The coffee maker slurps and spits as it sucks at the remaining water along the bottom of its reservoir. The same aroma—the simple result of saturated arabica beans and universally available gravity—stimulates anticipation throughout the world, across continents, and across the borders of nation, race, religion, social and economic class. The only difference is the means in which we prepare it and serve it. For me, it is an over-priced stainless-steel Cuisinart, an artifact to a culture of extravagance and excess that is no more capable of transferring the luscious flavor of the ground bean to water than any method used in the dwellings of the poorest villages and tribes of those who’s very labor is directed towards the harvest of the internationally savored commodity.
Artificial sweetener lines the bottom of my fat-green ceramic mug and I am anticipating the machine’s beep, announcing the completion of the brew cycle. Will the baristas and the other refugees note my absence today—wonder if I’m still with them? Will Tolstoy appreciate, or even notice, the one table surplus he will enjoy today? Even if he did, I doubt he would acknowledge it. That would be to acknowledge my very existence. No, nothing has changed except that today I won’t be drinking my coffee through a plastic lid atop a recycled paper cup.
Jack lay on the sofa, his head and shoulders propped up at a gradual angle by two matching sofa pillows covered by his tattered, blue, woobie-blanket. Beside him, a small purple plastic bucket with yellow ducks and a flimsy white handle secured around his right arm readied for the unpredictable, yet expected, outcomes that often accompany the belly aches of children kept home from school. The inside of the bucket is wet, having just moments before been rinsed to remove the contents that was rejected from the shaky little boy’s stomach.
Before being discarded from America’s workforce, Abby and I eased into an unspoken rotation system for deciding who would stay home with the boys if one were sick on a school day. Because they were rarely sick, it was really a non-issue. On the rare occurrence, we would usually quickly assess which of us had a meeting we couldn’t get out of. Now there’s no need for an assessment, a system, or a discussion. It’s simple. I have no place that I need to be.
Last Friday’s presentation, slash interview, went well. The Q&A session afterward also went well and allowed me to interact with the entire sales team and various department heads in a very organic manner. They liked my graphics and the point-of-view I took for my presentation. Dave, the head of customer service, was particularly engaged. He said it was unique and actionable.
“How long did it take you to put it all together?” Dave asked.
“From concept creation to the development of the communication objectives and strategy, and then to pull together the relevant data and then place the data into meaningful graphics, it took about seven total work hours,” I said. I lied. I took me closer to twelve hours. It was a good product.
After the presentation I was asked to leave the room and wait in the same lobby area in which I sat before the previous interview. I knew the presentation went well. After ten minutes Arlene—the H.R. Director—came out and asked if I could stay for a few additional interviews. Good sign, I thought—although this has happened before. She escorted me back into the conference room where she was joined by Clint, Dave, another account executive, and the head of the tech team. They spent the next hour asking me about my public speaking experience, my experience with spreadsheets, conflict resolution, and other various and meaningless skills. I engaged each as though they were perfectly reasonable questions. After addressing the first few questions that dealt directly with my specific skills, the interview turned into a lively discussion about more general topics of business. We had a lively and comfortable rapport throughout the discussion. I was beginning to feel better about working with them after my initial frustration with them for not cutting the candidate field down to a more targeted and reasonable number before asking me to spend so much time developing a presentation for this second interview. It wasn’t like they had anything to do with it.
The interview with the team took a little less than two hours. When all the questions that needed to be asked—and many that were not needed—were asked, I was again asked to wait in the lobby. Everything was going fine. I felt confident in my performance. Arlene came out and invited me back in. Everyone but Clint was gone. She said that everybody was very happy with what they had seen and then asked if I could stay to take a few tests.
“There are a few standard tests for critical thinking, writing, and personality that we give to all of our candidates,” she said. “We would like to have you complete them now, or would you need to schedule another day to come in?”
I began to feel that same frustration bubbling back up within me, from when Arlene told me about all the other candidates they would be hearing presentations from this week. Now, I wondered how many other candidates Arlene had asked, without any warning, to stay for tests that they had no idea they would be asked to take. Tests that these fucking people likely didn’t know how to effectively use for their intended purpose anyway.
