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What will the teacher say? Dreaded Teacher Parent Conferences

You never know what they are going to say.

Your kid is brilliant, disruptive, kind, bully, sensitive, funny, awkward etc.  We don’t know until we sit in that pint-sized chair across from the ruler-clad teacher.  Our minds dreading what bombshell may be dropped in our laps. We have received the occasional note home indicating that one of the twins made a less than stellar choice in school.  But for the most part, nothing earth shattering.

Last year, we sat in those tiny chairs across a miniature table from Bruiser’s teacher expecting to hear about his remarkable academic improvement.  Plus, we hoped to to receive reassurance that his behavior had improved, after all, we only received one note and one call home.  From Princess’ teacher, we expected to hear how gifted she was.  And, that she is a pure pleasure in class.

SURPRISE!  That isn’t how it went down.

Within moments of walking into Bruiser’s Kindergarten classroom in 2013, we are told that the school guidance counselor will be joining us.  Having the guidance counselor in the conference is NEVER a good sign.  Totally expecting a great report, my head started to spin as I sat and tried to predict what nightmarish offense that Bruiser committed.

It all started well.  Bruiser is smart, academically above his peers  but he has a temper (no kidding…like we don’t know that), the guidance counselor would like to work with him and teach him how to manage “Bruiser’s plan” when it differs from “group plan”.  Guess that it isn’t a huge deal so my head stopped spinning but not for long.

Off to the next conference with our daughter, Princess’ teacher.  Relieved that our more challenging conference is over, we brace ourselves to revel in the report on our predictably, well-behaved child.  But within a split-second, my gifted child is made out to be a boy crazed 6 year old–sneaking off in the corners of the room with boys.    The teacher was so concerned that she recommended that we speak with her pediatrician about it.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME! I could just picture it, telling my pediatrician that Princess is a flirt and her teacher is recommending therapy.  I would be laughed out of his office.

Well, after last year’s conferences, we went in this year expecting the worst.


Couldn’t be more proud of the twins.  Thrilled with their teachers who have taken the time to help the kids work through their individual issues, although I am not 100% sure there were ever significant issues to start with.  Bruiser still needs to adjust his “internal barometer of justice”  (loved his teacher’s label—it is a perfect description of Bruiser’s perception of the world) and Princess is less of a flirt but now is a heart breaker.  But with this said, all is good.

The Box

Christmas 20030002Let me tell you a story…

I’m in second grade and I get the lead in “Little Red Riding Hood.”  It’s VERY exciting.  I’m proud and my parents are proud.  Dad is so proud he takes over a “mom-job” and works with me on my lines.  A lot.  I mean, a real lot.  So I’m ready.

It’s the day of the show.  Dad takes the afternoon off from work and sits with Mom and my little sister in the audience.  The show starts and my class is performing our little second grade hearts out.  The stage is big and we’re small but we’re doing fine.  Time for the big finish.

I should tell you that our version of Little Red Riding Hood is different than most.  In ours, Grandma comes through her encounter with the big, bad, wolf just fine.   At this point, it’s my job to open a box and hand Grandma a gift.  So.  I pick up the box, take off the lid, look inside.  And it’s empty.

I do what any 8 year old would do in the circumstances.  I panic.   The stage which had already been big now looks huge.  The audience looks like it’s doubled in size.  I look at my teacher, Mrs. Patterson, in the wings.   She assumes that I’ve forgotten my line and starts to mouth it to me.

So now I’m panicked and I’m mad because, as we’ve discussed, I know my lines.  I point to the box and mouth back to her, “There’s nothing in the box!”  She gestures to me to keep going.  I know this won’t work but I do what I’m told.  I pull nothing from the box and I hand nothing to Grandma and the play ends.

I go out to the audience and see Dad and explain what happened.  He leans down and tells me to listen very carefully.  He says “Gail, there’s a saying in the theater that applies just as much in life.  That saying is ‘the show must go on.’ No matter what happens to you in life, I want you to remember that and just keep going.”

It’s been more than a few years since I was in that play.   I’ve had a number of opportunities to remember Dad’s advice, but none as meaningful as when M and I were trying to start a family.  In spite of our best efforts and the efforts of the best science of the time, it didn’t look like it was going to happen.  It was hard.  And it was sad.  It felt like I had been handed another empty box.

But I heard my dad’s voice and we just kept going.  We kept going until we landed at the doorstep of JFS of Metrowest where we met Dale and Raquel of Adoption Choices.  They listened and they heard me.  Their kindness helped me let go of the box.  It wasn’t empty. It just wasn’t mine.

It’s hard to believe but our daughter K just turned fifteen.  That dark time seems so long ago and I can barely remember the sad, Christmas 20030003empty woman I was.  You see, I just have to look at K’s face, I just have to hear K’s voice to know.  Yeah, I have the right box now.

