and the damage had been serious enough that he was ‘still bleeding’. Several days later. His father said they wanted to have a meeting at the school with the teacher and wanted to know if I could come. It may have been more imperative than that. I agreed to it and was there Tuesday morning. What was odd was that I thought we were just going to meet with the teacher, but Jack’s mother headed up the stairs to the principal’s office. The principal hadn’t known we were meeting and so it was an unexpected meeting for him, too. Jack and Scott were with us. The story was that Karol had picked up Jack after school and he had blood on his nose. I don’t know if it was dried blood or what. She said no one told her that something had happened. There must have been a hand-off between one adult and another; it seems odd that she feels she couldn’t get any information. I don’t know when it started bleeding profusely; it could have been that night, or maybe not even until over the holiday when they went to visit some friends. The point was, the principal expressed surprise; he said that ordinarily any incident that involves punching and a bloody nose would be dealt with immediately, in his office. He asked the school secretary if she’d dealt with a bloody nose that day, and she said she had not. There had been no crying, no upset that seems reasonable to expect if someone gets hurt to that extent. The teacher hadn’t known anything about it either. So apparently something happened that caused this boy’s nose to bleed—later, well after the incident—that no adult witnessed, and no one witnessed a kid being distraught, which you’d think would have been the case. Karol said tho that she’d talked with the pediatric nurse, and that the bleeding could only be accounted for by some trauma. She then proceeded to say that she has witnessed Scott on several occasions be aggressive with other children where it was unprovoked. Her case in point was when the kids were lining up to leave and Scott ran across the room and plowed into Jack, knocking him to the ground. She said, ‘if it looks like a duck’, in other words it was a slam dunk that Scott had done it, especially since Jack said he had. Then, there in the meeting, Scott said he had hit Jack in the nose.

Now I remember being a kid, and how ambiguous words are. “Hitting him in the nose” can mean anything from a vicious beating on down the continuum to having bumped him in the course of physical play. I think the word ‘hitting’ might mean different things to each of the adults in the room. Fortunately we have a principal who is aware of this ambiguity, and is also aware that children are not the most reliable of historians. Scott’s saying he did it was case-closed to Jack’s parents, but I can remember being a child and saying I’d done something because when people asked me, it seemed like they wanted me to say it, or because I thought it would be brave, or because I was confused and thought maybe I HAD done it, everyone else seemed so sure. And I think the principal is aware of this dynamic complicating the narratives of children, especially when adults start asking lots of questions.

So the way the principal handled it was to make clear that we can’t have hitting of any kind at school, and that both boys need to keep their hands to themselves.

I came in to the meeting with the guiding principal that Scott should not be hitting anybody. There was nothing to be defensive about. Furthermore I felt there was as much danger to Scott in the situation, (the danger of being or being labeled as a hitter) as there was to Jack. I saw it as a problem that was between ALL of us adults and that we were there to problem solve so both boys come out safe and successful. I was weepy a few times, this was really difficult. But it seemed the meeting ended with a sense of being conciliatory. The principal made a point that while Scott should by no means hit Jack, he felt it unlikely that he’d caused Jack’s nose to be so injured.

Except Jack has continued to come home and tell Karol that Scott’s been hitting him. I got a message from Karol about 2 weeks ago saying Jack said Scott had hit him in the forehead and chest. Then another message that Jack said Scott had shoved his finger up Jack’s nose and that he had a bloody nose. Each time I got a message from her I called the school to see if they could tell me what happened (that seemed prudent before speaking to her). Each time they said the boys had had great days, had played wonderfully well, and really like each other. They’ve been really watching these kids and were surprised when I told them Karol called me saying that Jack had said that Scott had abused him. I also spoke with the music teacher who said in her opinion these were boys who really liked and were drawn to each other, but didn’t necessarily bring out the best in each other. She said they had had an altercation over some crayons and Scott did hit him, but they were able to deal with it in class. She said that it’s by no means unilateral, that it’s a feature of their relationship and that Jack gives as much as he gets.

The school staff has continued to give me the feedback that they see no evidence that Scott is targeting Jack; that he is impulsive and a physical boy and so sometimes when he’s with other impulsive and physical boys that physical things happen. But they see no malicious intent. In the case of this latest bloody nose Scott had been no where near Jack when it broke out. His mother says (again) that Jack says that they had been underneath the table when Scott pushed a finger up his nose and that it didn’t start bleeding at first.