“Let’s do them now if we can,” I said, after looking at the clock on the wall and quickly calculating whether I would make it home in time to pick the boys up from the bus stop.
After racing through tests designed to reveal my personality type; to test my ability to organize people and resources with conflicting limitations; to see if I could communicate professionally in a written customer correspondence; and to ultimately decide if I am worthy of being considered employable by this company; I hustled to my car and pushed it beyond any reasonably safe speed to impose a seventy-five minute drive into a fifty-five minute time-span. The absence of cars at the entrance to my neighborhood informed me that I didn’t quite make it on time. I turned into the neighborhood, continued past the bus stop, and toward home. Jack and Michael had just made it to the driveway by the time I caught up to them. As I drove by them, they stood together along the side of the black-top surface and waved, making silly accusatory faces, questioning any priority that could possibly interfere with them having their father at the bus stop waiting for their safe arrival. I became aware of the adrenaline that had been urgently coursing from me to the car, allowing the chemically induced indifference I needed to drive with such focused determination. I forced my hands to unclench the strangle-hold they had locked around the steering wheel and my lungs sighed as I allowed my chest to relax and then expand to its full capacity.
Jack’s forehead and cheeks were still damp from the effort it took to expunge the morning’s breakfast, and the fever that his body was working to break. I placed my hands on his forehead, more for his reassurance than to confirm what I already knew. There was no doubt that he was sick today. I felt oddly comforted by this certainty.
Something had changed for Jack early this school year. After two months into the first grade we became aware that he had already missed more school than in all of last year. It seemed that every morning brought on a new reason for which he couldn’t go to school. After a series of visits to our pediatrician offered no obvious answers for the mysterious aches and pains Jack was presenting more and more frequently, I began to notice other changes for Jack. Everything was suddenly “boring”. He went from a child who was happy about going to school—happy about life—to one for whom, when asked how his day was, his standard response became a big negative, “boring.”
A few weeks before the Christmas break Jack was home from school with another borderline-suspicious stomach-ache. After getting Michael on the bus, I sat with him and watched Sponge Bob–his favorite show–rubbing his belly. Plankton was scheming to steal the Krabby Patty recipe.
“Mrs. Lernoff hates me,” Jack said. He rubbed a worn corner of his woobie-blanket between the fingers of his left hand.
“Mrs. Lernoff hates you?” I asked. “Why would you say that Mrs. Lernoff hates you Jack?”
“She always yells at me,” he offers as concrete evidence.
During kindergarten last year we began to see that Jack was struggling with something more than what was perceived in preschool and daycare as the behavior of a very energetic and spirited little boy. Jack’s difficulties in the classroom appeared at first as a behavior problem. With the help of a patient and strong teacher we realized that Jack’s apparent behavior problems were being driven be something else. As he continued to stand out amongst his classmates for his inability to comply with appropriate classroom etiquette, we also saw him become more and more sensitive, to criticism and to being scolded at school and at home. Based on her observations, Mrs. Wilkins suggested the possibility that he may be struggling with ADHD. She said that, although he was listening to her, and learning the material, Jack just couldn’t stay still. He seemed to have a constant need to move about, as well as to touch things—which sometimes included the clothing and hair of other children—which helped to explain his obsessive attachment to his woobie-blanket at home.
Mrs. Wilkins’ strength showed in her creative ways of helping to adapt situations for Jack. She was fair, patient, and consistent with him. We worked with Jack at home to reinforce her efforts in the classroom. Just how lucky we were to have had Mrs. Wilkins as our son’s kindergarten teacher—in her last year before retirement—we wouldn’t know until Jack was a few months into the first grade.
Prior to the end of his kindergarten year, and after many discussions with Mrs. Wilkins, Abby and I requested that Jack be given an assessment for an Individual Educational Plan—IEP. Mrs. Wilkins said that because Jack excelled academically, and had no apparent learning disabilities, it may be difficult to get the school to recognize the need for additional resources but that his challenges in the classroom could interfere with learning objectives as he gets older, especially as concepts become more complicated. Her other concern was that an IEP would help protect Jack from becoming labelled a behavior problem. The first step would be for the school district to appoint a school psychologist to do an independent assessment to determine if there is any need for an IEP.
