Friday, January 03, 2003

Meddling Parents & Norman Bates

Early on in the beginning of one of my graduate courses we were put through
the exercise of "choosing" or creating our perfect schools. We were given
unlimited funds and were asked to express our complete imagination holding
nothing back. I was found to be a little shunned as it were when we presented
our schools to one another, and within my school the number one article was
"no" parent involvement. This ran contrary to everyone else's opinions where
"parent involvement" was uppermost in their concepts.

Now I do not claim that parent's should not support the education of their
children, no by all means they should wholly support education both academically
and financially. It is just that parents should keep their meddlesome ways
out of the classroom. This may sound harsh but please do keep in mind that
I also am a "parent". My three boys have found me meddlesome, embarrassing,
and in their eyes (as well as the school's) completely incompetent!

Let me begin with a digression that is a topic for a future missive: as a
parent of children with learning difficulties, (albeit I have them also),
I was found to be in front of that trigger happy firing squad we call an
"M-Team" or "IEP Team" or whatever iconoclastic Alphabet soup you may call
your special education team. Keep in mind that I am by profession a Special
Educator, that I participate in these team meetings for students everyday.
I am so inclined that I went forth and obtained a Master's Degree in this
subject. But across the table in my role as parent - I am treated with the
same distain, abhorrence, abomination and loathing. But again I am

I also teach at the university. And it has come to light, not necessarily
where I teach, but nationwide
this dilemma of "parents" who are meddling in their children's lives. It
seems a whole generation of parents who had to be completely involved in
their children's education since pre-school through high-school have not
been able to release their control over their children. College professors,
deans, and advisors all over the country are now dealing with this phenomenon
of parent. (Something us K-12'ers have been dealing with for too long a
time…) These parents are calling and complaining about Johnny's treatment
in class, his apparent lack of respect from his teachers, his poor performance,
which isn't Johnny's fault since Johnny never got less than an "A" before:
Etc, etc and etcetera! Parents meddle.

I have a student I shall call "Norman". While Norman is not necessarily a
choice name for a young woman it does have literate allusions. For example:
it could be a reference to the calf in the film "City Slickers" that is saved
by Billy Crystal's character. While my Norman is not a cow, she is like Billy's
calf an orphan trapped in a system that does not so much care for her needs,
but more so calculates her worth by placement in a financial system. And
both Norman's desperately needed, but not necessarily sought some type of
adult or mentoring relationship.

Or I am also reminded of the play by Ron Scott "Norman, is that you?" a
frolicking treatise on parent child relationships as wells as burgeoning
sexuality and acceptance. My Norman too, is parentless but yet has parents,
she also is involved in her own identity crisis as is the wont of a 12 year
old child. Or, perhaps I can re-circle back to the beginning of this missive
and the concept of meddling parents and utilize the allusion inherent in
Robert Bloch's Psycho. For my Norman is much like Norman Bates, haunted by
a disassociated mother, uncanny in her personality shifts, both tender and
endearing like Norman's desire for grilled cheese sandwiches and shrift of

6th grade was a turning point for my own identity and development. It was
the fashion for young boys to wear sweaters over their button down shirts.
But we would not dare tuck our shirt tails in our pants, that was too nerdy.
I also did not yet understand the hygiene or social acceptance of clean and
trimmed nails. My wife is prone to say that we should never underestimate
the power of the opposite sex. It was in the 6th grade that girls would comment
on my untucked shirt tails, "how my skirt was longer than theirs" and my
dirty and broken nails, "you nails are like a girls! You should paint them!"
Needless to this day my nails are trimmed short, almost painfully short,
and my shirts, well even in this day of the unkempt and baggy fashions I
still tuck my shirttails in.

As I said my Norma is a 12 year old 6th grader. By all outward appearances
she looks like the archetypical 6th grade student. She is still infused with
baby fat, unkempt clothes which map out her daily eating habits, that nearly
trademark Kool Aid smile …But what differs about my Norman from the
typical 6th grader is that mentally Norman is an adult. I do not mean the
"street smart" Traci Lords adult we too often associate with mentally mature
girls. Norman is more a Doogie Howser, a child prodigy. Norman has high order
thinking, reasoning but not necessarily all the weaponry needed for high
order debates. Norman is rather an untapped child prodigy.

