Monthly Archives: September 2011

Crime and Punishment

Because I in no way agreed with the effectiveness of suspending my son as a mode of discipline, and because I wanted him to understand the seriousness of his actions, I came up with my own “punishment”:

“Hey, Potatoes!”

[looks up from his knex] “What?”

“You done with all the work your teacher sent home?”


“Since you and I both know that suspension is more like a reward than anything else, I have something else for you to do.”

He eyes me warily.

“I want you to write at least two pages of different endings to this story. What else might have happened–besides Mr. Garza taking them away–if you brought firecrackers to school?”

He looks very puzzled.

“Like what if Kid X had brought another lighter to school and lit them, what might have happened?”

And there was much groaning and moaning, but he got out a piece of paper. (And folded it in half so that he could technically get two pages out of one page worth of writing.)

His list started like so:

  1. [Kid X] would get expelled.
  2. There might be a small boom.
  3. It might make colors.
  4. the wik might go out.
  5. it might stop lighting.
  6. [Kid X] might go to jail

You see what I mean? No idea why bringing firecrackers to school is a problem. So we talk about other possibilities. What if the “wik” just  looked like it went out, and a kindergartner picked it up and it blew her hand off, and you had to know that was your fault for the rest of your life? (Totally impossible with a firecracker the size of a birthday candle, I think, but let’s get creative if we can’t be realistic, which clearly we can’t in this district.) And so his list continued:

       6. the bark might catch fire.
       7. his hand might get hurt.
       8. somebody might get hurt.
       9. a teacher might get hurt.

Etc, etc, etc.  Whose consequence better fits the crime?  Teaches the kid anything at all?

Not that I would ever want an administrator’s job, or envy this one her’s. But have we failed to teach the difference between discipline and punishment to our principal candidates in college perhaps?



Where is that kid? I kept asking myself. I needed to leave to class by five, and he usually gets off the bus a little after four. Dinner was nearly ready, and I still hadn’t seen him.

His brothers were pretty sure he’d gotten off the bus, but he wasn’t answering when anyone called his name. And let me tell you I can make some noise when I need to.

Finally I went looking for him.

Opened his bedroom door to see him kneeling by his bed sobbing.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes I can read an entire story on my child’s face in a fraction of a second. I knew before he even reached into his pocket that he’d gotten in trouble at school.

How would I know that? This kid has never had so much as a tardy slip or a forgotten homework assignment in more than five years of public schooling.

But I knew. And my gut reaction was that I should put my arms around him, even before looking at the contract sheet he held out and assure him that whatever the paper said, it would be okay–that I knew he was a good kid, and that I’d be on his side, no matter what.

I wish I had. But I was so surprised–not one of my children has ever been in trouble at school before, and he is the last kid I’d expect to cause trouble–that my eyes flew right to the page.

And then the  story came out.

Picture this: A group of ten-year-old boys, back at school after summer break, bragging on the playground about what they did over vacation. The topic of fireworks comes up and some kid says he lit off firecrackers and another kid calls him a liar and says firecrackers are illegal, you can’t buy them here, and my kid pipes up and says, “Yes you can. My uncle gave me some.”

“Nuh-uh, they’re illegal.”

“No they aren’t; I still have them.” (Note the logic here: “I couldn’t possibly have something that’s illegal; the safe, orderly world I know would never permit something like that to happen.”)

And suddenly everyone is interested in this conversation. Because now Kid X (and you all know Kid X–he’s the kid that comes up with the spectacular ideas for tricks to play during assemblies) is bugging my kid to prove it–in fact to hand some over, so Kid X can see if they are real.

My son says no way. After all, if Kid X wants them, they must be pretty cool to have.

But then Kid X offers him $5.

And obviously my kid doesn’t really know what to do with firecrackers, because he’s had them for nearly three months and never lit them off. But he knows what to do with $5. He knows that money is a precious commodity that Mom never has enough, and so she can’t shell out for Popcorn Friday or sign up for book orders like everyone else. So he agrees.

