At the school I founded in 2000 I used to cater to a large number of middle-school boys who either had (or were believed to have had) ADD or ADHD. Mixed in with that number were those with dyslexia, Tourettes, ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), CD (Conduct Disorder), EDD (Emotional Detachment Disorder), DBD (Disruptive Behavior Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), ASD, (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) BD (Bipolar Disorder), NVLD (Non-Verbal Learning Disorder), MD (Manic Depression), and general anxiety.
While it sounds like a zoo, school was quite the contrary. My school was in rural Williamson County with sprawling hills and verdant green valleys. The actual property of five acres was surrounded by a horse & cow farm to the right, wheat fields and a mountain to the back, and private property predating the Civil War to my left. Dozens upon dozens of acres cushioned us from civilization. On the property was a pond inhabited by frogs, several aggressive turtles, and snakes. Blue heron visited our pond during winter with Canadian geese making several stops nearby, their signature squawking a comfort during those long Tennessee winters (especially when we would run out of propane to heat the school). Coyote, deer, and turkey used our property as a thoroughfare.
Because the property had been uninhabited for several years before I took possession of it in August 2000, it was a hangout for vagrants and passersby. During the winter I would get to school early to turn on the heat and to check windows and doors for signs of break-ins (which I did occasionally find. Bums occasionally used our little schoolhouse and property as a base, camping on the grounds or trying to find an open window or unlocked door to stay the night).
It took a while to train these people to stay off the property. I never called the police. The best antidote for discouraging these types seemed to be my emerging from the school after they entered the property. Whenever I would come out the front door to talk to them, they would take off if they were far enough away. If they were close enough for me to surprise them, they would nervously say they were mistakenly in the wrong place and leave. They could not understand what I, a Black man, was doing in a little school in the country. Anyways, I describe these things so that you understand the very pastoral and therapeutic setting for my school.
Because it was my school, I modified "regular" school to aid my students in the total captivation of their focus and in the elongation of their attention spans. I knew that exposure to a wide array of experiences was important to students as a reference point for other complex experiences. So we simulated what I call "backdrops" to their educational experience. We had school sitting on the ground outside under the trees with ticks raining down on us (STUDENT, "A tic is on me!" ME, "A tick is a noun. It is biting you. That's a 'verb.' You are interrupting my lesson. That is a 'disruption.'"), walking around the school property (STUDENT, "Mr. Grayson, I just saw a frog jump in the water!" ME, "And he just saw you. That's why he jumped"), while marching up the mountain (STUDENT, "Mr. Grayson, I just saw a snake!" ME, "Did it bite you?" STUDENT, "No, he just scared me." ME, "If we were trying to evade the Nazis, you would have given us away with that scream. Keep walking").
We read Beowulf around the campfire while eating turkey legs (That set the coyotes yipping).
We played an all night game of Sack of Rome in which case the Romans slept in the school house all night while the Goths had to sleep outside in the 30-degree weather (upper 20's with a wind chill) in makeshift tents by fires that kept getting blown out. The Goths had to find a way to break into the school (doors and windows) where they had to "tag" all the Romans and retrieve several items (which they finally did between the hours of 4 and 5 in the morning before I pulled out donuts and orange juice).
We celebrated The First Thanksgiving, students giving up their recess (or being made to give up their recess. I do not remember) to go into the woods with handsaws to cut down twenty-foot saplings to form the skeleton of the gigantic teepee in which students further dug a gigantic hole in the middle of the teepee where we made a fire, roasting turkeys, white potatoes, and sweet potatoes, smoke filling up the tent and students coughing up their lungs (that's the way the original authors described it in the Captive Narratives).
All of these experiences were intended to be enjoyably uncomfortable in order to create a kind of academic sobriety so students had a rhythmically circadian calendar to alleviate the stresses of their very cushioned, sophisticated, and technologically-savvy, culture that provided its own aggravating backdrop to their many disorders.
That is not to say that students did not have legitimately disruptive behaviors. That is also not to say that students did not need medication like a few of them did need. That is also not to say that students did not need the counselors they were seeing.
All of these children were functional and fun with the exception of a few I could not help (Their issues spanned severe & prolonged sexual abuse and severe oppositional behavior). As my school grew, the number of girls wrestling with similar problems increased, too.
