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13 Sep 2006 - 16:41
Christian went to his first class in college Monday night! It's a milestone. He came in last night pumped. He says the class is dominated by one know-it-all young woman, so he's decided to be the "quiet overachiever." He said he always felt that when he went to college he wanted to be an overachiever. I told him we applaud overachievement; overachievement is our family philosophy. (That and no common sense-y.) Of course, he already knew that. Shooing Christian into college is a strange proposition for us, and not just because he's not our son. He's also not our race, and we can't tell how much he is or is not "our culture." (See: how to be multicultural) His mom has a Bachelor's degree; his aunt has a Masters; his dad, whom he hasn't seen in a number of years, had two years of college. His folks have more education between them than Ed's do; probably more than mine do, too. So it's not exactly right to think of Christian as hailing from "black culture" in Laurence Steinberg's sense of the term. On the other hand, he went to Yonkers schools, and when he was in the Mamaroneck school system he was in special ed along with all the other black kids. So if he's not exactly a product of "black culture," he's certainly a product of lousy black school culture. All of which means Ed and I have been feeling our way. Last spring we decided, all of a sudden, to tell Christian he needed to go to college, and to say that we would pay to get him started. We decided this on the fly, which is how we often decide things (it works for us), and then we told Christian what we'd decided the next week, at dinner. It was a case of synchronicity, because it turned out his grandmother had sat him down just the week before to tell him he had to get to college.
That was all well and good, but we can't "predict" from such scenes. Does Christian have the stick-to-it-iveness to get through college? Does he have the confidence? The confidence part is huge. I don't think it violates Christian's privacy to say that he is somewhat shy. Somewhat. Maybe "sensitive" is a better word.....actually, come to think of it, he has a personality like Christopher's. Sensitive. What I've come to see over the past two years is that "sensitive" is a tough row to hoe if you're young, male, 6'4", and black. White people are scared to death of Christian. I can see it when I'm out in public with him. White people take one look at him and blanch. Here in Irvington teenage clerks simply stare. It's amazing. The other day a whole gang of boy teenyboppers hanging out on the street corner downtown were staring at Christian as we walked by. I'm starting to stare back, but pretty soon I'm going to find myself popping off with lines like, "Didn't your mother teach you not to stare?" I can hear myself now. Christian says Connecticut is much worse, btw. Connecticut, he says, is the staringest state in the country. For me, this piece of intel sparks two opposing impulses. Number one, stay out of Connecticut. Number two, get in the car with Christian and all 3 kids today and drive to Connecticut! fyi, I like CT, have friends in CT, etc. Just so you know. I mean no offense to Connecticut! Staring isn't the end of it. I've mentioned the day Christian, Christopher & I went to the city and a woman at one of the food stands in Grand Central refused to serve Christian. She wouldn't look at him or acknowledge his presence in any way, and she kept asking for the orders of people who'd come later or were standing behind him. I was so flummoxed by the whole thing I didn't manage to take her to task; instead I glared, corralled Christian, and stalked away to the Chinese food stand where the cooks had apparently dealt with tall black people before. The scene was obnoxious & upsetting, but I didn't get the sense that the problem was racism in the old-fashioned Rosa Parks sense of racism. I suspect the problem was that Christian had intimidated the young woman behind the counter simply by being there, standing in one place and towering over everyone else as a person who is 6'4" inevitably does. Christian's problem is that he can't be invisible. Sensitive people need to warm up to situations, and they need to be invisible or at least out of the spotlight while they're warming up. At least, that's the way I see Christopher, and I think it's true of Christian, too. [update 9-20-2006: Christopher told me last night that, at school, "I'm a quiet kid."] I know something about this because I've been the focus of public starefests ever since giving birth to autistic children. You want to talk about public spectacles; we are the spotlight family. One time we all went to my friend Debbie's loft in Bloggers.SoHo (she'll shoot me if she finds out I posted this link) and Jimmy was so crazed on the subway that the entire car was staring. I told Debbie when we got there, "You have to be way beyond the pale to be the center of attention on a New York subway." Most people loathe being a public spectacle. Even Ed, who is possibly the most self-confident human being on the planet, doesn't like it. Not me. I don't mind. The reason I don't mind it is that I'm wildly gregarious. I'm so gregarious I'm perfectly comfortable providing viewing pleasure for people traveling from midtown to Tribeca. This is why God selected me to be the mother of two autistic children, not just one like a normal family. Back on topic: my point is that Christian is a sensitive guy who draws stares everywhere he goes and it's a problem for him.* The challenge for Ed and me is that we don't know how much of a problem it is, or how to factor it into deciding whether we ought to "push" Christian or not. We just have no idea what it's like to be him.
