By Tiffany Duncan
Things fall apart
One Wednesday morning in the first week of December of the second year, as I dropped Andrew off at school, one of the teachers pulled me aside and asked if he had told me of the problems he was having with his friends Neil and James. I knew that Andrew loved Neil and Neil was the single most attractive feature of the school for him. I also knew that he quite liked James but that his feelings had been hurt because a couple of play dates with him had been cancelled. “James doesn’t want to be my friend,” he had said. I had tried to explain to him that it was James’s mother who had cancelled because of some urgent problems and that James had nothing to do with it. At any rate, James’s mother and I understood each other and the kids, and we knew we would make it up. We knew the two of them had a penchant for butting heads and quibbling. It didn’t seem particularly alarming.
That morning the teacher informed me that Andrew and James both wanted to play with Neil and that sometimes led to disappointment for Andrew. “He can’t handle disappointment very well,” she said. (In dire contrast to the rest of humanity, I suppose.) She also added that she and the other teachers were at times quite saddened by how upset Andrew got over losing Neil to James, as it were. She suggested play dates. I told her James’s mom and I were trying to arrange that but that Neil’s mom did not return my calls.
That very afternoon the same teacher dropped a bomb, totally unrelated to anything we had talked about in the morning. “Andrew does not listen to the teachers. We have tried everything but he completely shuts us out,” she said. And then: “Do you think Andrew has trouble understanding things?”
I was taken aback. I asked if she could give me examples of Andrew not understanding things. She mentioned that they had asked him to put on his jacket before going outside and he had ignored the request. She said there were other examples but she couldn’t think of any right then. Had we noticed anything at home? She said that the “learning specialist” teacher agreed with her that maybe Andrew had “comprehension problems.” They would give me examples at first opportunity. “We can’t understand it,” she said. “He knows so many things…!”
The alarms in my head—no, my whole being—suddenly went off with deafening force. There was something dreadfully wrong. I kept Andrew at home the next day. He kept throwing anxious glances at me to see if I was mad at him.
By next Monday morning, Andrew’s list of problems had multiplied. The “learning specialist” had determined that he not only had comprehension, but social, behavioral, and developmental problems too. (A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and little kids make excellent surfaces for attaching labels.) “Can we talk about it?” I wanted to know. “Yes, yes. As soon as we can schedule a parent teacher conference the third week of January,” I was told.
Imagine that! Being told—out of the blue, after over a year of attending school—that your child has serious problems, the details of which will be discussed—nay, revealed—in about two months. This is the stuff of which parental nightmares are made.
The only answer I got when I asked for examples of Andrew’s “problems,” was that he did not listen to the teachers. Sure enough, he was at a point of not even making eye contact with them. (“An understandable response to a hostile environment,” his old teacher said later.) But why had we not received any communication about any of this before? When did this problem start? The teachers mumbled incoherently to my questions. They looked pale and frazzled. Clearly, Andrew had driven them to their wits’ end. I think they completely lost any semblance of professionalism. (Five year olds are not without their own desperate measures!)
As for Andrew’s developmental progress, we in fact had been satisfied enough. He was beginning to read and write easy words, and make simple additions and subtractions. He had decent attention span. He sounded out words religiously (this we owed to the school). He had a good vocabulary in English and liked learning words in other languages. He was physically coordinated and musically inclined. He was protective of younger kids and generally kind. He knew the dinosaurs, planets, and the Beatles. He even made incisive political commentary: “I would like to have a talk with George Bush and explain to him what war is.”
Just to be on the safe side we got a bunch of K-1 workbooks for “diagnostic” purposes. Friends and family (many of whom are seasoned educators) took turns working with him on those. Finally we just let the poor kid go. There was nothing wrong with him.
There was one development, however, that alarmed me. He was increasingly avoiding talking or listening to us, particularly on the subject of school. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said every time I, or even he himself, brought up some problem at school.