However, the main difference between Doogie and Norman is that she runs the
gamut of a Borderline Personality Disorder. Jeckyl and Hyde: Shannon Dougherty:
Norman Bates.

What this all lathers up to is a concept that is spinning about out there
in research land, a "new" development in the raising and teaching of our
students. It falls under many names and can be currently seen in "Love and
Logic", "Merchant of Hope", "Reclaiming our Youth" and many many more. What
this new development is is "relationship". A garnering of mutual respect
for each other, making a connection with your students. This development
is anything but "new" and yet is missing, removed from, disemboweled from
educational practices.

I remember when I started in my new school and was first asked to meet with
Norman. She and I spoke briefly, but I hope honestly. The next day one of
the referring teachers was shocked when they saw Norman come running down
the hall and throw a big hug around me. I had made a connection although
very tentative and extremely fragile. Norman was prone to walk the halls
with me instead of being in her assigned classroom, she would reach up and
grab my hand and skip through the halls. Unless of course a peer saw her
and then she would very typically admonish me and yank her hand away. "Mr.
K! I can walk by myself!" Norman needs attention but in atypical 6th grade
fashion is unsure of what this attention is or should be. She is bored in
her classes because we are not attuning our teaching nor curriculum to her
individual needs; she is both frightened and entreated of her need for adult
interactions; she is both embraced and shunned by her peers; she reflects
that she has no need for friends and then desperately seeks them out.

Norman is in this holding pattern of conflict and mistrust, of denied respect
and undeniable intelligence. She is as consistent as a flickering fluorescent
light: she is on: off, on: off at breathtaking speeds. One moment she is
skipping down the hallway the other she is cursing you in venomous hatred.
She often "pushes the buttons" of adults, people of authority or "in control".
Escalating or perhaps declining them to a screaming tantrum fit. Norman wants
to be in control.

Norman shares a kinship with my own 6th grade self. Schools make a distressing
habit of telling children that they are smart. And as children we are unable
to cope with the complexity of intelligence and aptitude, or as my wife likes
to put it "potential". Like Norman I too had a high intelligence quotient
which I translated in my inexperienced 12 year old mind to be "I am too smart
for you." There are things we know how to do, things we think we know how
to do, and things we don't have a clue about but will never attest to. My
downward spiral began in 6th grade being arrested for stealing cars because
"I am too smart for you."

But this is about Norman, her potential, her wherewithal, and her need to
be accepted while at the same time shunning the world about her. It took
me 3 months to crack open that door of Norman. Of understanding her. Just
a crack mind you, a glimpse into that doorway of Norman.

For the last three months my name has been synonymous with Norman's. I would
be paged, called, "found" because Norman was, well being Norman. We developed
a relationship, a connection. We formed an understanding, albeit not always
in the way an orderly "school" climate is professed to be. But there were
moments, and these moments were nurtured by our team of Special Educators.
We looked to the positives of Norman's abilities, desires. We tried to refocus
her on her strengths, and often trying contest of wills. We created plans,
revamped them, threw away many. Progress was being made. Norman has bounced
about from school to school, usually by the third quarter everyone had given
up on her. I had for almost 2. I was just beginning. Her parents decided
that she would do better at a different school. Chalk it up to control,
incompetence, desire for normalcy. I chalk it up to fear, both from our school
and Norman's parents.

"We can't fix 'em all!" "Do what we can for those we can." "some simply fall
through the cracks." Homilies are that: little sermons we appease ourselves
with. The truth is we failed Norman. We failed her parents. We failed as
educators. We can blame the "system" but that is only justification for our
positioning. We came back from our winter break and Norman was gone, off
to a different school. New teachers, a new quarter, a new slough of fresh
clean teachers. All day people have come by and told me how happy I must
be now that Norman is gone, I must be relieved not to be paged every hour,
how Norman was too much trouble to contend with.

I think of Billy Crystal's Norman, an orphaned calf needing direction; Ron
Scott's Norman whose struggle for identity can be deconstructed into a sit-com
one liner; and then there's Robert Bloch's Norman who had his own meddling

I miss my Norman.