And then suddenly, the school is ablaze with rumors. Kid X, who had a lighter confiscated just the day before, has firecrackers. And he bought them from that Lybbert kid.

Mr. Garza, the school counselor hears about it, and brings the boys in. My kid hands over the $5 and explains the transaction. He’s totally bewildered by all the attention. What’s the big deal? But then people are talking expulsion but the principal is out of town, so we don’t really know what will happen, so go home and stew about this all weekend, and we’ll hand down a sentence on Monday morning.

And now I’m sitting on his bed, and he has been sobbing his heart out for more than 45 minutes because he doesn’t know how he can possibly break the news to his mother that he is going to prison. I assure him that it’s okay, everybody makes mistakes, I know he’s a good kid, etc, etc–the things I should have said before even reading the paper.

I also tell him that yes, he might get suspended or expelled, but that’s okay too–because even if we don’t know about a law, we still have to face consequences. It doesn’t make us bad, just human.

This is the same response I get from the counselor on Monday morning. “He’s a good kid–in fact, I thought he must be a new student,” he says. “I’ve never even seen him before, that’s how good he is. Similarly, his classroom teacher is stunned that anyone is talking suspension. Floored that anyone could think that this kid made anything more than a naive mistake.

But the principal has to stick by the rules. I respect that. And so I sit there in her office while she lectures my son and asks him if he’s sorry. He just sort of sits there with a deer-in-the-headlights, terrified-out-of-his-skin expression on his face.

Of course, just because I can read that expression doesn’t mean she can. I think she took his silence as some variety of defiance, honestly. Because then she launched into preemptive mode–just in case he ever thinks about selling “alcohol, drugs or weapons” again at school. (Her words, not mine.) She does not look at me except for one sidelong, flitting glance when she asks if I have any questions, which I don’t.

Because I’m trying to make sense of the “alcohol, drugs, or weapons” comment still. Because a kid that doesn’t even know how to light a firecracker is probably planning on building a homemade bomb or toting a sawed off shotgun in next, right?


I sign the paper saying I understand that he has been suspended and then we go out to the car.

But as I drive away, almost fighting back tears that I don’t really understand and so I can’t possibly be on the brink of spilling them, I finally get my wits about me enough to have a question, although it’s too late to ask it of Mrs. Principal:

In what way is suspension a punishment? What kid wouldn’t welcome a prolonged, excused absence from school? As my sister-in-law observed, “Don’t tell my kids, or they’ll take fireworks to school, too!”

And now I have all sorts of questions:

Do we suspend children because they are a danger to their peers? That’s legitimate in some cases I suppose, but I hardly think my son falls into that category and I hardly think putting him in it is in any way beneficial.

Do we suspend children because it shames them? Because they will be so mortified about falling into the “suspended kid” category that they never want to show their face at school again? Because I can cite you mountains of research that demonstrates shame to be the least effective and most counterproductive approach to discipline in existence.

My son was one of these students. He liked the vacation well enough, but dreaded anyone finding out why he was absent. So then I had to bolster his ego and treat the suspension like a bit of a joke so that he wouldn’t refuse to ever show his face in public again. I know kids who’d slit their wrists over this kind of trauma.

I also know kids who’d be surprised at all the attention and bad-boy status their new reputation garnered and proceed to become the very “bad” kid they’ve been labelled as being. Why not? Being good never got them anywhere. Counselor and Principal never even knew they existed before, right?

And what of the kid who really is borderline dangerous/disturbed/needing serious discipline, but who has no parent in the home to supervise a suspension? You’re going to excuse that student from school and turn him loose on his own? A school sanctioned drop-out, as it were? How productive is that scenario? Why didn’t the principal ask what alternate plans are in place for a suspended student? How did she know that I wasn’t leaving him alone at home with mountains of firecrackers to play with? Not her business, surely, but really? We just kick kids out of school, and it’s not our problem what happens to them or because of them once the door closes on their heels?