“I can see him trying to stay in his seat,” Mrs. Wilkins said. “It’s almost as though he’s not aware of it when he’s fidgeting around.” She said that Jack asked if he could put his desk next to hers. “He told me that maybe if I sit next to you, I will remember to stay in my seat.”
She said that during carpet time—when she reads to the children—it is especially challenging for Jack. The children sit in such close proximity on a slab of carpet laid out in a corner of the classroom that it’s difficult for Jack to keep his hands to himself. “And you think that with all that going on with him that he’s not listening, but he is. He can always answer all the questions I ask the children after the reading. And he always has a bunch of relevant ‘why this’ and ‘why that’ questions about the plot.” She said that the kids recognize him as a very smart kid, but they are also getting upset with him when he randomly interferes with them. She told us how it recently broke her heart when she looked up to see him rubbing aggressively at the carpet while he sat there alone, behind all the other children, trying not to interfere with the reading time.
Early in the summer after kindergarten, just before I lost my job, we began bringing Jack to see a child-psychologist. It became more and more clear that Jack’s behavior was being challenged by—at least—hyperactivity, and possibly attention deficit issues as well. The more time I spent with him during that summer, the more I saw just how much he was affected by the condition. This wasn’t the garden variety ADHD that is common to many kids of this age—that many parents rush to medicate more for their own needs than for the child’s. Jack was a kid in perpetual motion. He seemed always anxious and jittery. His mind just never seemed to stop. What had simply appeared to be the rambunctious energy of a curious little boy before, was revealing itself to be something much different. His constant nervous energy interfered with his ability to sit and relax, and to stay on task.
I worked to structure the long summer days when I started staying home with the boys. The time I spent with Jack revealed to me more clearly all that Mrs. Wilkins had told us of his behavior in the classroom. Every day during the summer we had reading time. Michael was able to read independently, but Jack required a bit of assistance to help keep him making progress. We read “How to Train Your Dragon,” alternating page-for-page throughout the book. On my pages, he fidgeted around on the sofa, turning himself upside-down and sideways. On his turns, he sat and read while gently rubbing his hand over the suede-like sofa material for reassurance and comfort.
Jack asked me to read Harry Potter to him. I said I would read to him as long as he did a good job with his other reading. I started reading the book and was immediately concerned that it was too complicated for him to understand. As I read, he twisted and turned in his seat, and he spun his woobie-blanket on his fingers—quite impressively like a pizza chef masterfully spinning pizza dough up high above his head. He just never stopped moving and seemed more engaged in random little things that seemed to steal his attention just as randomly. I knew this was a waste of time.
I finished the first chapter of the book. Jack was on the other end of the sofa, playing with something. I closed the book and placed it on the coffee table knowing that it was pointless to continue reading it.
“So, was professor McGonagall the cat?” Jack asked. And then he continued with question after question. “What does ‘blushed’ mean? Why is Hagrid sad? Did Harry kill Voldemort? Why wouldn’t they say his name? Do you think Voldemort is really dead?”
I answered each of his brilliantly amazing questions in sequence. I quietly celebrated as Jack led us through a critical exploration of the chapter. He had me fooled. I had nearly given up on him. Mrs. Wilkins had not.
I sent Mrs. Lernoff an email to set up a meeting to explore Jack’s catastrophic change in attitude about school. In a manner far to complicated for any child to invent, Jack explained to me the way Mrs. Lernoff yelled at him for no reason and how she made him sit in a corner of the classroom, isolated from the other first graders whenever he did something wrong.
“She doesn’t even give me a second chance,” Jack said crying. “She always gives other kids a second chance.”
“Yesterday Liam threw a block across the room and it hit the wall. He said he didn’t do it and Mrs. Lernoff blamed me. I told her it wasn’t me and she still made me sit in the principles office during recess.” Through tears and rapid breathing he said, “Reagan even saw him do it but she wouldn’t listen to Reagan. She always blames me for everything. No matter what, she blames me.” I had never seen him so upset. His head jerked and his chest heaved as he sobbed uncontrollably.
