Friday, May 05, 2006

Old School

Little Babe was having trouble remembering his math facts
(i.e. -- his multiplication tables), so a meeting was suggested at his excellent, loving and innovative private school in the Bronx to address this matter. And while we were on the subject, the fifth grade teachers also thought that his reading skills could stand some improvement, and perhaps his level of concentration, so how was Monday morning at 10?

On said Monday morning, HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) and I drove up in our red Dodge Caravan to the sprawling, open and utterly enchanting school that had successfully educated Big Babe (now a junior at Columbia U) and Middle Babe (graduating a superb private school in NYC). We knew the school as dedicated to its nearly 1,000 students and committed to working with each child on their level and according to their learning style. While Middle Babe had been an ideal student, the learning style of Big Babe had been decidedly quirky. Little Babe, we knew, was probably something a bit beyond quirky, and HOBB and I had been deeply touched by the school's continuing dedication to supporting him and us.

This was not the first time that we were meeting to discuss Little Babe outside of the chaotic institution known as Parent-Teacher conferences. Due to his penchant for finding the machinations of his mind more interesting than the classroom discussion, Little Babe -- though beloved by his teachers and acknowledged to be bright and creative -- often gave the impression that he was residing on Pluto rather than inside his little bespectacled self and while there, was building a museum to house facts relating to Yu-Gi-Oh cards, Xiaolin Showdown cards, Alfie the Pomeranian, dogs in general, cats, hedgehogs, hamsters, prairie dogs, goldfish, chipmunks, play dates, friends, sleepovers, birthday parties, the summer, the solar system (including his Alma Mater, Pluto), junk food, cellos, knock-knock jokes, Scooby-Doo, Hitchcock films, Marx Brothers films, Harry Potter, the Series of Unfortunate Events books -- including information on Daniel Handler, the author behind Lemony Snicket, his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah (only two years away -- June '08), the menu for his Bar Mitzvah, his Torah portion and the Sunday party we are planning to hold at our summer community upstate, his cousins, his siblings, "The Misadventures of the Minersteins" -- an ongoing story I had made up concerning a family of kids who discover the diary of their great-great grandmother Tilly Minerstein and go on entirely implausible and ahistorical mining adventures -- and a variety of things that have nothing to do with math facts, phonics, current events, science or fifth grade in general.

We've had Little Babe tested just as we had Big Babe and Middle Babe tested before him. We had Little Babe in therapy just as we had Big Babe and Middle Babe in therapy before him. If I were to pause and use my math facts to add up the cost of a variety of tests and therapies, I would weep.

So it came to pass that on a recent Monday morning, at this glorious elementary school built on the banks of the Hudson River, a team of no less than eight educators sat around and tried to puzzle out the learning style of Little Babe, which thus far had eluded testers and had stumped his teachers. He didn't have anything specific, that is, LD or ADD or ADHD or dyslexia or anything for which there is a pill or a special course of action. What he seemed to have was a case of CLCCCTORPRTWHFGC -- Cute Little Creative Child Choosing to Reside on Pluto Rather Than Within his Fifth Grade Classroom, coupled with a bit of prolonged childhood, that is, somewhat slowish development, confirmed by his pediatrician whose stern advise to me last year (after the bone-age scan performed at Columbia-Presbyterian proved normal) was: He's a happy little kid developing at his own pace. Leave him alone.

Dr. Van Gilder's advice ringing in my ears, I was still obviously concerned with the challenge of helping Little Babe space shuttle down from Pluto to visit his classroom every now and then and therefore threw myself into the process of hearing Little Babe's various teachers provide their observations of him. Leaving the crowded principal's office one hour later, a plan of action was in place: more supervised reading, more math review...and more testing to possibly pinpoint something that the earlier testing had missed.

Don't get me wrong. I am not satirizing a process that I am deeply appreciative of, though the contrast between today's child-focused educators and the model of utterly clueless neglectfulness that I grew up with does strike me as inherently hilarious. Sitting amid these concerned educators who were committed to studying my ten-year-old as thoroughly as a page of Talmud served to zap me back in a Plutonian time-travel capsule to my own childhood of woefully inadequate educators, imperviousness to a variety of learning styles -- not to mention stuff like LD or dyslexia or ADD/ADHD -- and a punitive approach to any school-related failures or shenanigans.