fear & loathing at D-Ed Reckoning A teacher at Ken's website left a comment about student motivation:
The biggest problem in American education is that not enough students make their own education a high enough priority. Every year I see students of various social classes with various ability levels do well because they are willing to try. And every year I see other kids of various ability levels do poorly because they just don't care. When kids really care, it's amazing how just about any teaching method seems to be successful. But when kids don't give a rip, nothing works.
He's right (see e.g. Martin Seligman) as far as it goes. Where this comment falls short, however, as Ken points out, is in the assumption that a kid who doesn't give a rip is a kid who doesn't give a rip. I've come to feel that "doesn't give a rip" shouldn't be your first hypothesis. Your first hypothesis, the hypothesis to rule out before going on to any other hypotheses, should be that you're dealing with a student who has failed one time too many. You're looking at a defense mechanism, not a bad attitude. Or possibly a defense mechanism that's become a bad attitude over the years. Having seen our own multiple-y advantaged white child develop a case of defensive not-giving-a-rip at the age of 10, we know 13 years of special ed in Westchester has left its mark on Christian.
magic white people redux I grouse about the "advantaged white kids" meme that underlies the Washington consensus (scroll down) and is enforced by centrist wonks like eduwonk and Fred Hess. Still, they have a point. There is something about white culture (white culture & Asian culture) that's protective, that gets kids through lousy schools and the occasional bullying teacher in one piece. It's not just the fact of white skin in a country that continues to have subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racial fears and doubts. White skin is a big advantage, I think, but if you don't have the confidence and panache to seize the day you're sunk. Somehow middle and upper middle class white culture is (still) giving that confidence and panache to many or perhaps even most of its boys and girls. How? I don't know the answer to that, but I have a thought. We didn't know quite what to make of Christian at first. He was obviously smart, capable, & reliable. He showed up when he was supposed to show up, called if he was going to be late, and worked hard. But there was a glitch. He was supposed to go to Jimmy's school once a week and work with Jimmy there. That was the plan. But he wasn't doing it. Worse, he was making excuses. He'd call in sick, or be late for his bus, or tell us it was raining and he didn't want to walk up the hill to the school. Then he told us he had to hunt for a real job, and hunting for a real job was going to require his attention on go-to-Jimmy's-school day. We couldn't figure it out. Why wouldn't he go to Jimmy's school? Finally Ed did his Ed-thing; Ed managed Christian. Ed is a brilliant manager. I fight with him all the time; he can't begin to manage me. So sometimes I forget how good he is at managing everyone else. He's a genius. After Ed spent about 5 minutes talking in his calm way with Christian about why he wasn't going to the school ("have to look for work" - "you have to look for work on Tuesday afternoons?" etc.) and when he would be available to go to the school (this is called not taking no for an answer), they reached an agreement that Christian would begin going to Jimmy's school every week. Which he then did and has done ever since without fail. Later on I figured out that the problem had almost certainly been the shyness/sensitivity/enormously tall young black man in an all-white school issue. In truth, he was scared.** Ed had waved away that problem in the space of one simple, calm conversation. Somehow Ed had sparked in Christian the conviction that his current job in life was to go to Jimmy's school once a week. How did Ed do that? Today I think that moment may have been a turning point. Christian calls Ed "the best white father I've ever had," and I think that may have been the white father moment.
