Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Last week I had an epic 3 and 1/2 hour IEP meeting. My husband, a federal judge who isn’t working because of the government shutdown, came with me. Also around the pushed together classroom tables: Milo’s teacher, his Exceptional Education (EC) teacher, the Principal, the Assistant Principal,  The IEP coordinator, the school’s occupational therapist, the district’s behavior specialist, the Director of Exceptional Education for the district, a behavioral consultant for the district and the Positive Behavior coordinator for the district.  We were one shy of a dozen. All because Milo doesn’t fit the mold of the public school student. Oh hell, Milo doesn’t fit any mold of any kind any where, ever.  His school year was a disaster. The eleven of us were there to fix it.

The first hour and a half followed the basic IEP meeting template:

listing Milo’s strengths — he’s funny, he’s social, he’s smart.

checking in on his progress — his perfectionism is squashing his ability to learn. His mood swings and paranoia are causing terrifying, sudden outbursts. He is alienating his peers and tiring his teachers. The administration is at a loss. P.E. is a disaster.

articulating expectations — I am worried he is missing so much instruction that he will fail the 4th grade.  I don’t understand what the crisis response plan is, and what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to consequences and or punishment.

The behavior experts who have observed Milo weighed in.  There was a decision to start over – re-evaluate him in the classroom and make a new plan with an emphasis on prevention. This was great news. Everyone agreed that preventing Milo’s explosions is the best way to help him stay in class and receive the instruction he needs to pass the 4th grade.  Relief.

Then my husband left to pick up Milo and our daughter B. That’s when the gloves came off.  One of the representatives from the District asked me about my “other” concerns and I told the truth, that I don’t trust the Principal.   She asked me why. So I explained. The room got very quiet. The half height table and child sized chairs seemed to shrink further and the grown ups expand.  I shot a quick look at the desk under the window thinking there would be a bottle that said “Drink Me.” My voice rose. My voice fell. I told the truth. She had called CPS. She has been threatening to send Milo to the isolated E-D (emotionally disturbed) classroom in a different school since the end of 2nd grade. She punishes him instead of supports him.

The Principal said that she only wants to work with and for Milo. I told her that she was all light and no heat. That it’s easy to say that you’re on Milo’s side but that she rarely puts the odds in Milo’s favor.   Of all the overburdened people in that through–the-looking-glass-meeting, she was the only one to give a speech about how hard her job is.

She and I were equally concerned with the crisis response plan. But not for the same reason.  She wanted to know what to do when he got out of control and what her options were. Specifically, when can she send him home.  I wanted to know if it could be mandated thats he stay away from Milo, particularly when he is in crisis.

The thing that sets Milo apart from so many other difficult kids is that he can be violent. He can be scary. He’s large and solid and when he’s furious it’s like he has the strength of Hercules. He can resist a 6 foot tall, young, in shape, male inclusion specialist. Everyone in that room who has worked closely with Milo knows this, many have seen it. And yet only the  Principal seemed truly afraid of Milo. Not just afraid, but repulsed.

I’ve always been someone who thinks that a male writer CAN create a believable female character. That a woman can coach football without having played it, that anyone is up to any job.  I’ve whispered to many radio hosts without ever having hosted a radio show myself. And I swear by my work. BUT, and this is a big but, and I know that some of you will have your rotten tomatoes in hand, so I’m prepared to duck,  Milo’s principal doesn’t have kids. And I think that’s the problem. Even though she has spent a career surrounded by kids, when I listen to her talk about kids, there is a sense that they are not fully real, but concepts. She appears to be missing the connection to their embodied self. Not their snot or tears,  not the weight of them, or their endless questions or insatiable appetites, but their copious, relentless need. Even while they sleep, while you sleep, they are with you, on top of you, holding your quiet mind and your imagination in check.  As a parent, you cannot shake your child. You cannot shake YOUR child, the specifics of your child, their smell, their charm, their idiosyncrasies. Their crazy.

Isn’t the theory of hate that it is predicated on depersonalization. It’s hard not to feel for someone you know, someone who is like you, someone you can relate to, some who isn’t a concept — Jew, Arab — but a person with a name, a fingerprint, a sway to their back, a curve of their ear. Empathy and compassion require details.

