Dear My Kid’s Teacher,
First of all, I want to thank you. You have the most important job of all the jobs. I can’t imagine that responsibility. Every year, you have 75 brains come through your classroom, each one dependent upon you to make their journey down their respective academic paths either an exciting adventure or a dreary, endless death march. Meanwhile, you’re also charged with keeping them physically safe and emotionally validated. You have 75 precious snowflakes and 75 sets of parents who want to be sure you know that they will accept nothing less than perfection from you because their tax dollars pay your salary, dammit. And you get THREE MONTHS OF VACATION and weekends and evenings off! What more do you want??
We aren’t those parents.
I mean, we pay taxes and everything, but we also aren’t assholes.
My mom is a teacher. She teaches English in a small rural high school, in a low income area. Her job is hard, and for the most part, thankless. She works all the time. She spends most of her “three months of vacation” (which is closer to a month and a half) creating lesson plans and attending seminars and completing in-service requirements. She spends most of her “weekends off” grading mountains of papers. She makes corrections, returns them to the students to give them an opportunity to fix their mistakes, and then grades them again. She agonizes over students who are reading below a high-school level, and spends hours finding reading material that will appeal to them and encourage them to read more. She has to deal with parents who want their kids to get good grades no matter how little effort they put into their homework, and also with parents who genuinely don’t think that their child needs to learn any of the things she is teaching. She tries with every bone in her little body to manage a classroom of students who don’t want to be there. And in her tidy pantsuits and tasteful scarves, she succeeds. Year after year, she manages to get a class of kids to walk across a stage and accept their diplomas. Whether they leave that auditorium to move into a dorm room or to work on the family farm, they have read Hamlet and they understand the use of disease imagery to convey corruption in Denmark’s ruling class.
Because I have seen the backstage work firsthand, I know how hard your job is. I also know that you wouldn’t put up with it unless you really cared about the outcome.
This year, at one of your third grade desks, you have my Mortimer. Mortimer, as I’m sure you’ve learned in the month you have had him in your classroom, presents a unique set of challenges. Having dealt with these challenges for approximately 3,160 days, I’m sympathetic to your situation. I only have two children to manage at a time, and Mortimer sometimes is enough to make me want to quit my job as a mother, move to the beach under an assumed name and make a living selling snow cones from a bicycle cart. So I get it.
I know every parent says that about their snowflakes, but this one really is something else.
That brain, that beautifully complex, wrinkly brain, works in ways that remain a mystery even to me. I know everything that anyone could know about that kid. I could pick his head out of a lineup by the smell of his hair. I can tell that he’s sick by the way his eyes look. I know, without asking, how his day went by the look on his face as he walks to the car. The child is my rib, my flesh, my heart. But even I don’t completely understand him.
He sees the world through a different lens that you or I do. Imagine for a minute that you suddenly were placed in just a slightly different dimension. Everyone says the same words, but the intent is just a little bit off. Noises seem louder to you, but no one else seems to notice it or be bothered by it. Things seem to come more easily to everyone else, like remembering to take your lunchbox to the cafeteria with you in order to eat its contents. And yet everyone has such a hard time understanding simple concepts like the makeup of DNA and JK Rowling’s Latin-based wordplay. You don’t understand why everyone else seems to enjoy chasing each other and screaming. You don’t understand why grownups get so mad when you’re just trying to explain the reason you broke a rule. Imagine trying to succeed by the standards of a culture that is a complete mystery to you.
He’s a smartass. He’s a know-it-all. He can recite a paragraph of text back to you after reading it once. But when you say, with frustration, “I just told you to get your library books, why didn’t you do it?” he’ll shrug and say, “What can I say? I’m forgetful.” He isn’t forgetful, not at all. It’s just that that tidbit of information didn’t make it through his filter.
It’s a lot to ask, I know, that you adopt the same coping skills we have at home. We’re working on teaching him those skills so that he can do it himself, like carrying around a small notebook to write down assignments and real-world details he needs to remember. Before he leaves the house, we repeat the same thing every day: listen to every word the teacher says, keep your hands to yourself, be aware of your surroundings. We’re working on it every day, but he’s still relatively brand-new in the world. Eight years is barely any time at all. I have socks older than that.
I’m scared that if it’s this much of a struggle in third grade, that he’ll give up before high school. I’m scared that he’s going to spend so much time in detention that he starts to resent school. I’m scared that he’s going to start seeing teachers as enemies instead of allies, and the classroom as just one more place where he doesn’t quite belong. I’m scared that he will get so frustrated by trying to remember the rules that he decides that it isn’t quite worth it. I’m scared that he’ll give up before he gets to the really good stuff.
This is a kid who NEEDS to love school. We, the people of the universe, need for kids like Mortimer to want to finish grad school and receive a grant to fund his cancer research. I know it’s hard to see right now, through the melted ice cream that he hasn’t noticed has dried in a sticky mess across his chin because he was too busy shrinking to the size of an atom to imagine what chlorophyll looks like up close, but the greatness is in there.
I’m not asking you to excuse his disruptions. I’m asking you to help him understand why they’re inappropriate.
I’m not asking you to never correct him. I’m asking you to explain why that particular rule exists.
I’m not even asking that you like him, though as his mother it’s hard for me to fathom that anyone wouldn’t. I’m just asking that you give him a chance.
Don’t write him off as a bad kid with a behavior problem and a crappy attitude. He’s not. His “backtalk” doesn’t come from a place of malice, but because on his home planet, it’s perfectly acceptable -vital, even- to explain your point of view thoroughly, even to a grownup who is busy with 30 other kids. Yes, I realize that it seems disrespectful, but if we back up and look at the long term implications of that behavior, I’m grateful that he knows, at eight years old, that his words matter. Yes, he has very little respect for authority, but it’s because he doesn’t understand the concept of a social hierarchy or the unequal distribution of power. Is that frustrating? Infuriating? ABSOLUTELY. But it also means that his is a brain that actually believes that we are all created equal. If you can get past how angry it makes you, it’s really kind of beautiful.
I don’t expect him to win any citizenship awards. I don’t expect him to get straight A’s, even. I fully anticipate many, many conferences this year. It’s fine. I’ll review those rules with him every single morning, we’ll role play situations in which he can practice human behavior and societal norms, and I’ll take away Minecraft and youTube videos of other people playing Minecraft until he stops pulling out a book and reading in the middle of math class. I’ll do everything I can on my end to make your year as Mortimer’s teacher memorable in a good way. There are perks, I promise. I’m that mom who realizes that her kid isn’t easy, and so tries to make up for it by sending you muffins and helping out with class parties. I’m trying to be charming enough that you’ll give my kid a chance even though he makes your job a million times harder.
He’s not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.
Just please. Please. Please don’t give up on my boy.