“Fully and Completely Weaned”
Among the reasons I moved from teaching-only to joint teaching/administration is that deans, division heads, and heads of schools, have many more opportunities to problem-solve with families, helping to create kids’ futures. It allowed me to know families far more intimately than I had before and afforded me many chances to make immediate, broad, and lasting differences in their lives. I was thrilled to add these occasions to the joy I’d already found sharing content and skills in the humanities.
A division head’s or a dean’s role, even a head of school’s role, is open; aside from the hour each day that we may teach (a welcome hour of relative predictability), we’re trying to shape lives in a continually moving, unpredictable, bubble-up environment. Whatever’s on your slate for an hour, for a morning, for the day, can easily be upended, even at day’s end.
The unexpected often greets teachers, too, of course. In September of my second year, in 1974, a very bright and troubled seventh grader dozing at his desk opened his eyes and offered a succinct assessment of his father’s sister: “So fuck you, Aunt Frieda, you’re a bitch” and promptly returned to Na-Na-Land. His peers’ eyes told me they were unsurprised and that I might expect more of this from Richard. I was pleased the group wasn’t distracted from our discussion. Later on I consulted with his counselor and his family about his various dosages. That was certainly strange but it’s not over-the-top- different from the surprises that punctuate many teachers’ days and careers. Good teachers know/learn how to acknowledge and manage the unusual, move forward with focus and grace, and when-to-share-what with whom.
As I’ve shared with you, the terrible and unique happened to all of us on 9/11, and in different ways, and most horribly to two of my boys, twins, whose dad died on the Pentagon plane. Yet cut-ins occur for far more common, less harrowing reasons:
. a sudden, mid-morning teacher illness;
. pranks that explode toilets;
. pranks that see kids’ candy bars chucked into toilets then offered to The Candy-less at lunch (middle school boys adore toilets);
. unexpected, suspendable behavior by an athlete on the eve of a championship;
. plagiarism/cheating/drug allegations just prior to college admissions decisions;
…these and more can conspire to overturn any sense of planning.
I must tell you, though, that my very strangest unexpected moment was not in any way public, involved no rule-breaking, nor did it immediately threaten anyone on or off our campus, and it didn’t affect routine.
It upended only me.
It was quick and private and of an order of bizarre that may well be unique and may defy the ability of any administrator to partner and problem-solve with parents.
. Late on a grey, cold November Philadelphia Friday;
. Students just leaving our very old and justifiably respected Philadelphia Quaker private school in the center of town;
. Air outside’s crisply pregnant with winter’s certain coming;
. I’ve returned to my Middle School Division Head’s office from rounds of shared Friday afternoon good-byes with maintenance people, students, colleagues; in halls, classrooms, labs, and gyms;
. I’ve placed books and papers together;
. I rise from my desk when
a tall, sharp-featured woman with very thick, long silver and black hair brushed severely up and back to one side of her head blows into my office, chin jutting. She wears an open black canvas duster with silver snaps over a navy crew sweater. The coat falls to the ankles of black corduroy jeans. I recognize her as the mother of a fourteen-year-old boy who had come to us that fall from the West Coast. Reports suggest Billy’s done reasonably well, academically and socially.
She and I haven’t met since a soccer match two months ago where we said Hello.
I’ve barely extended my hand, just got out the words, “Good afternoon, Ms. Parker; how may I..?” when she draws herself up within an inch of my face and announces in a seething, scraped voice–a voice that sounds as if it has been etched by heavy shards of glass:
“I would like you to know, sir, that I stopped breast-feeding William last summer and, despite what his father in Seattle may tell you, William is now weaned. Fully and completely weaned. I am confident we will not soon see him returning to the breast.”
She turns and sweeps from the room.
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