Peeling back the years, I recalled my own fifth grade misadventures at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, now a large and wealthy institution with several campuses, then a shleppy little school housed at the Great Neck Synagogue. There were eighteen students in my entire grade. Looking back, I feel confident in saying that at least half of them had issues and syndromes that would require medication and therapy today.

Though I had attended North Shore from kindergarten through second grade, my third grade was spent at a girl's school in Jerusalem (our family was on sabbatical; my rabbi-father and dozens like him were inspired to live in Israel following the stunning victory of the Six Day War) and my fourth grade at another Jewish dayschool housed in a synagogue in Queens, whose education was so substandard as to make North Shore look like Horace Mann.

Anyway, I arrived at North Shore Hebrew Academy in the fall of 1970, marked for social ostracism. In honor of the occasion, my well-meaning mother had sewn me a dress of gingham plaid...perfectly matched to my lunchbox. The dress had a Peter Pan collar, little puffy sleeves and heart buttons coming down my boyish chest. Somehow, I got talked into saddle shoes and anklets. At five foot four, I was the tallest girl in the class, not fat yet pre-pubescently stocky (anorexia kicked in two years later). I had buck teeth (the torture of braces began in sixth grade and ended in eighth grade), long, thick dark hair invariably worn in two high pigtails on the side of my head, heavy bangs cut nerdishly short and black octagonal glasses which would be all the rage today but back then made me look like a Mad Scientist.

In other words, standing in the doorway of Mrs. Hayden's class was Frankenstein's young female sidekick, the very image of a social reject, the last kid you would ever want to be friendly with.

Imagine sitting in class on the first day of fifth grade and the door swings open to reveal the New Kid dressed in a dress straight out of The Wizard of Oz, freakishly tall, carrying a lunch box and (I nearly forgot) a briefcase, wearing shoes last seen during the fifties, teeth courtesy of Bugs Bunny, smiling so widely as to appear Chinese. And when the New Kid opens her mouth, it is revealed that the first four letters of her last name are interchangeable with "penis."

Now, I'm not saying that the raucous laughter which greeted my dramatic fifth grade debut completely accounted for my classroom misbehavior and failure to do any homework that year. But given my tomboyish, scofflaw personality, my strict home environment, the creative bent of my mind, the presence of one nightmarishly bitchy Queen Bee (skinny, fashionable, slutty daughter of Holocaust survivors) who mysteriously wielded great social power within our fifth grade (as Queen Bees tend to do) and my reliance on the Gospel of Tom and Huck, each new day of school was a new opportunity for juvenile delinquency.

Bored out of my mind, I read novels, Mad Magazine, Archie comics and such porn classics as The Happy Hooker in class, threw hate notes to the kids I hated, wrote perverted lyrics to television theme songs and commercials, shared shocking sexual trivia with the boys in the back of the classroom, cheated on tests, had arm wrestles in the back of the classroom or leg wrestling matches in the carpeted hallway outside the class, played hide and go seek in the darkened bathroom with my best friends Jackie and Sara (also unfashionable creative types like myself but less socially ostracized) escaped to the roof during class to have screaming contests or write musicals, played Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare during Chumash class, fantastized about changing my last name some day (I never did...not even when I married someone with a non-funny, non-sexual last name), stalked the Mexican or Puerto Rican or some kinda Spanish maintenance crew, snuck into Great Neck Synagogue during the school day to simply sneak into Great Neck Synagogue during the day, flunked math tests, acted outrageously in the classroom and no one, but no one even thought to sit down and discuss anything about my learning style, why I couldn't hold onto math facts, why I was such a lunatic and what to do about it.

Which is not to say that I got away with my behavior. I was yelled at and punished when my parents got a call from our principal, Rabbi Horowitz to tell them that my behavior was abominable. I got yelled at by Rabbi Horowitz himself. My report card reported that I did not have "self-control," which always made me think that I had a bladder problem, not that I couldn't stop laughing or shouting in class. It included the word "immaturity," which made me see myself as an unripe tomato. My teachers also noted that I was "not living up to my potential," which made me envision myself dwelling in a trailer park some day in the near future. I do remember that Rabbi Horowitz told me that I had a great potential for leadership, but he wasn't sure whether it was going to be for good or bad means. I foresaw myself as a female Hitler, adding his trademark moustache to the dark hairs that were beginning to sprout, most attractively, on my upper lip with the onset of adolescence, misusing my gift of leadership to inspire Jew-haters around the world.