I knew how difficult Jack could be for a teacher given his challenges. It would be easy for a teacher to lose patience when a child is constantly disruptive. I knew that Jack was likely unaware of his disruptive behavior, so that when he was punished he perceived he wasn’t given a chance, or some kind of warning. I also had an idea of what was going on with Mrs. Lernoff.
When Abby and I first met Mrs. Lernoff, prior to the beginning of the school year to review Jack’s new IEP with her and the director of special education, she seemed great. She told us about her background with special needs children and that she was looking forward to working with Jack. We felt good about the upcoming year.
Abby and I caught our first glimpse of something off about her at parent night, when she spoke with all the parents as a group during the first week of the school year to inform us of what to expect for the year. We live in an area with a significant migrant worker population, many of whom speak little english. During the meeting, a non-english speaking parent was getting translation help from her husband. In spite of his efforts to whisper quietly to inform his curious wife about all the exciting things their child would experience, the unoffensive sound of the husband’s strained-whispering voice could just be heard amongst the group while Mrs. Lernoff gave her presentation. Mrs. Lernoff seemed progressively distracted and visibly agitated by the husband’s efforts and at one point informed the group that all the information was provided in both english and spanish on all the handouts provided. The spanish-speaking mother went the rest of the meeting learning nothing about her child’s upcoming year. Mrs. Lernoff continued her presentation and talked about her experience, the way she liked to run a classroom, and her love of working with children. She was the ideal teacher.
Our next meeting with her was about a month into the school year, to review Jack’s IEP with her and the special education teacher assigned to Jack. She talked about how amazing Jack was doing. She shared little anecdotes about him in various situations. The special education assistant barely spoke, and we realized through the meeting that she was doing very little direct work with Jack. Mrs. Lernoff informed us that she felt she was having great success with Jack on her own. She said she didn’t want Jack to feel different from the other kids if it wasn’t necessary—a perfectly reasonable sentiment that Abby and I appreciated. She answered all of our concerns about a slight change we thought we were seeing in Jack as just part of his adjustment period to all the changes of the new year, and new expectations.
After the meeting we knew we should have felt good about things, but there was this lingering concern. It was all too perfect. It just didn’t add up. That night in bed I brought it up with Abby.
“Did you notice that Mrs. Averly barely said two words in the meeting.”
“Yeah, but Mrs. Lernoff is spending more time with Jack,” Abby rationalized, “so it makes sense that she would lead the discussion.”
“I just felt like Mrs. Averly was sidelined. Anytime she wanted to add something it seemed like Lernoff cut her off, like when we told her that Jack seems to be less enthusiastic about school.”
“I think Mrs. Lernoff is just enthusiastic.”
“I know, I know, but everything just seems too perfect. She has a perfect answer for everything. Nothing seems to faze her.”
“Evan,” there was a hint of concern in her voice, “right now she is Jack’s teacher and I feel like the most important thing is to keep her on our side.”
I didn’t say it to Abby, but at that moment I realized exactly the kind of power a teacher like Mrs. Lernoff could have, over parents like Abby and I—a child with special challenges; with the parents of migrant workers—who spoke little english and knew little of the system of which they were just grateful to have access for their children; and for any parent of a child so young and easily affected by an adult with legal custody over them. Somehow, I could tell that Mrs. Lernoff was also aware of the steep power asymmetries of her world and how she craved it, it being the fuel of a superiority complex for her, and those like her. I didn’t say it because Abby was also aware of this, and Abby was right, we had no choice but to keep her on our side.
As the fall semester went on, Abby and I began to notice that Jack was becoming much more sensitive than before. He reacted very strongly if we raised a voice at him for any reason. He became very moody, especially in the mornings. He seemed to get embarrassed very easily and we noticed him being unusually shy around other children. Jack was always very outgoing and energetic. He was happy.
Mrs. Lernoff’s response to my request for a meeting was cold and direct. She would not have time until the standard parent-teacher conferences typically taking place later in the spring, after the new year. She told us that we needed to speak with Jack about his behavior, that has become increasingly disruptive. If his behavior didn’t change it could became an administrative issue. “Regardless of what I can do in the classroom,” she said in the email, “the administration is not going to to be as friendly about this.” In the same email she asked if Abby and I had considered medication for Jack to help him with his behavior.
