My son, William, is 14 – the age where saying “focus” in a certain way is the height of hilarity. So, when I received THE CALL from Jon, the Middle School Director, who without preliminaries blurted, “Your son drew a picture of a penis” the best I could muster was, “Oh?” My mind whirled with visions of taunting, sexual harassment, worse, etc. along with “you know a penis in Egyptian hieroglyphs means life” and “he probably got that from health class.” A penis in Middle School can be a serious matter, on the other hand it can be on par with “focus.” Context is everything. After oh? and a pause which was unacceptable to Jon, he asked, “Did you hear what I said?”
“Can you explain the circumstances?” I countered. I’ve always had success with answering a question with a question.
He sighed, heavily, that kind of exasperated sigh that conveyed “why do I waste my time?” then “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously. He showed it to another student who turned it into Beth.”
More reason for concern. No clue as to the other student’s gender and, of all my son’s teachers, Beth is the one teacher I would vote least likely to react well to a picture of penis in any situation. I looked at the clock. School ended for the day in less than half an hour. “Can you tell me what happened or I can come in? I’m five minutes away.”
“Fine. We’ll meet with Jeanne.” Jeanne is the principal.
“OK. I’ll be right there.” I tidied my desk, my heart pounding as I tried to conjure the scenario that led my son to draw a penis in school such that a teacher would see it and be offended. Thank goodness the school is only five minutes away. When I arrived they were all waiting for me – Jeanne, Jon, and my son looking, in that way only 14- year-olds can manage well, sheepish and defiant.
I sat in the chair reserved for me across from Jeanne as Jon handed me graph paper with a crude, seemingly hastily drawn though anatomically accurate male reproductive organ. “There’s a stick figure on the other side,” Jon added as explanation. I turned the paper over and, indeed, there was an even more crudely drawn figure of a person that resembled the finished product of a game of hangman. For some reason, in the category of “just in case,” I also noted that this particular stick figure did not have a penis. If I had been a computer this would have been the point where I melted down in confusion, but the human mind is capable of amazing calisthenics when receiving information piecemeal. Thus, bewildered at the connection, I looked up for clarification.
THE PARTY LINE: “The class was taking a standardized test in math (hence the graph paper – one mystery solved). William and Jack who were sitting next to each other in the back (probably not a good idea there) finished early and were passing a paper back and forth. Beth was moderating and as she came up to them Jack held up the paper with the picture of the penis and told Beth that William drew it (nice way to throw your friend under the bus). William did not deny it. Beth confiscated the paper and brought it to Jon.”
“We know he’s not a bad boy. We’re disappointed.” Jeanne said. “He knows it’s not appropriate to draw a penis in school. He has apologized to Beth.”
“Some of the girls could have seen it and we’re always concerned about possible sexual harassment. We want everyone to feel comfortable.” Jon added.
I nodded my agreement while he continued, “and we felt that this needed to be addressed promptly because there was another incident with Beth earlier in the day.”
“Oh, good, another incident,” I thought and looked at William who was now hanging his head down from sadness, embarrassment or mirth, I couldn’t tell.
When I looked back to Jon, he continued, “At lunch Beth sat with William and his friends and mentioned how she was having a busy day and said something like, “I’m doing too many things at once I feel like I have A- …, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?” obviously referring to ADD and William said, “A-S-S?””
Jon said this with a straight face so I didn’t burst out laughing like I wanted to, proud of my clever boy and wondering what Beth was doing sitting with a bunch of 8th grade boys making light of a serious condition anyway. I swallowed and ventured a glance at William who looked at me with an expression that said, in that way only 14-year-olds can manage well, “was I supposed to let an opportunity like that go by?”
Quickly recovering and embracing the gravity of the situation, I said, “Thank you for calling me in. I’m sure William understands that it’s not appropriate to do what he did.” I wanted to ask about the stick figure on the other side of the paper, but my curiosity was overwhelmed by the desire to end the conference, and time flies when you’re listening to riveting stories about your child.
I shook hands with Jon and Jeanne and gathered my recalcitrant son for the ride home. I made it all the way to the end of the school driveway before saying, in that way only mothers can manage well, “Well?”
THE REST OF THE STORY: “OK. So me and Jack (I wanted to correct “Jack and I” but decided facts were more important than grammar at that moment) had finished the test and had to wait for the other kids to finish, so he took a piece of graph paper that we had to figure out the problems and drew a stick figure and handed it to me and said, “here, I drew a picture of you” so I turned it over and drew a picture of “you know” and handed it back to him and said, “here, I drew a picture of YOU.””
I laughed then in spite of the near disaster averted. I told you, context is everything. My son was not a budding pervert (or artist). He is just a 14-year-old boy living in that world such beings inhabit, where they somehow understand each other and tolerate the rest of us who can only guess or remember what that world was like. I marveled at my son who allowed me a glimpse of that world again and the way he ruled within its confines.
“Beth wasn’t supposed to see it,” he finished.
“I’m sure she wasn’t.”