(The yelling/punishing/neglecting-the-real-problem approach to kids like me during the sixties and seventies also extended to my anorexia, begun in seventh grade with severe calorie restriction (i.e -- starving myself), laxative use, stenuous exercise and fainting spells from hunger and weight loss which transformed me from a solidly built child to a long, leggy, dramatically underweight girl who looked, as my mother lamented, "like a survivor!!")

Ah...the good old days when none of the adults wondered why Allen A (not his real name) couldn't read fluently by the age of 10, or why Jon S (not his real name) would injure himself numerous times during the course of the school day or why Denise K (not her real name) came to school with red-rimmed eyes or why Jackie G (absolutely her real name) was such a colossal bitch and what dysfunction might have taken place in her Holocaust Survivor home to make her this way.

I hardly feel persecuted when I recall my elementary school "education" because I know I wasn't alone in being properly cared for by the adults in my life. During the fifties and sixties, smallish Jewish day schools were often outposts of the Wild West with a whole host of beyond-the-pale classroom behaviors, bullying, kids failing, kids falling beneath the radar screen, kids not learning and unqualified teachers at the ready. Strangely, our parents had the idea that the education we were receiving was much better than what was available at our local public schools, which were staffed by that golden generation of committed (mostly Jewish) educators and not yet subject to the overcrowded conditions and budget cuts of today.

(The real victim of persecution as a result of adult neglect was SOB (sister of Bungalow Babe). Today, a beautiful and gifted singer-songwriter, SOB was tormented every single day of her elementary school life by a band of kids whose raison d'etre was to make her life a living hell. When she and I discuss her terrible school experience, it is with horror and no small measure of disbelief. We both find it impossible to believe that the adults in her life did not take steps to protect her from what was going on. Then again, when I was nearly gang-raped at the age of 11, I got yelled at, not comforted or protected.)

Yet the Wild West tales of my own early Jewish day school education (near-gang-rape aside, which actually happened during the summer, up in the country, with teenage townies serving as the would-be rapists) kinda pale by comparison with that of HOBB, for instance, who remembers going to a school on Manhattan's Lower East Side where the kids would kill stray cats during the school day, throw furniture out the window, beat the crap out of weaker boys, steal from local stores and give their rebbes heart attacks. (Come to think of it, we once sent a teacher to a mental institution. I remember the day Rabbi Horowitz came to class to fix us with a weary, woe-filled gaze of defeat and tell us that we had "destroyed that poor man...just destroyed him." Though we thought this was hysterically funny at the time, I am haunted by this years later.)

And if my learning style was being ignored, if my parents and teachers failed to figure out the kind of learning environment which would work for me, then HOBB's host of learning issues -- many of which are well-documented today -- went criminally neglected, leading to a less-than-stellar academic career and his family's belief that he was bound for a future as a forest ranger.

Not to knock Forest Rangery as an exciting career choice, but HOBB turned out to be a professor at an Ivy League institution and the author of many books. Somewhere along the way, he was rescued from the bad educational environment and sent to a good school which lead to a good college. In fact, many of the super creative and bright guys I know today were problem students who morphed into bright and interesting adults. Many of them have achieved renown in creative careers. Sometimes, however, I think that the ghosts of uncorrected childhood problems continue to haunt them -- us -- in a variety of ways.

That was then. This is now. That was the age of parental neglect and ignorance, of teachers who thought that one size fits all. Some kids did okay. The rest of us -- the quirky, the creative, the learning disabled, the dyslexic, the hyperactive, the differently-abled -- muddled through and survived, but let's face it -- we would have been better off had the adults in our world been a bit more focused on us.

Now we are in the era of the focused attention on the student. We all know the results of overly-anxious parental vigilance, coupled with a mania to excel academically. We know about frantic applications to competitive schools and too many after school activities and a misguided compulsion to give children Mozart in the womb and French in pre-K and all kinds of expensive tutoring and enrichment to turn them into the people we wish we were.

I am not talking about the loopy, misguided, even pathological fringe of the right-minded impulse to focus on the individuality of the child which is prevalent now in good academic settings. I am talking about the caring, concerned, enlightened village of adults who work in concert to raise up our children, one by one. God bless them. As I sat in the crowded principals's office with Little Babe's personal group of cheerleaders, the ghosts of my sadly delinquent elementary school years past started to fade.