Fear of the Unknown..Appreciation of the Ordinary

As I look out the window, I see the remnants of a snow storm that blanketed the area just a few weeks ago and a topping of the few inches of fresh snow that fell last night.  Somehow we have been referred to as “the sweet spot” of many of the Nor’easters this year.  However, this storm was different we were spared “the sweet spot” label.

This morning, all appeared to be fine, roads were cleared, my husband and JJ cleared off the driveway and the cars, Bruiser played on our Kindle and Princess was in a trance in front of the TV………school was delayed but beyond the two extra hours…the morning ran fairly close to normal.  At 9:30 JJ headed to the bus stop.  While the twins were getting their snow gear on, I received a somewhat frantic call from my cousin who lives up the street.  She sounded flustered and wanted to know what number school bus our middle school kids were on.

There had been an accident between a school bus and a van.  The kids on the bus and the bus driver were fine…….the driver of the van was fine and there were some injuries to the two children in the van but they are expected to fully recover.

But just the next 15 minutes, were filled with such fear……..was JJ on that bus?  Couldn’t reach the school.  Couldn’t reach the transportation department.  The kids must have been so scared.  What was the driver of the van doing as said she was being cited.  Are the roads so bad that I should keep the twins home?

After about 15 minutes of fear, rationally I realized that had it been JJ’s bus, I would have received a call.  I soon was assured that the bus wasn’t JJ’s.  But, it really makes you realize how much you need to appreciate each and every day.

Love and Being Real

sleepA few weeks ago, an inquisitive first grader, with adorable crazy curls, wearing a tousled outfit (reminds me of myself at that age) walks into her kitchen during Daisy Scouts, and overhears me talking to her mom about our family. The Inquisitive first grader then asks me what adopted means. “We’re an adoptive family; I’m her adoptive mom, or everyday mom. She also has a birth mom who gave birth to her.”  I explain a bit more about adoption and how it is for our family, then she announces “that’s sad” and says “who’s her real mom?” I of course laugh it off, and tell the now slightly bothersome, yet still adorable, first grader that neither of us is imaginary, that we are both real moms. Then she avoids my eyes, spying some cookies up on a high shelf, asks her mom for some, and heads back to the scout meeting. Her mom and I gave each other that, “Yup, that’s first graders for you” look and moved on with our conversation.

I rather enjoyed my conversation with the inquisitive first grader, she’s a kid I really like, and I appreciate her frankness. I am also amused that we made it all the way to first grade before anyone asked about my oldest daughter’s “real” mom. We are lucky to live in a pretty progressive place, in an enlightened age, and to have many different family make-ups in our daughter’s school, in our community, and in our church. We have always felt welcome and accepted in our community, and most importantly felt like a “real” family.

With all that said, we do still work on keeping appropriate adoption speak and realistic images of adoption present in our life, most in particular in our girls school. This week, my oldest daughter will be sharing a book with her class, which she and I made, about her adoption story. My husband and I will join her in class to help with the presentation, and to guide, or deflect, any conversation or questions her classmates may have. We will also be bringing in a few of our favorite picture books about adoption for the class to borrow, and some photographs of our family, including some of our daughter’s birth family to share with the kids. Hopefully our story will teach the kids how real bookswe all are, and that the most important thing about our adoption is how real the love is that our daughter has from all her parents.

Facing our Fears

In just a few weeks, K will graduate from 8th grade.  One of her last assignments is to write a graduation speech.  Each of the 8th graders writes a speech and delivers it to the children and parents of their homeroom class.  Afterwards, two are selected to be shared at the ceremony itself.  K decided to write hers on the theme of facing fears and how she and others did this during middle school.  It’s a lovely speech containing just the right combination of reflection and comic relief with the FDR quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” thrown in for good measure.

When we searched on-line to make sure she had captured the quote accurately, we found one of his other quotes, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”  K chose the classic, well-known quote but this other one really struck a chord with me.  As I think about it, it could be my parenting manifesto, if, in fact, I’m even using the word manifesto properly.  In case I’m not, I mean my motto, only bigger than that.

I was afraid when we started the adoption process.  Afraid that no birth parents would choose us.  Afraid that if they did, they’d change their minds.  Afraid about the lack of control I would have in pre-natal care.  Afraid about the lack of control I had in everything.  I was afraid but we went forward any way because the possibility that I would never be a mother was so much worse.  K’s birth mother did choose us, and she didn’t change her mind, and her pre-natal care was fine, and control is over-rated.  K was ours and I could stop being afraid.

