Context Is Everything

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.”


The See-Through Dress

          Other people don’t see my daughter.  They see a generic teenager.  The shop clerks follow her in stores expecting she will steal and the waitresses sigh expecting she won’t leave a tip.  Her teachers don’t see her either. They don’t see the Jane Austen heroine she is.  Someone who flaunts social conventions and is stubborn, flawed, artistic, loyal and loving.  Teachers do not have time or patience for revolutionaries.  They don’t want an Anne of Green Gables, a Romana or an Elizabeth Bennett unless they are neatly packaged in a book, able to be admired from afar, glorified as unconventional, reduced to nothing more than a convention and complete with a happy ending. 
            It was not the first PHONE CALL I had received from the Vice-Principal about Laura.  And my prior tendency to defend her rather than apologize and be obliging may have accounted for the tone of her voice.  She said they believed Laura was a leader but was leading the other students to be disruptive.  Could I come in to have A TALK?  “They” were Ann, the Vice-Principal and Scott, the new Middle School director.  I had hoped that when Scott started off the year he might be the one who would appreciate Laura for who she was, but that was not to be.  Within a month I had received a PHONE CALL about how Laura had defied his refusal to allow her to accompany her friend, Liz,  to see the school nurse during study hall.  He believed this was a direct challenge to his authority.  When we got into the PROBLEM it seems that Laura could not see any reason why she could not accompany Liz to the nurse, he couldn’t provide a good reason and so she went.  He continued that he could not provide every student with a reason for every decision and order.  Couldn’t she just do what he told her?
           I responded with sympathy, “I’ve thought the same thing myself.  Sometimes it would really make things so much easier.”
           Then I told him that Laura thinks for herself and is loyal to her friends. I would discuss with her that she should consider his position and responsibilities for keeping the Middle School orderly and safe.  If what she did had consequences at school then so be it.  I would not go further.  I would not do his job for him.   Not the response he wanted.
            I went in to TALK.  It was near the end of the school year and Laura would be leaving the school and starting high school the following year.  Why so late in the year?  Couldn’t they just hold on a little longer?
          “We are concerned about some of the choices Laura is making.” Ann said.
          Translation:  Laura is not doing what we want her to do.
          “What choices?”
          “She is not making productive use of her time and interrupts other students when they are working.”
          “Could you give me an example?”
          “Well,” Scott said, “We just want to make sure that the end of the school year goes smoothly for everyone.  And we want Laura to participate in that.”
           I have my issues with that type of expression. Even lawyers aren’t that  intentionally vague and convoluted.
          “What choices?  I thought you said she was a leader.”
          “Yes, and that is what concerns us.  The other students look to her and we don’t believe that she always sets a good example.”
          Translation:  The other students look to her and are being independent, too.
          We went back and forth for a while.  I didn’t see the problem. I was even willing to concede that it was entirely my fault and failing that I could not see the problem.  Which is when they brought up THE SEE-THROUGH DRESS.  Scott mentioned it first. 
          “I won’t even go into what the students have been saying about the see-through dress that Laura wore on the trip to New York.”
          That has got to be one of the best sentences ever uttered by a middle school administrator to a student’s mother.   There’s rumor, innuendo, a see-through dress and absolutely no information.  It is perfect.  At the same time I reveled in its perfection I was thinking “You’ve go to be kidding,”  I should just walk out,  “you better not be getting any mental visions about Laura in this dress, what did the students say?” 
          I said, “Laura, doesn’t own a see-through dress.”
          A bit more discussion revealed that the offending dress was the white cotton baby doll dress with black trim that Laura had gotten just before the trip.   I had seen the dress.  It was cute.  To my knowledge it did not have any see-through properties.
          “She was wearing it with red underwear.”  Ann added.
          Now Laura may be and do a lot of things.  She may be a rebellious teenager.  She may have her scrapes with the powers that be.  She may want body piercings and tattoos, but I know my girl.  She would NEVER wear red underwear with a white dress.  I said as much.  They said I should talk to the teacher that had been on the trip.
          It was not long after that Ann was standing in the middle of the road in a long white cotton skirt directing traffic at dismissal with the sun behind her.