The school called at 7:58 a.m., but I missed it. It was Mr. Shelton, the disciplinary principal. I returned his call and was sent to voice mail. The phone rang again at 12:36 p.m. and Mr. Shelton asked me to come up to the school.
When I got there, he met me in the lobby and directed me into his office. There was Ben, sitting quietly, looking as if he had either recently cried or was about to. Also present was his resource teacher Mr. Boss, and a police officer.
Mr. Shelton slid a paper across the desk at me. It was a Math test with a small pencil drawing of a pirate cutlass in the upper right hand corner.
As I had been in the office not three weeks before for this same incident, I turned on Ben. "Ben, why did you do this?" Following the first incident I had had a lengthy discussion with Ben, both in the office and at home, about today's climate, and how teachers are responsible for hundreds of kids and are obligated to follow up on anything and everything that might be considered a threat, no matter who the student, no matter how trivial. "I just...did," he shrugged a little sheepishly.
What is the matter with this teacher that she takes a pencil drawing of a pirate sword straight to the principal? What is behind this? Yes, Ben gets frustrated in Math and, yes, he sometimes expresses that frustration in sullenness and responses that this teacher labels as 'rude'. But...how did we get THERE to begin with? The frustration, the sullenness? Certainly we didn't start out on Algebra Day One with this attitude and behavior. Where is the teacher who will reach out, teach and re-teach with humor and patience? Does this teacher truly feel threatened by my 5-foot nothing child and his pencil drawing of a pirate's cutlass????
Mr. Shelton went on to say that he had actually called me for a second incident: another student, a reputable student--MY child is NOT reputable?--had come to him and said that Ben threatened him by saying, "I'm going to murder you." This was somewhat more serious, so I turned to Ben again and he denied it. "I didn't say that, Mom."
Today's language is laced with violence. "I'm gonna punch you." "I'm gonna beat the shit out of you." Very common, even in our household, where there are no guns or weapons. The term 'murder' did not sound like language that Ben would use.
"Ben, what did this kid do to upset you?" Ben related a story from his history class where a student was leading a review session, asking questions and passing out candy for correct answers. Ben explained that he usually opted out of these review sessions and sat and drew, but today he decided to participate. He said he answered three questions correctly, and the student in charge didn't give him candy. He said that he named a Hindu god that he had heard about from an adventure movie but since it wasn't on the review sheet, the kid denied him correctness. He said he answered correctly the name of one of the holy cities, but the kid-in-charge gave candy to a girl who responded with, "I'm don't know for sure, but it begins with an 'A'..." Ben went on to say that the kid-teacher kept calling on his friends and some of them left the classroom with pockets FULL of candy.
Who set this up? What TEACHER allowed this blatant opportunity for bullying to take place in his classroom? Where a KID is in charge of the review session? Where a teenager decides who is allowed to answer, who is right and who is wrong, whom to reward and not to reward? Really? REALLY??? And I thought of my child, who stepped up and forward, in good faith and innocence, to participate in this.
I turned to Mr. Shelton. "So...in cases such as this, when you have 'he said, he said' situations, what is the usual outcome?"
During their public school years, I listened to both of my children's encounters with bullying. Depending on the seriousness of the incident, I would recreate the situation and replace my child's hurt response with a funny, off-the wall reaction that seemed to lighten things up and send them to bed with a smile. If it sounded more serious, I would tell them, "You don't have to put up with that. Do you want me to come to school? If I don't, then it will continue and you'll have to live with it. If I do, then you may have to deal with some sort of revenge after the bullies get in trouble." I felt that this was a realistic approach to rampant bullying that the school simply cannot manage. I visited the school for bullying issues only twice.
Mr. Shelton completely sidestepped this and once again slid the knife-adorned math paper towards me. "I SHOULD have suspended him for this the first time, but YOU said YOU would handle it."