This teacher was a pharmaceutical industry wet dream. I wondered just how many parents had begun medicating their children based on the recommendation of this teacher, with such amazing skills at working with young school-children.
I needed nothing further to understand exactly what was happening to Jack. The bully had shown herself clearly, in the form of a sadistic first grade teacher. What a perfect place, a perfect little world, for such a predator to thrive. She needed a good hard shove from someone her own size.
Without responding to Mrs. Lernoff’s incredibly ignorant reply, I invited the school’s principal, the district’s director of special education, as well as the school psychologist, to a meeting so that we could review the execution of Jack’s IEP immediately. While I didn’t copy Mrs. Lernoff on the email, I did forward it to her, using her earlier reply to me as the forwarding document—the one in which she suggested medicating Jack.
Mrs. Lernoff groped to get in front of the situation. She followed up my meeting request with an email suggesting to her superiors that an IEP review would be a good idea and that she had some ideas on ways to improve Jack’s classroom experience. Abby and I had ideas of our own.
The combination of the IEP and our ongoing work with Jack’s child psychologist was enough to motivate the director of special education to look into the matter with urgency. They decided that Jack was not getting the help he needed from Mrs. Lernoff and that they would assign a support teacher to work with Jack in the class room, to ensure that the IEP was getting executed, and that Jack should be placed in another classroom with another teacher for an opportunity for a fresh start. Abby and I disagreed on the grounds that this could communicate to Jack, and the other children, that he was being moved because of something he had done wrong.
We raised issues about Mrs. Lernoff that had implications beyond just our own child. Mrs. Lernoff was made aware that her punitive treatment of Jack was inconsistent with the needs of any child and was more likely to further isolate and alienate him from the very behavior we were all working to assimilate him with. She was also informed that she had crossed the line and put the school at considerable liability by recommending parents medicate their children—an issue that would require further investigation. She was placed on immediate administrative suspension and a new teacher was brought in to take the children through the rest of the school year.
Mrs. Wilkins had no idea that Jack would be in the first grade class she had been asked to come back to teach after the winter break. By the time the children were to return from the holidays, Mrs. Wilkins had become aware of the details of the situation. During her first week back she met with the parents to introduce herself and to inform them of what to expect over the rest of the school year. She said she was excited by this amazing opportunity and that her goals were simple: “I am here to execute the first grade curriculum to the best of my ability and in a manner in which each child takes with them a love of school, a love of learning, and an understanding that teachers can be a wonderful part of their life.
Jack’s lips squeezed together to secure the thermometer in his mouth while his hand supported the end, ensuring the silver tip remained safely beneath his tongue.
“Ninety-nine degrees this time,” I said. “Are you feeling any better.”
Jack answers with a slow nod. This is only the second day of school he has missed since returning after the winter break, and then it was an easily verifiable case of conjunctivitis.
“Daddy,” he said quietly, “I’m thirsty.”
Most of the color was returning to his face and his hair was no longer damp from the fever. Over the last ten minutes I had noticed that Sponge and Patrick had coaxed a few smiles from him.
“How would you like a little ginger ale?” I offer it as though ginger ale would be something special for him, as if he had earned the right for a special carbonated treat.
“Can I have a Gatorade?” he asked. “The blue kind?”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
I bend over and push my face against his—taking advantage of his non-resistance.
“Your a good kid,” I whisper the words—almost reassuringly—into his cheek, “I love you buddy.” A kiss serving as the punctuation to my heartfelt exclamation.
“How about I read Harry Potter with you after Sponge Bob is over?” I ask as I start toward the kitchen to get his blue Gatorade.
I am aware of how protective of him I have become over the last year. I am tired of the Mrs. Lernoffs of the world. I know, my advocacy for my son is a compensation for the advocacy I wish somebody had for me, in my time of need, of weakness. I don’t want my children to ever feel the way I feel.
I don’t want anyone to feel the way I feel.