Milo is mine. I made him. I am responsible for his fleshiness, his brown eyes, his loquaciousness, his anxiety and his insomnia. It’s my job to carry him as far through this life and I have the strength for the journey. To do that I have to know what makes him uncomfortable, I have to know what he eats, what he weighs, what makes him cry, and panic and scream. What delights and surprises him.  No child should be considered a concept — smart, hyper-active, compliant, athletic. But the crazy ones, really, truly need to be individually defined. So they can be individually helped, and educated, and loved.

Milo is real to me.

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7 thoughts on “Ceci n’est pas une pipe

  1. I agree with you — wholeheartedly. The only thing that’s paralyzing me about this post is that your IEP lasted that long and involved that many people and you endured it at all. My hat — and pipe’s off to you.

  2. I am with you in spirit on your journey as I read your posts but there is a part of me that needs to play devil’s advocate. I look at the enormous amount of manpower it requires to educate your child, at the amount of inhibition it places on the educational experience of other children and I ask- aren’t there other opportunities for Milo to be socialized and educated? Why must Milo have a traditional classroom experience if that environment is not conducive to his needs? I WOULD struggle if my child were in Milo’s class and his needs preempted the learning process for my child. Please answer me gently as I do not mean these questions confrontationally but rather as a problem solving mechanism. All the best to you and your journey.

    • No, no explosion. It’s a good and fair question. And I expect that were I the parent of one of Milo’s classmates, I too would be frustrated with Milo’s presence in my child’s classroom. But, 85% of the time Milo is just a pain in the ass like many other 9 and 1/2 year old boys. He’s only an over the top disturbance 15% of the time. True, those aren’t great numbers, but those numbers surely qualify him for the public education the state constitution promises to all children. (And all means ALL.) Indeed, there may be a better place for Milo to receive an education, but if it exists in the public school system, I cannot find it, nor has a public school official told me about it. Perhaps there is a private school that is more suitable for Milo, but I cannot afford private school tuition. I would welcome any suggestions as to how to educate Milo such that he does not cause any other child discomfort.

  3. I have seen a principal act like this about a child during an IEP – an autistic child, whom she talked about as if he were an object – and it was astounding. I don’t know if she had children (I was a law student in a clinic advocating for the kid and his parent, so wasn’t familiar with all of the intimate details), but what was clear to me is that she had NO tolerance for any child who wasn’t “normal.” Her disdain was palpable – it was as if she thought the child was disabled just to be a pain in her ass and all she wanted to do was keep him in self-contained classroom all year b/c it would make her life easier – nevermind that he was in K and had emerging language skills,etc. She did not give a shit about what was best for the child – he was not an object – if a concept, then it was “a pain in her ass.” I will never forget that meeting. It was also a jam-packed, high-volatility IEP meeting. I called her out on her dehumanizing comments and attitude, but mostly I just loathed her for being so mean-spirited. Anyway, I’m rambling, but your story reminded me of that experience. FWIW, what would have been a legal morass and lots of blood, sweat and tears for mom and kid was resolved at a clandestine meeting at a corporate-chain restaurant, over lunch, by transferring the child to a school with a more empathetic principal. I’m not saying that’s the solution for Milo, but it was what worked for that family. God, that woman was evil.

  4. I had a very similar experience with a principal at my son’s grade school. She had two children that were off the charts brilliant. When my son came along with some learning challenges, she immediately wanted to find another school for him. There was no middle ground for her, no working within the system that we had before us to find a solution that allowed him to stay with the friends and teachers he loved. To say I was stunned by her response is putting it mildly.

  5. Oh, Susie. Your writing hits me right in the chest and knocks the wind out of me. Yes, everybody can do any job (well, sort of), but also: everybody has shortcomings. Otherwise they’d be perfect. Not having children is a shortcoming for a principal. Having a shortcoming doesn’t mean she can’t do a good job, but it does mean that she lives in a different land than you. And you put it so beautifully: their copious, relentless need. The experience of meeting that need, of really feeling it, with love, with agony, for a decade or two, it changes a person. So you’ve been changed in this way and she hasn’t.

    But see, I got off track. I meant to say about your writing, thank you for sharing it. I like getting the wind knocked out of me. It reminds me how special it is to be able to breathe.

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