First

I’ve posted a version of this piece at least once before, so if it sounds familiar, that’s why; it always feels worth saying again this time of year…

I still forget at this time of year that I don’t have to go back to school, so deeply set is the habit. As the emails begin to appear signaling that parents’ thoughts have shifted to school, tutoring, coaching, etc., I imagine their various children in this first week of September. A few will be relieved to have the days once again filled with reliable schedule, with crowds of others, and with new assignments, but will also grow frustrated that they can’t go faster, learn more, stop reviewing. Others still give themselves over to the trick of excitement in new clothes, notebooks, backpacks, only to realize after a few weeks, days, or even hours, that it wasn’t worth it. They remember how poorly the hours in chairs suit them and begin, that early, to look forward to June. And for others the dread sets in days or weeks before the first bell rings.

Most would rather be somewhere else, I’ve found, and as a society we’re so flummoxed by how to make it otherwise for them while still convincing ourselves that they’re ready and safe and growing and learning that we find it difficult to acknowledge it as so. Kids know, too, that we don’t know how to hear what they’re saying, so many of them pretend it’s OK. They make every effort to contort themselves such that they fit, survive, look happy.

It’s no secret that I advocate for taking kids out of school when such an alternative would suit them and when family/community circumstances allow, but what I’m thinking about this morning as the buses roll by outside is a smaller step, no less critical: the simple act of making it possible to acknowledge how things are for actual, specific people, even when it’s inconvenient.  I remind myself at this time of year in particular to begin – when I’m across the table from parents of struggling children or struggling children themselves, as well as in the rest of my days where I’m not a professional helper but just a part of the human workings – with a commitment to create an atmosphere in which the truth as it exists from any perspective (particularly that of a child or teen) can be told and heard in such a way that it is recognized as worth telling.  I think of this exchange with a 12 year-old I knew several years ago:

I asked how things were going in class. “Fine,” Eric said. There was enough reluctance in his tone that I waited, suspecting there was more, and he continued. “I mean, I think the teacher doesn’t like me, because I raise my hand and she looks right at me but doesn’t call on me.” I waited again, and he looked over at me, waiting for me to respond, which I did only when I was fairly certain there wasn’t any more he wanted to say.

“Sounds frustrating,” I said. He nodded, taking a breath and looking down at the table. “I have a couple of ideas that might help,” I continued. “Do you want to hear them?”

“Yeah.” He answered so quickly I suspected he hadn’t actually considered whether or not he wanted to hear them. I thought I better check.

“Really?” His eyes snapped up at this question. I continued: “Because I don’t really want to tell you my ideas unless you’re interested in hearing them.” He looked at me for another moment before he spoke.

“No, I actually do,” he said, as though a little surprised to discover this.

I told him first that he may indeed be right, that his teacher didn’t like him, but I thought it was also possible that it was something else. We talked for a while about a few different possible explanations for what seemed to be happening, then came up with a couple of ideas about how he might handle it. Then we got back to work on the math he was there to work on.

This is the kind of conversation that’s missing from the school and learning experience of many young people. The simple act of recognition – whether of frustration, perceived injustice or exclusion, boredom, confusion – allows a young person to begin the process of managing a situation and working through it. When the experience doesn’t get recognized, that process never gets off the ground. Eric’s “Fine” was the way he, without knowing it, checked with adults to find out whether or not they really wanted to know the answer to a question. We roll past various versions of “Fine” more times than we realize, and never get to “I think my teacher doesn’t like me,” much less making it all the way to what to do about it. And spending a year in the world of “my teacher doesn’t like me,” or any other thing that upsets or disrupts, with no way to manage it, can have an enormous impact on what gets learned and experienced that year. And the next.

So that’s where I start from this morning.  For me it helps a little with the worry I always feel most acutely in early September for the many who aren’t heard, some of whom will find their way in spite of it, others of whom will not.  This year I’ll help kids with math and spelling and reading and such when they want that kind of help, I’ll read and recommend books and materials that shed new light and perspective, I’ll work with parents to navigate pathways for their children that suit and support them, and I’ll write about what I see, but first always I’ll try to remember to make room for the truth, to be ready for questions I may not be able to answer, problems I may not be able to solve, insights that change my mind about things. And we’ll take it from there.

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