Road blocks

December 14,2011
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.

L. had a presentation due yesterday in one of his elective classes. He doesn’t talk about schoolwork much (if at all) but he let slip mention of the upcoming presentation a few times these past two weeks--that's how I knew it was big. One time last week he asked me if he’d be in school that next Tuesday.

“Of course,” I answered.

“Great!” he said. “That’s the day of my presentation.”

We didn’t know much about the grading standards for the presentation. It’s an elective class, and all work for electives is supposed to be done at school. He’s been excited about the presentation, though, and I know this is why he wore his red and gray striped sweater on Tuesday. I have tried several times to talk to him about the content of his slideshow he prepared--on global superpowers, but he made it clear he had the topic covered.

When I picked him up after school yesterday I asked him how it had gone.

“Bad,” he said in the same non-commital, even-toned voice he uses for so much else. He's my inside-out child: disproportionately emotional and dramatic over light upsets, and even-toned and flat over the things that really matter. Yet I knew that under that flat tone he must have felt upset. I thought, not for the first time, how much easier it is to comfort a child who is visibly hurt and disappointed; you see the tears, you fix them.

His presentation had “too many words” the teacher had said, and not enough graphics. You could have done better, he said the teacher told him after class. What does that mean? Done better? How?

“It was boring,” L. told me.

“How do you know?”

“Because students did this” (here he made a loud groan) “and this” (he sighed heavily).

“Well that wasn’t polite,” I said, feeling a rush of anger and frustration inside. I prickled, my Mama-bear hackles raised high. “Did the teacher say anything to them?”

 L. shrugged. “Yes.”

I wanted to help him dissect the experience, turn it every which way so we could figure it out. But doing this with L. is like navigating in the dark, or completing a puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box. I had the feeling (the same one I often do when an assignment goes awry) that if I could rewind the clock, maybe I'd find something we could have done. I do know we are trying hard  to help him, without being an overbearing presence. We are trying to let him show us that he's got it on his own, that he doesn't need us back-seat driving his projects and schoolwork and miscommunications with teachers. We are trying to respect his independence, his desire to be like everyone else. He's struggling acadmically, though, and it's painful to see a bright child--any child--slipping. He still needs our help; we still need to advocate for him, even though he doesn't want us to. We try to map his world for him, translate other people's intentions. But sometimes--often these days--I think: I'm the one who needs a road map.