Yeah, except then there was the first night in the hotel.  We fed K and changed her and watched her breathe.  When morning finally arrived, I was so grateful we had all survived.  Until I realized we needed to do it again and again and again.  So I took a deep breath and took it one day at a time.  Being K’s mom was more important than being afraid.

Then there was K’s first fall.  We were at my parent’s house and I was right next to her.  She tottered and fell and I couldn’t catch her in time.  K was fine and I was in tears.  I looked at my mom and dad and said “I tried to catch her and I couldn’t.”  My dad, the father of 5 and grandfather of more, shook his head and said, “That’s the first fall of many.  You’re going to have to pace yourself.”  My dad was a wise man who said many wise things but “you’re going to have to pace yourself” is one of my favorites.   When my fear for K outweighs my courage, I try to pace myself.

And now K’s graduating from middle school.  She goes places without us.  Her friends’ parents are no longer exclusively people I’ve known for years.  There are middle school boys.  Cars are in her not-so-distant future.  Next year, there will be high school boys.   As much as I’d like to erect stone walls on either end of our street, I have to smile and let her go.  I don’t have to like it and I can still be afraid but I have to let her go.  I like to think that FDR and my dad would be proud.

The Worry Factor: Finding my place on the scale

Why do we worry?

Often I find that being a parent increases your “Worry Factor” three-fold and I worry that my emotions may be following suit.

The History:

My grandmother used to worry constantly……I vowed never to be like that.  My mother worries to a lesser degree or at least appears to.  I don’t think my father worries…but my father-in-law probably worries enough for both of them.  My husband tends to worry but has mellowed out in his years.  My sons worry, the dog worries……my daughter doesn’t.  Now it comes to me…………I fall somewhere in the middle but am trending upward in my “Worry Factor” as I get older contrary to my vow never to head in that direction.

When is the “Worry Factor” in a healthy zone?  When is the “Worry Factor” too high? 

As I sat down to think about what to blog about, I decided to explore the “worry factor.” I found that Dr. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of Worry, claims that worry can serve a productive function but can turn toxic when the worry overwhelms and paralyzes you.  Good worry or as I am referring to as a low “worry factor” leads you to constructive action with appropriate attention to risk and danger.   Unfortunately, I am beginning to dabble in this toxic worry.

My “Worry Factor:

As I mentioned, I typically fall into the mid-low range on the “Worry Factor” scale.  But I did find myself in a situation this week that is a bit too similar to something that I could see my grandmother doing.

So the background to the story is that my son, JJ, is a high honors student—consistently doing well in school, actually awesome.  We couldn’t be any more proud.  His teachers are especially impressed with his ability to write.  Well, the “Worry Factor” went into overdrive this week when I started to think about the time he spent working on his papers.  He was spending hours, upon hours each night with his writing assignments, often staying up until 11:30 before he put his pen down or shut off his computer.  As a concerned mother, I started to question whether he was taking too long?  Would his grades on the Massachusetts standardized tests be negatively impacted by the length of time he takes to process his thoughts?  Is he being too much of a perfectionist?  And you can imagine the tidal wave of “worry” that overcame me!  So without delay, I immediately sent a note to his teacher describing my concerns.

Within less than an hour I received a beautifully crafted response from his teacher and the two school reading specialists that explained how middle school is a time for kids to perfect their writing, not a time to worry about how long it takes them.  His English teacher further explained how she always reads JJ’s papers last since he is such an exceptional writer.  She says that by saving his for last, every writing assignment ends on a positive note.  She further noted that she thinks that JJ should consider being a writer because of his innate talent with the written word.  Her positive comments went on and on.  The reading specialists keyed in with more positive things to say about his writing.  Wow!!

Ok….so my “Worry Factor” about the amount of time JJ spends on writing is back in check.  I have come to accept that he is a perfectionist, but that is ok!

But now, my “Worry Factor” is sky-high with concern that his teacher thinks I am a total crazy mother who has too much time on her hands and is creating issues to worry about.  I can just imagine the side conversations that they are having about the lunatic who is worried about her son who consistently receives the highest grade in the class on every writing assignment.

“Worry Factor” –goal is to have it decrease before the next teacher conference.

The things that matter aren’t always the things we measure

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  Albert Einstein

My husband M and I were poster children for traditional education.  We both learned to read easily, and were able to handle math without any difficulty.  We were linear thinkers – all our thinking fit comfortably within the educational box of our time.  We had an unpleasant teacher here and there but emerged from our early education emotionally unscathed and well prepared for the demands that college placed upon us.

We imagined that K would follow a similar path.  Knowing how important early exposure to reading was, I started reading to her at 2 weeks old.  I would have started earlier but in the flurry of last minute packing, forgot to bring any books when we went to get her in San Diego.  By the age of two, K had an incredible vocabulary and all sorts of interesting stories to tell.