take me to your fearless leader I think Cesar Millan and Temple (Grandin) may have something to say about Ed. Especially Cesar. Invariably, in all of Cesar's shows, the crazy dog Cesar is called in to "rehabilitate" turns out to be crazy because he needs a fearless leader and he doesn't have one. The reason he doesn't have one is that his human owners are acting like twits. (That's too harsh. They're not always twits.) He'll walk into a ludicrously out-of-control situation — an obnoxious little frou-frou dog biting the wife up and down her arms & kicking her out of her husband's bed (raised eyebrows from Cesar on that one), or a Great Dane who's eaten his owners' couch — and instantly perceive the simple truth that the human beings are not in charge. The dog is in charge. That's the whole problem, because a dog isn't built to lead a person. A dog is built to follow a person. So the dog is unhappy and scared, and an unhappy scared dog is a crazed nutcase dog. As soon as the owners figure out how to be the fearless leader, the dog settles down, stops biting, stops kicking people out of their beds, stops eating sofas — and starts smiling. I've seen it myself. Back when Surfer was attacking every other dog on the aqueduct, he was somber and tense. Also, he never smiled. I always wondered about that. I'd look at Surfer's soulful face and think, "This dog never smiles." (He's smiling here.) I didn't know what to make of it. I fixed that problem by accident when I started using a gundog collar so I could walk both dogs off leash. Surfer was scared of the collar's warning beep (Abby could care less) so he started walking behind my heels where he figured he was safe. Within a few months of walking behind me instead of in front of me, Surfer stopped attacking other dogs — and he started smiling. Suddenly he was a happy guy. Surfer needed a fearless leader! When he was walking in front of me, he thought it was up to him to deal with with all the strange dogs coming our way. And for Surfer, it seems, what with his suspected semi-pit bull brain and all, a strange dog is a bad dog. Once I was walking out front he figured I was going to deal with all the bad dangerous dogs one encounters on a simple jaunt to Halsey Pond. That's what his doggy brain told him. The fact that I would have a huge amount of trouble dealing with an attacking pit bull no matter what position I occupied in the pack line-up simply doesn't enter into Surfer's calculations. The rule is:
I think people have the same idea. We definitely have the same doggy brain. (See Paul MacLean & the triune brain.) I think people are probably wired to relax and enjoy the view when they're trotting along behind a fearless leader whom they trust.
what do helicopter parents actually do? This is what's missing from the helicopter parent meme. I've mentioned several times that Christopher emerged from last year a happy camper. He is unscathed. Ed and I are majorly scathed, but Christopher doesn't have a scratch. Ed and I are scathed because after we won the Mrs. Roth battle we lost every other round. It was a debacle. We'd go up against Ms. Kahl and her champion Scott I'm-very-protective-of-my-teachers Fried, or the math chair, or the English teacher, or whomever it was that day, and we'd lose. For Christopher, parents winning or losing was irrelevant. All that mattered to him was that we were up front fighting the pit bulls. We didn't have to actually win. He was the happy guy back in the middle of the pack. People complain that helicopter parents "do everything" for their children and fight their battles. That's not right. Good helicopter parenting is mostly psychological. We didn't do Christopher's work for him last year; in fact we made him do more work than any other kid in the school. And we didn't fight his battles, e.g.: we didn't know about the scary black kid showdown, and when we found out we didn't do anything. A good helicopter parent is a pack leader. The pack leader's job is to walk up front & snarl at errant civil servants. The pack leader doesn't take away problems. The pack leader takes away fear.
can moms be pack leader? Good question. Christian's mom was pretty ferocious. When Christian tells stories of his own mom going toe to toe with the school he actually calls her a "pit bull." That's probably why he's in the shape he's in. No drugs, no crime, no injuries, no dropping out and he's got the vocabulary and background knowledge to do college work. So maybe a mom can pull it off. But I think kids need their dads.
* This is the place to insert the old finding that some huge percentage of the public reports being more afraid of public speaking than of dying. The way I always heard it, that was because public speaking involves large numbers of people staring at the speaker. In the wild, from whence we came, stares mean threat. I have no idea whether this finding is true, by the way. ** There was nothing to be scared about I want to add; Irvington High School is a very nice place, warm and welcoming. Christian was having a classic doesn't-want-to-go-to-the-party-but-enjoys-it-when-he-gets-there reaction. christianlearnsmath
-- CatherineJohnson - 13 Sep 2006 Back to main page.
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Do you know that the term helicopter parent comes from Jim Fay and Forest W. Cline? I think their first book was Parenting With Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. -- KtmGuest - 20 Sep 2006
hmmm....is that right? I always hear that it came from college administrators. I'll check out the book. -- CatherineJohnson - 20 Sep 2006