What kind of system is that?


Sometimes I stare at the ceiling at night, thinking about bills.

“You are totally in denial,” I say to myself. “Property tax and homeowners insurance are due in weeks.”

But when I talk to God about this he just smiles and shakes His head.

“Haven’t you learned anything about me, after all this time?”

And so I give Him what I hope is an apologetic, and not a doubtful smile. (God heard Sarah laughing, in the tent, after all.) And night after night, I go to sleep.

Last night, I put a figure on that black hole in my bank account.

Three thousand dollars,” I think. “I will need three thousand dollars, tomorrow.”

There are places I could turn to get that money that I don’t want to think about. But there is also a car in my driveway this morning.  I think it might be that couple who asked, Sunday, if our basement apartment will open up any time soon.

They call me.

Would it be okay if they wrote me a check for $3000 so they could reserve the apartment for the next six months it is available?

Yeah. Yeah, that would be more than okay with me.

But then, it always is, isn’t it? More than okay? When we put our trust in the God of not just the big things, but the pathetic little things like our bank balances and the food we hope to put on the table for our children?

God hears and answers prayer, even when we’re guilty of laughing within the door of the tent. He can sense the faith we occasionally permit the avalanche of our days to conceal from our own view–and he does the impossible. Over, and over, and over.

And I am humbled beyond belief. Softened toward those who tell me that I cannot do the impossible, or who doubt my love or who outright defy me.

Because how can I not?

Willy Wonka, Forget-Me-Nots, and Faith

Loved this!

Keeping the Lights On

First day on the job:

I drive up to Warden High School. I know it is the high school because there is a sign in the parking lot that says so. And there’s a largish brick and stucco building that looks like it’s probably a school, but I can’t find a front door. There are many doors that appear to be service entrances, all the way around the school, but nothing that looks as though it might be unlocked at 7:45 in the morning. Finally I ask a young man–who is sitting on a bench, staring glumly at his feet–if he knows where the entrance to the high school is.

He shrugs. “Dunno.”

That makes two of us.

Finally I follow a gaggle of girls in through what I’m certain must be a fire exit.

And lo and behold: there is the office.

I know this because there is a tiny little plastic sign screwed to the wall beside another obscure looking door.

Do they not want anyone to enter their school? Find the office?

The secretary hands me a single key and directs me down the hall and to the right to Mr. H’s room. It will be the last time I will see another adult for the rest of the day.

I figure out how to make the key and the lock successfully interact on room 314, and then I flip on the lights. All three of them, because the first two appear to do nothing. It isn’t until the door slams shut behind me that I realize the third one does nothing, either.

I’m standing in the dark, feeling around for another light switch. Nothing. I fish my cell phone out of my bag and consider calling the office, begging to be let in on the secret to illuminating my classroom.

Then I remember that they don’t answer the phone until 8.

I really don’t want to go back to the office. In the dim light making its way in from the hall, I can make out a large object on the far side of the room that is probably a desk. On the desk is probably a phone. Maybe the office would answer if I called from inside the school?

I can’t see any numbers in the dark.

But apparently I waited long enough for the gods of illumination to take pity on me: the lights blink on.

(They would blink off again whenever the students left and the gods decided I’d remained motionless long enough. During my planning period I’d have to periodically quit typing notes and start to wave my arms around.)

I arrived early so I could look through the textbook; it’s been a long time since I took high school math. So I sit down and panic over the first question. Call my daughter; she talks me through it. The rest looks easy enough, and my first class only has 11 kids in it. Breeze.

Period two: Something like 40 students. Freshman, I think. Egad. An intimidating number of them six times my size wearing skulls and headphones the size of earmuffs. You remember those, right? The big fuzzy ones that never really kept our ears from freezing, but we wore them anyway because it was better than a toque, and if your mother was watching you go out the door it was one or the other?