But K’s thinking didn’t fit comfortably inside any box.  When she was 3, I scolded her once by saying “When I tell you something is unsafe, you have to listen to me.”  She replied, “I do listen to you Mommy but sometimes, I have to listen to me.”  Her first year of pre-school was unspectacular.  One of her teachers thought she was charming; the other found her frustrating.  M & I knew we had to consider other options besides the nearby public school that had been our previous plan.

Fortunately, we found a Montessori school which was comfortable with both in and out of the box thinkers.  On her first day of pre-school there, her teacher told me “This is a fabulous kid and she had a fabulous day.”  To this day, when K and I battle over homework, I hear that wonderful woman’s voice.  It reminds me that although we may not be having a fabulous moment, I do, in fact, have a fabulous kid.

K didn’t learn to read easily and although she understood math concepts, things like math facts were a struggle.  Yet, she was surrounded by people who knew how awesome and smart she was.  She acquired an incredible work ethic and she never gave up.  Ultimately, the reading came.  Once she started doing basic algebraic equations, math facts had more meaning and began to stick.

Now in 8th grade, K attends a public charter school.  The middle school’s focus is on “expeditionary learning” which we thought would be a good transition from Montessori to a more traditional program.  She is happy there and doing well.  M & I went to K’s “Student Led Conference” last week.  Unlike a traditional parent/teacher conference, the student runs these meetings.  K talked to us about her love for Social Studies and Science and the things she was working to improve in ELA (English Language Arts) and Algebra.  She showed us a Medieval Manor she had made as part of a group project.

At this point, her teacher interjected.  She told K, “Your group created an awesome Medieval Manor but what I really want to compliment you on is your ability to work with other people.  You have an incredible ability to talk with other people and work well with everyone.  Of all the 8th grade kids I’ve worked with this year, I have to say that you are the kindest.  It’s really refreshing to see and I hope that you never lose that.”

Working well with people and kindness.   It wasn’t graded on her report card and I’m sure the upcoming standardized tests don’t have a module on it.  Yet, I was as proud of that comment as I was the day K read her first chapter book.  In all honestly, prouder.

As an adoptive parent, I know that I had nothing to do with K’s beauty but I always wonder about my impact on her personality traits.  Some of her language is definitely mine – the excessive use of “apparently” is just one example.   Her inability to cross against the light – mine.  Interest in manga – not mine.   The kindness?   I’d like to take credit for it but K has always been a special kid.    Even as a very young child, she would stick up for other kids and stand up for what she thought was right.   So, I think that one’s a combo.  She was born with an innate tendency for kindness and empathy and we managed to keep it going.  Us and all the wonderful educators K has met along the way, who recognized her for the fantastic fish she is and left the tree climbing for the monkeys.

Love and School

My oldest started Kindergarten earlier this month. It’s awesome! My youngest started Pre-K and that is awesome too! I love back to school. It’s so great to see the girls make new friends, experience new things, and to see how they integrate our home life into their school life (and vice versa).

I’ve preceded the start of each school year with a letter to the classroom teacher (and this year the guidance counselor too) which outlines our family makeup for them. My hope is that this letter will help the teachers and staff understand adoption, adoption language, and how adoption is for us. I do this in order to spare my kids the dumbfounded look of adults who don’t get adoption (or differences in family make up in general).

When I write the letter each year I have a line from the poem Black is Brown is Tan by Arnold Adoff, “This is the way it is for us, this is the way we are” running through my head. Basically, I like to spell it out as simple and clear as possible for the reader. I don’t give back story, nitty-gritty details, or write anything that my kids don’t already know themselves. I give labels to all the family members, what role the family members each have in my child’s life, and what open adoption means, and doesn’t mean for my family. I try to stick to “This is the way it is for us, this is the way we are” as this is also the motto I have for my family in general.

My girls talk about their birth families as they talk about everyone else in their life, integrated into their wondrous universe, which they are the masters of. But sometimes, I am taken aback by my girls’ depth of thinking about our big crazy open adoption family. This happened late last week. My oldest daughter had created an “All about me” project which was displayed for Parents Night in her classroom.  It was adorable, and pronounced her age, eye color, hair color, favorite color (blue!) and then for the last page it said “One important thing you should know about me is ________________.” My oldest wrote “i HV BUTHi”. I looked at the illustration she had drawn above the writing and it gave me no clue about the meaning. So I asked my oldest what it said, and she told me, “I have a brother”. My heart stuck in my throat, I turned to hug my sweet girl, and looked up to see her teacher beaming at me with a huge smile.  Thank god, I thought, this is a safe place where it is ok for us to be just the way we are.

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