Where is that kid? I kept asking myself. I needed to leave to class by five, and he usually gets off the bus a little after four. Dinner was nearly ready, and I still hadn’t seen him.
His brothers were pretty sure he’d gotten off the bus, but he wasn’t answering when anyone called his name. And let me tell you I can make some noise when I need to.
Finally I went looking for him.
Opened his bedroom door to see him kneeling by his bed sobbing.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes I can read an entire story on my child’s face in a fraction of a second. I knew before he even reached into his pocket that he’d gotten in trouble at school.
How would I know that? This kid has never had so much as a tardy slip or a forgotten homework assignment in more than five years of public schooling.
But I knew. And my gut reaction was that I should put my arms around him, even before looking at the contract sheet he held out and assure him that whatever the paper said, it would be okay–that I knew he was a good kid, and that I’d be on his side, no matter what.
I wish I had. But I was so surprised–not one of my children has ever been in trouble at school before, and he is the last kid I’d expect to cause trouble–that my eyes flew right to the page.
And then the story came out.
Picture this: A group of ten-year-old boys, back at school after summer break, bragging on the playground about what they did over vacation. The topic of fireworks comes up and some kid says he lit off firecrackers and another kid calls him a liar and says firecrackers are illegal, you can’t buy them here, and my kid pipes up and says, “Yes you can. My uncle gave me some.”
“Nuh-uh, they’re illegal.”
“No they aren’t; I still have them.” (Note the logic here: “I couldn’t possibly have something that’s illegal; the safe, orderly world I know would never permit something like that to happen.”)
And suddenly everyone is interested in this conversation. Because now Kid X (and you all know Kid X–he’s the kid that comes up with the spectacular ideas for tricks to play during assemblies) is bugging my kid to prove it–in fact to hand some over, so Kid X can see if they are real.
My son says no way. After all, if Kid X wants them, they must be pretty cool to have.
But then Kid X offers him $5.
And obviously my kid doesn’t really know what to do with firecrackers, because he’s had them for nearly three months and never lit them off. But he knows what to do with $5. He knows that money is a precious commodity that Mom never has enough, and so she can’t shell out for Popcorn Friday or sign up for book orders like everyone else. So he agrees.
And then suddenly, the school is ablaze with rumors. Kid X, who had a lighter confiscated just the day before, has firecrackers. And he bought them from that Lybbert kid.
Mr. Garza, the school counselor hears about it, and brings the boys in. My kid hands over the $5 and explains the transaction. He’s totally bewildered by all the attention. What’s the big deal? But then people are talking expulsion but the principal is out of town, so we don’t really know what will happen, so go home and stew about this all weekend, and we’ll hand down a sentence on Monday morning.
And now I’m sitting on his bed, and he has been sobbing his heart out for more than 45 minutes because he doesn’t know how he can possibly break the news to his mother that he is going to prison. I assure him that it’s okay, everybody makes mistakes, I know he’s a good kid, etc, etc–the things I should have said before even reading the paper.
I also tell him that yes, he might get suspended or expelled, but that’s okay too–because even if we don’t know about a law, we still have to face consequences. It doesn’t make us bad, just human.
This is the same response I get from the counselor on Monday morning. “He’s a good kid–in fact, I thought he must be a new student,” he says. “I’ve never even seen him before, that’s how good he is. Similarly, his classroom teacher is stunned that anyone is talking suspension. Floored that anyone could think that this kid made anything more than a naive mistake.
But the principal has to stick by the rules. I respect that. And so I sit there in her office while she lectures my son and asks him if he’s sorry. He just sort of sits there with a deer-in-the-headlights, terrified-out-of-his-skin expression on his face.
Of course, just because I can read that expression doesn’t mean she can. I think she took his silence as some variety of defiance, honestly. Because then she launched into preemptive mode–just in case he ever thinks about selling “alcohol, drugs or weapons” again at school. (Her words, not mine.) She does not look at me except for one sidelong, flitting glance when she asks if I have any questions, which I don’t.
Because I’m trying to make sense of the “alcohol, drugs, or weapons” comment still. Because a kid that doesn’t even know how to light a firecracker is probably planning on building a homemade bomb or toting a sawed off shotgun in next, right?
I sign the paper saying I understand that he has been suspended and then we go out to the car.
But as I drive away, almost fighting back tears that I don’t really understand and so I can’t possibly be on the brink of spilling them, I finally get my wits about me enough to have a question, although it’s too late to ask it of Mrs. Principal:
In what way is suspension a punishment? What kid wouldn’t welcome a prolonged, excused absence from school? As my sister-in-law observed, “Don’t tell my kids, or they’ll take fireworks to school, too!”
And now I have all sorts of questions:
Do we suspend children because they are a danger to their peers? That’s legitimate in some cases I suppose, but I hardly think my son falls into that category and I hardly think putting him in it is in any way beneficial.
Do we suspend children because it shames them? Because they will be so mortified about falling into the “suspended kid” category that they never want to show their face at school again? Because I can cite you mountains of research that demonstrates shame to be the least effective and most counterproductive approach to discipline in existence.
My son was one of these students. He liked the vacation well enough, but dreaded anyone finding out why he was absent. So then I had to bolster his ego and treat the suspension like a bit of a joke so that he wouldn’t refuse to ever show his face in public again. I know kids who’d slit their wrists over this kind of trauma.
I also know kids who’d be surprised at all the attention and bad-boy status their new reputation garnered and proceed to become the very “bad” kid they’ve been labelled as being. Why not? Being good never got them anywhere. Counselor and Principal never even knew they existed before, right?
And what of the kid who really is borderline dangerous/disturbed/needing serious discipline, but who has no parent in the home to supervise a suspension? You’re going to excuse that student from school and turn him loose on his own? A school sanctioned drop-out, as it were? How productive is that scenario? Why didn’t the principal ask what alternate plans are in place for a suspended student? How did she know that I wasn’t leaving him alone at home with mountains of firecrackers to play with? Not her business, surely, but really? We just kick kids out of school, and it’s not our problem what happens to them or because of them once the door closes on their heels?
What kind of system is that?