The Day a Teacher Broke the Rules

At least a week has gone by without any new stories about bullying in schools, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going on. I’ve been thinking a lot about an incident that occurred when our younger son (YS) was in elementary school. The details on this incident have faded with time though the salient points remain vivid in my mind.

YS was in a special class for the gifted and talented which required that he travel across town to school every day. We would have preferred having him in a neighborhood school, of course; but this special class was a real academic advantage and the teacher was extraordinary. YS’s older brother had been in the same class a couple of years earlier so we knew what we were getting, the good and the not so good.  Art and I were very active at the school – volunteer work, PTA and so on. We often visited the classroom and knew the teacher well.

I should say about younger son that he was a kid whose mood could shift from high to low to abysmal in the space of a few minutes. There was no question of medication. This all happened back in the dark age or the enlightened age, I’m not sure which.  Sleep was important. And diet. From the age of seven or so, he’d slam into the house after school like a barely contained tornado, head for the refrigerator and a glass of milk. Then he’d fix himself a double package of ramen noodles. Somewhere after the first huge helping, we could begin to have a conversation with me.

Here is what was happening to him at school around this time.

First, you should know that Younger Son was adopted as an infant and for his whole life had taken this as an accepted fact. Being a thoughtful and sensitive and curious kid, he had thought about what it meant to be adopted but having only experienced love and acceptance in our family, he had no reason to dwell on it negatively. One day he happened to tell his school buddies that he was adopted, probably expecting them to absorb it naturally as he had. Instead, they turned on him, making him the butt of cruel jokes and taunting. One boy who lived with his grandmother while his mother explored the wild and wacky world of heroin addiction and county jail told YS that his mother (his real mother) had given him away because she didn’t want him. Our boy took this hard, and the harder he took their taunts, the rougher they became.

Around this time I began letting YS stay home from school when he told me he just really, strongly, powerfully didn’t want to go. I asked him why he was unhappy and he said he didn’t know. He just was. Or he told me I had it all wrong. He wasn’t depressed and I should leave him alone. Slammed door. I let him stay home (with the restriction that he couldn’t watch television) because the kid was not a slacker and  when he said he couldn’t face whatever was going on there, I believed him.

This happened before California voters decided they didn’t want to pay for education anymore, and the school had a guidance counselor. She learned that there was “something going on” with our boy and his friends; but she didn’t know what and promised to pay attention and let us know. Meanwhile, YS continued to deny there was anything the matter — at the same time he begged to let him stay home.

And then one day, I got a phone call from YS’s teacher. She said, “I’m bringing your boy home.”

Over time, I have thought about what Miss R. did that day. Certainly she broke all the school rules, transporting a student from school to his residence in her own car. Her caring and independent action astonished me and still does.  She sat beside YS on the couch while he told me what had been going on in school. She apologized profusely for the situation which until that day she had been unaware of.

I can’t tell you what happened that made her break the rules for our son. He claims not to remember the details very well and doesn’t much want to talk about it anyway. But I know that after that, the bullying diminished. There were meetings between the counselor and some of the parents of the children involved. We talked more with YS about what it means to be adopted and not long afterwards agreed that when he was sixteen we would tell him everything we knew about his birth mother. The years went on, he continued to be a bright, charismatic, moody and challenging child. What would have happened to him if Miss R. hadn’t brought the whole matter to a head that day? I don’t know, of course, and I don’t want to be melodramatic; but I know he was a child pushed to the limits of his tolerance. In at least a metaphorical sense, a good teacher saved his life.

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