So, either the school staff is incredibly negligent and stupid in letting these incidents go by unobserved, or Scott is very cleverly planning these assaults to insure that he not get caught, or, maybe Jack's mother is giving too much credence to the narrative of a 6 year old. I’m not saying the boy is lying, because I think kids have such a confused view of the truth that the term doesn’t really apply to them. Who knows what may be influencing his story. I have no idea what kinds of questions mom’s asking him. Perhaps he’s perseverating on some event where Scott did hit him. Perhaps he’s seen just how excited adults get. Perhaps he and Scott bumped into each other during their play at school, maybe it even hurt, and in his mind that becomes “Scott hit me”. From what the school staff has observed, they’ve continued to play very happily together.

Well, I called her to suggest we keep talking, only maybe move our venue to e-mail where it’s a little less loaded. I just wanted her e-mail address, and it turns out she didn’t want to continue the conversation. She wanted an outlet for her anger, and she dumped it all over me. To her it’s a done deal that ‘your child is hurting my child and it’s because you’re lousy parents who don’t know how to discipline your kid’. It was as if I was personally responsible, as if I had hit Jack. She’s already sure that Scott will be attacking him next year, and she hopes we come up with a ‘discipline plan’ over the summer to keep that from happening. She told me I was ‘in denial’ about Scott. The whole exchange was a shock, because I’m not used to adults speaking to me this way. I took (I think) the higher road and did not make personal remarks about her, her parenting, or her child. This was precisely why I’d wanted to move the venue to e-mail, to avoid exchanges like this. This was not a conversation, she interrupted whenever I’d speak, and when I did have an insertion point and pointed out that none of what she’s been saying Jack is saying is consistent with what the school has been telling me, she just couldn’t hear that. It’s odd. If Scott came home telling me things like Jack’s telling her, I would be in contact with the school. If the school was telling me things that were at odds with what Scott was telling me, that would signal to me that I needed to be careful with how I questioned him, and sift the story very carefully to see what could be accounting for it.

It is so interesting the connections people make in their minds. I think this sort of unconscious ‘logic of the unreasoning’ is a common theme in humans and probably is at the root of many of the world’s conflicts. This thing with Karol is a case in point. It is not reasonable for her to be angry with me personally, but it seems logical to her. I have not hit her son. My son has not hit her son when they’ve been under my watch. If I were a day care operator and this was happening while the kids were in my care, it may be reasonable for her to be angry with me. If I had criticized or impugned her kid it would be reasonable for her to be angry with me. If the school were validating that Scott is a behavior problem who is hurtful to other children and I were refusing to acknowledge that, that would be ‘denial’. Children in conflict does not mean that adults have to be adversarial: I was and remain a good friend to a woman in St. Louis whose son did target Connor (and unlike this case with Jack, it was clearly obvious to everyone concerned—preschool teacher and director and his mother herself)--because of the simple fact that SHE wasn’t hurting Connor, and she was not directly responsible each time her child hit mine. Yet it appears to seem reasonable to Karol that I’m a legitimate recipient for her anger. Perhaps she understood the conciliatory tone at the meeting as a ‘promise’ that ‘it wouldn’t happen again’, and feels I’ve failed to honor the terms. I’m often surprised though at the leaps in associations people make, and then the strength of the emotions that result.

It’s sort of sad, because Jack’s one of the few people Scott wants to have for his birthday party, and it doesn’t sound too likely they’ll let him come. He wasn’t in school for the last 3 days (after the latest bloody nose), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same logic of illogic applies: We’re to blame for Jack’s not getting to have his last 3 days of school. I have a feeling this may not be over, and there may be reverberations depending on whatever and however she talks about this to her friends. This school is a very small community, and since it’s a k-8 we’re going to know each other for a very long time.

Hopefully time will show her (and me) that Scott’s not mass murderer material.


crazymumma said...

I think a meeting of parents , teacher and principal is in order here to clear this up.

excavator said...

Hi, crazymumma!

The story here is from the past, May/June 2006. I used it as a story to illustrate accusation and truth.

It ended in an uneasy stability. I had called to ask Karla for her e-mail so we could keep 'talking'. She said we could do that, however ended up hanging up on me without giving it to me. End of discussion.

The first time I saw her when the fall session 2007 started she pretended to not see me. Later we got as far as "hello".

The issue is moot now anyway since I removed Scott from that school and put him in one that's less traditional. He seems to be doing well there, so far (cautiously optimistic)