"Oh, so now it's going to be MY fault because I didn't discipline him in a way that kept it from happening again???? You turned it over to me and I handled in the best way I knew how. I told you then that as a former teacher, I completely understood that teachers can't take chances. I sat right here and talked to Ben about it extensively and again at home. I'm surprised that it happened again, but it's not because, as you think, I didn't handle it properly!"
Mr. Shelton then went with that age-old deflection: "Why are you yelling at me? I'm not yelling at you."
"Because I feel like it and let's not change the subject and make this about me. It's about HIM!" I gestured to Ben.
And then I took a breath. I looked out the window and at the cop and Ben's resource teacher and back to Mr. Shelton and said, "What is the consequence for this?"
"Five days suspension."
"What? FIVE days? Mr. Shelton, it's a drawing! Five days? I can understand one...or two even, but five? He'll never recover from that. He's struggling now!"
Stony-faced Mr. Shelton said, "He can make up the work."
"He can't keep up with the work NOW! This will put him so far behind that he'll never catch up. You know his grades! He has Ds and Fs!!"
I told another breath. "Let me ask you something. When there is an actual fight, a physical altercation, where two students intend bodily harm on each other, and they accomplish that with actual punches and blows, what happens then? What's the consequence?"
"They get five days."
"The same consequence for fighting and for a drawing of a sword??? There's a HUGE difference between an actual fight and a pencil drawing of a weapon on a math paper!"
Old Stony-Face replied, "I see no difference."
I looked at him, and then I crossed the line: "I've got you backed into a corner, don't I? This doesn't make sense and you know it, but because you've said it, you can't back down, can you?" I looked down at Ben and said, "I'm sorry. I just mishandled this. You're getting five days because I yelled at him and backed him into a corner and I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Mom," Ben said. "I love you, Mom."
I looked back at the sanctimonious person of authority, who knew he was wrong, and asked, "When does this suspension start? Today or tomorrow?"
He looked at Ben and asked, "When do you want it to start? Today or tomorrow, Ben?"
Are you really going to take the chance of sending this dangerous threat-to-others back to CLASS????
Ben said, "Today." So we packed up his books and left.
I have never been a Mama Bear type, never sided with my child against an educator. I've always believed that my children need to reap the consequences of what they sow and learn from their actions. But this is so much different. If I am not on his side, then who is? Certainly not his teachers. Not his resource teacher, Mr. Boss, who said NOTHING in Ben's defense during the office discussion. Does Ben see that the deck is stacked against him, the odds are not and have never been in his favor? He is but a freshman and I know he wants an education, but he is struggling. How can he continue against such adversarial conditions? I can only imagine the discouragement he must face every single day. His poor grades, peers who mock him and tease him, and teachers and administrators who are so quick to put him out of the classroom and out of school like like some of misfit, out of sight and out of mind.
We both cried the whole way home. I watched Ben in the rear-view mirror. Every time he seemed to be getting control of himself, he'd come out with another choking sob. He said, "I hate that school! I hate the kids! I'm not going back! I'm done with that school! I want to quit!!"
He is 16. He could quit if he wanted to. How in the world will I ever be able to convince him to go back and why would he ever want to? Oh, the damage done here.
After awhile he said, "I should have stayed at Connections Academy [the online school he attended the year before]."
I said, "But Ben, you were lonely at home."
We talked a little about the drawing and he said, "I know I shouldn't have done that. I take full responsibility for that."
And then he said, "Well, one thing I learned. I learned not to like Mr. Shelton." We cried some more.
If that is all you learned, my child, then I guess there's still hope. In your innocence, you still believe that the world is a fair place, and that your teachers are your friends, and that everyone is still good at heart. But what I fear you will eventually learn is that not only does the school hate you, but the world hates you, too. My five-foot-zero-inches-at-16-years-old child, as non-athletic and as geeky as the day is long, with no friends, NO friends at all, besides his dog, and his drawing pad. Walking through life, alone, trying to make the best of his physical differences, his unique personality and his interests--a funny child, a sensitive and loving child, a smart child, a gifted artist, but absolutely and undeniably alone in this world, frustrated, confused and sad.