My first son has been with us now for 5 years, coming to us from Kazakhstan at age 8. His early years within his birth family were fraught with abuse and trauma, experiences that he recounted to us with chilling clarity. He's made a lot of progress vanquishing his demons through therapy, medication and time. Given all he's been through, it's no wonder that even now, his view of the world is more glass half empty than half full. In spite of his pessimism, our boy has come a long way and we are proud of his progress.
At 13, he's a funny, bright, good kid who has done well (OK, actually better than I expected) as he made the transition from elementary to middle school. I like to think I know him pretty well and I've kept a close eye on him since September, watching for signs of anxiety and/or triggers to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Change is so hard for kids with PTSD and our boy generally reacts with anger when stressed so I tried to be proactive. I met with his teachers to explain his diagnoses and accommodations. I talked with him about the new school's expectations. I've maintained close contact with his teachers and have been delighted to see that he's held it together in school, accepting correction without outbursts. Guess I let my guard down...and I totally misunderstood what happened next.
Our charter school requires tutoring after school for any kid who has a grade below 70% in an academic class. For our boy, that class was English (no surprise there since it's not his native language). He's been attending tutoring once a week after school, grumbling about it but steadily improving his grade. Last week, he got a certificate of improvement from his teacher, documenting a substantial increase in his grade. We made a fuss, hung up his certificate on the wall, and congratulated him on his hard work. He told me that he figured he could stop going to tutoring since he was doing so much better. I reminded him that he was still a couple of points from the magic number and he should talk with his teacher first. Well, the next tutoring day happened to be on a day when I had some oral surgery. While I was sawing logs in a medicated stupor at home, Craig picked up the kids from school...and Max didn't go to tutoring, telling his Dad the teacher had excused him. It was later that evening when Mom emerged from LalaLand and asked how the day went that the drama unfolded. It went like this:
Mom: How was tutoring, Max?
Max: I didn't have tutoring because...remember how my teacher said if I did better, I didn't have to go any more?
Mom: Oh, so you talked with your teacher and she excused you from tutoring?
Max: Uhhhh...remember how she said I was close to 70%? She did, Mom, I'm not lying!
Mom: So you actually talked with your teacher and she excused you from tutoring today, is that right?
Max: Uhhhh...I'm sure she said if I was close to 70, that was good enough...
Mom: OK, did you talk to your teacher about missing tutoring today, yes or no?
Max: Uhhhh....no, but...
Chorus of unhelpful siblings: Oooo, you're so busted! You're going down! You'll have an after school for sure!
Max: (now agitated) Shut up!!!! You're all stupid jerks and you don't know anything!
Mom: (shushing siblings with the Mom glare) Unfortunately, Max, your brother and sisters are right. If you skipped tutoring without permission, you'll get an after school detention tomorrow. The best thing to do is to talk to your teacher, explain that you made a mistake and accept responsibility for your error.
Max: (yelling) Not happening!!! Stupid school, stupid rules, I hate ELA. I'm not going to school ever again!!! You can't make me!!!!
Well, you get the picture. It went down hill from there, especially after the school called to confirm that he did in fact have a detention the next day. It was an evening from the bad old days, lots of yelling, swearing, tears and venom until he finally wore himself out and fell asleep. The next morning was only a little bit better but he did go to school (I might have said something about videogames disappearing from his life for eternity if he chose not to go to school). I was left scratching my head wondering why we had a total mega meltdown over this when he had been doing so well. I emailed his teacher and let her know what was up; he managed to talk with her and to accept her decision that the detention would be served. I picked him up after detention braced for more anger...but when he got in the car, he was actually in a good mood. HUH? Then he said...wait for it...
"I had a good day, Mom.
You know, detention wasn't so bad.
They didn't even hit me."
Sometimes I'm so dense...because I missed it. I forgot that inside my 13 year old there still lives a toddler who was beaten every day, called stupid every day, made to feel worthless every day. I forgot that he had never been to detention and so he expected the worst thing he could imagine. I forgot how when he first came to us, the intensity of his anger was a sure sign of the intensity of his fear.
I looked my son in the eye and said, "Max, I am so sorry. It never occurred to me that you thought they would hit you. No one at your school will ever hit you!" "It's against the law to hit kids here, right, Mom?" "Yes, son, it's against the law." "Detention was kind of boring..." "Well, that's the point, son...so let's both learn something from this and not go there again, OK?"
It's tricky, parenting kids with emotional baggage. They grow bigger and stronger...but the trauma remains, lurking just beneath the surface, the damage done to an innocent. Don't get me started on who I'd like to hit...