Turns out the kids with the headphones are the only ones who did any work. School policy makers who ban such items: take note.

Oh, and the kid from Belgium who only spoke French. Turns out he was some sort of genius, he just had really bad handwriting and didn’t know enough English (or know that I spoke enough French!) to tell me what he’d written down. That was an experience.

Seven hours later, I’m wrung out.  I have just enough time to get home, rescue a very done dinner from the oven, nag my children to do their homework, and leave again to sit through my own class until nine o’clock.


I learned so much, and yet I have a hard time putting it into words. At least not tonight.

Captain Crunch, Doritos, and Cows

Son #1: “Mom!! Why do you keep eating raw corn?”

Me: “‘Cause it’s better for you.”

Son #2: “That’s a lie.”

[Ha. True.  I’m just too lazy to cook it.]

Son #2: “Dude, seriously: The only good thing that comes from corn is Captain Crunch, Doritos, and Cows.”


I keep writing posts and leaving them in my “drafts” folder.

What does that mean?

Never mind. Don’t answer that.

In summary, I suppose, and in lieu of actually publishing them all:

This past month I

  1. Reached a sort of surreal milestone marking the day I have been married for more days of my life than I have not been married.
  2. Quit my job. But you know all about that.
  3. Agreed to work elsewhere for $650 a month. Before withholdings.  (What?! Did I also reach the milestone at which one does really, really, really stupid things?) It had really good hours. It’s the only item I have in my defense.
  4. Quit that job–after about two weeks of training and preparation and a grand total of about one hour actually on the job and an accumulation of $0 in wages. That’s a post in and of itself. That I probably will never post. Let’s just say that I feel like I have narrowly escaped the very jaws of Hell.
  5. Ran five miles. All at one go. Me. Yes, it took me an hour and six minutes. But I did it. And survived.
  6. Was outgrown by yet another child. Not to mention that I also became the mother of a 6′ tall 15 year old. (Clarification: I was always his mother; he was never this tall.)
  7. Speaking of really tall children, in consequence of #2, reached another, even more surreal milestone at which my 5’11” 16 year old makes more money than I do. And has a significantly healthier bank account.
  8. Pondered long over the question of whether or not to call certain of my children out on behaviors that are in no way against any of our rules, but which they clearly do not want me to know about. I don’t want to bring it up, because I don’t want them to lie to me. And I’m pretty sure they will. Because they  already have… without… technically… lying.
  9. Got my emergency teaching certificate for Warden School District.
  10. Realized that no matter what job I do or do not have, what classes I am or am not taking, I will never reach that nebulous point in the future when “everything will settle down”. Because that’s not who I am. Apparently. There is not enough space in twenty lifetimes to do everything I think I ought/want/need to do.
  11. Began the most insane class ever designed to sink a student. Ever. Unbelievable. This man is either brilliant or insane. Or both. And clearly OCD. EVERY assignment (of which there are many every week) must include a cover sheet. And not just any cover sheet. His wife slipped us a sample one the other night and recommended we use a ruler and some detective skills and figure out how to design one that looks exactly  like it.
  12. Read my first Louis L’Amour novel ever. Because someone gave my boys every book ever written. It was actually… pretty good.
  13. Quit checking my email. I used to keep on top of my inbox–it was the primary way I communicated with parents and the DEL and the USDA, etc. An email didn’t come in but what I deleted or dealt with it within an hour or so. Now days go by and emails pile up and I dread opening my inbox.
  14. Sold a lot of things on Craiglist and ebay. Ergo, I still have internet access to write this. Would you believe that somebody was willing to buy the movie “Condorman” for $20? I don’t even know where that movie came from, but we had it. Maybe I should have watched it first. It must be stellar.
  15. Have archived this post no less than 6 times thinking I would get back to wrapping it up in a quasi-meaningful way and publishing it.
  16. Am going to hit publish… right… now…