I’m sitting in one of those plastic chairs designed for kids. My son’s kindergarten teacher is saying things I don’t understand. “Your child doesn’t participate at circle time. He doesn’t do art, or like to draw. He does not respect his classmates.” Is she talking about my child? Because I’m getting 6 drawings a day coming home in his backpack. But then she hands me his report card, with his name on the top. This is my child at school?
I take a breath. I ask about the 6 drawings that come home daily. Those aren’t “art” because he doesn’t colour them (true, they are all in pencil) and he doesn’t like to colour and doesn’t colour in the lines. Why doesn’t he participate at circle time? She explains that he can’t sit still so she removes him from the circle, ergo he can’t participate. Disrespect? He blurts out answers and doesn’t give other students a chance. Oh, and another thing, he talks to the adults in the room too much, and follows their adult conversations. This is not appropriate.
I take another breath. Our time is almost up, so I ask about his reading. He came into kindergarten reading. “Is he reading a lot,” I ask. “Reading to others, reading in French (this is French Immersion)?” “There’s nothing special for him, that’s not a focus for us.” So, no enrichment for him, and you aren’t even using his skill to help other students? Oh. I suggest that he may be bored. This does not go over well.
I hear on the playground, that this teacher “doesn’t like boys” so all of his normal behaviours (not sitting still, needing to move, needing to get his words out, needing to draw freely, not caring about where the lines are) are “problems” that stem from being a boy. Two months into school he becomes his behaviour: disruptive, mouthy, disrespectful.
Every year since then it has been some version of this. There are no attempts to harness this energy, or to accommodate it, or allow it to just be. The suggestions his father and I give to “deal with” him are met with incredulity. Let him work standing up, I say. Not an option. Give him more responsibility, we suggest. It might make him feel included, and give him some skin in the game. Responsibility must be earned, we are told. Through compliance, we surmise. I literally tell a teacher that if she won’t accommodate him as he is it’s her funeral.
Why are we still doing it this way? No wonder I spend half of my energy as a university professor trying to get 20-year-olds to stop colouring in the lines and show a spark of something other than lumpen lack of enthusiasm and total compliance, or the appearance of compliance. Sometimes I make fun of them for how well they comply, not to be a jerk but to drive home how weird it is. But after years and years of molding themselves into the school system’s image, they don’t think it’s weird at all. This is not what I want for my son, more importantly it isn’t what he wants, nor does it honour who he is or what he is capable of.
When my kid does his homework, he is slow to start. He’s working on cursive right now, and doing pretty well with it. I can’t help much, he’s a lefty and I am profoundly right-handed. He stands up, writes a line or two, then does a sprint: diningroomlibrarycouchjumpstanduplibrarydiningroomkitchenfloorslide. Back to the table for another couple of lines, repeat. I know this would be difficult to accommodate in a classroom, but surely not impossible. It would be nice if anyone, just one teacher, tried.
This year, it might be different. He has a teacher who is trying different strategies, and who sees him as a human being, not a bundle of behaviours to be managed. It’s early days yet, but we’ll see. I can only be partly hopeful about this, because this is one teacher in a larger system that isn’t geared for kids like him, which means they are probably not responding to perhaps 48% of the people they are supposed to serve. I might be hopeful for my child, this year, but in the face of the larger picture I’m not hopeful at all, and I can see clearly why boys tune out. Mine is certainly on the verge, and that makes me angry and afraid.
Jennifer Cypher is an academic, community activist, parent, and late-bloomer hockey player. She has a PhD in Environmental Studies from York University, where she teaches part-time.