Maybe - FamilyEducation

Maybe

April 13,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I was happily typing away at my computer, and fielding questions from students who were constantly streaming into my office yesterday (big research paper due next week!) when the phone rang. It was the front office lady at L.'s school.

"He threw up," she said. "And his stomach hurts."

We've learned to regard all such phone calls with suspicion. I can think of only one time in all of L.'s elementary school years that we actually had to pick him up because he really and truly threw up. Mercifully, L. just isn't a kid who is prone to stomach bugs. I called the resource teachers with the hope that they would run interference and try and figure out what was happening, but the lead teacher was out and the other teachers were very unhelpful.

"He was fine when I saw him," said one.

"Yup. Fine when I saw him," said the other.

I sighed. I slapped a quick note on my door and drove to L.'s school. I got him into the car and probed a little further. He folded. As I suspected he had not thrown up, but his stomach did hurt--from anxiety and wound-up nerves. He had a fiction writing assignment due yesterday--a different assignment from the one we toiled over on Sunday. I thought what he had written was very good--he modeled his story after this favorite book of his. He had mimicked--very effectively--the staccato pattern of the author's prose, and the fast-paced banter between the characters. The characters' names were all mutations of the original names from the book--recognizable mutations. He felt inadequate. Not only was the story not long enough, but he had that nagging, sinking feeling in his stomach that he had not created something original. He was afraid he'd have to read it out loud. The other kids would laugh. 

As a teacher and a writer I know that one of the most effective ways to hone any skill or craft is through modeling someone else's. One time, in high school, I had to write a gothic tale in the manner of Edgar Allen Poe. Art students might be challenged to create their own reproduction of a masterpiece; aspiring basketball stars might copy how their favorite athlete sets up a shot. I explained all this to L.,  but I'm not sure he was convinced. I empathized with his deep fear of being exposed as a failure--and I also knew that no amount of reassurance from me could change that at that very moment.

I was faced with a dilemma. He had lied. Did I turn the car around and march L. right back to school, given that he wasn't truly sick? I was halfway back to my office with him before I learned the whole story, and turning around to take him back to school just seemed...inconvenient. More importantly, L. does not process abrupt turnarounds in expectations very well at all and I had the feeling that finding himself back at school could send the rest of his day crashing down around him. However, I also didn't want him to feel that lying about being sick was at all acceptable. I also wanted him to know that even though I had my doubts about his condition, I had still driven to school to check on him--I still worried about him. And I wanted him to understand that the best way to work through anxiety about something is to work through it.

A huge part of parenting is second-guessing your choices, and realizing, too, that sometimes you don't always make the best ones. Maybe I should have turned the car around and taken him right back to school. We could have tracked down the teacher and talked with her about L.'s concerns. Instead, we spent the car ride to my office talking about choices and strategies. We talked about what he could have done, instead of making up a story about being sick. Maybe he could have called me, and talked through his worries. Or he could have gone to the resource room and asked for a break, and a chance to share his concerns. Maybe he could have gone to the language arts teacher herself, and asked for reassurance. But when a child is crippled by anxiety and the prospect of interactions like those, it's difficult to teach the importance of them in the first place. Maybe I wasn't helping him in the long run, by keeping him with me that afternoon. Maybe later that day, finally home with a considerably relaxed and happy L., I'd get a critical e-mail from L.'s resource teachers for "rewarding" his lie. Maybe I goofed, big-time.

Or, maybe not.