All of these students with whom I worked were within the Christian religious demographic, and the overwhelming number of them had parents who held to intriguing views of spirituality that I increasingly saw to be a significant obstacle to their children's betterment, even while their children were making "great strides" at my school.
The following two descriptions of these dysfunctional family types is a montage of odd conversations I would have concerning their children:
THE FIRST PARENTThe first parent is the one who would speak in religious code.PARENT, "Praise the Lord, Mr. Grayson." (I don't know whether or not to say "Good morning" or "How are you?" because I don't know what "Praise the Lord" means at 8:30 A.M.).ME, "You seem energetic this morning."PARENT, "Oh, the Lord has been doing some AMAZING things in our family!"ME "Hmm. Like what?" (The parent in this situation is not inviting me to inquire. He is building a wall to keep me on my turf so that I am "amazed" at what God is doing in his life).PARENT, "Oh, well, you know, He's just... shaking things up, and drawing us close, and teaching us the things we need to learn." (I don't know what that means). ME, "Ok. Anything specifically?" (Now, I'm on the offensive).PARENT, "Well, God is just... you know... we are just seeing his promises come to pass. He is confirming a lot of things and... really... revealing a lot of things." (My brows furrow-flex, indicating that I have absolutely no idea what she means but that I will allow the mysterium of that cryptic statement to stand).
PARENT, "Praise the Lord. We have been telling him to do his best as unto God." (Whatever.)
ME, "He also completed the 100-question Philosophy Exam with flying colors."
PARENT, "You know, I told him to commit himself to the Lord and God will bring it to pass." (What does that mean? We are talking about schoolwork.)
OK, I'm done with this conversation. Such greetings and conversation are not normal or consistent with these sorts of parents, so I tend to take mental note that they are hiding something. This kind of religious talk correlates to the babbling of the hardened sinner stuck in a very tight place. Now, all of a sudden he wants to talk about the "Lord." Not only do I find this kind of talk to be obstructive to normal conversation, but I also find it to be simply embarrassing. I never know what to say except to encourage the person to talk in plain English. If a parent is telling me "The Lord's provision just makes me want to worship him more" when he really means "I just had a great breakfast at Shoney's" or "His grace is sufficient" when he means "I lost my job because I don't really want to work and my boss could tell" or "Everything is beautiful in his time" when he really means "I'm not really doing anything with my life right now nor do I feel any motivation to do anything with my life right now and my wife and I are probably going to divorce", I get a little unnerved. I am not sure what I am supposed to do with these kinds of conversations... except to put them in blogs like this one. THE SECOND PARENTThe second parent likes to "mix it up" with an ingenuous combination of profanity and holiness. I think he does it for shock value because I have said something or he has heard something or I've done something or she thinks I have done something that intimidates him (or her).PARENT, "Oh, God, what a crazy night."ME, "Something happen?"PARENT, "You didn't hear? My son got picked up by the cops--it wasn't his fault." (It is never your child's fault, haha).
PARENT, "Those damned bigots had nothing better to do so they jump all over his ass at the movie theater." (This kind of aggression is meant to make me think the parent is stressed beyond the point of reasoning. So I am not supposed to inquire. But I do).
ME, "So the police just decided to target him?" (The parent takes an exaggerated deep breath).PARENT, " Well, you know, he was doing what he was supposed to do but he was with these two other little, thug-wannabes and I've told him before 'Iron sharpens iron. You need to be careful about who your friends are.'" (The parent doesn't want me to ask anything more. He thinks the religious platitude is somehow going to satisfy me by convincing me he has fulfilled his moral, parental duty).ME, "And?" PARENT, "But you've taught him for years. You know how stubborn he is." (Now it's my fault).ME, "So what did he do?"PARENT, "So I dropped them off at the theater and one of..."ME, "So you drove your boy and his bad friends to the theater?" (Maybe I'm at fault for that, too).PARENT, "What I'm trying to say is that they--not my son, but the other two--had words back and forth with some other little a**hole. They are shoving and the police come. My son didn't do s***, but they blame it on him. I told him later that it's always the righteous people who suffer."
PARENT, "Oh, I talked with him about it." (Oh, that is wonderful. You talked to your son).
ME, "What did you talk about?"
PARENT, "You see, once your kids are grown you'll understand how hard it is to raise kids these days. Like you, I was idealistic. But it's hard. (Now, I'm ignorant).
The conversation has gone on for longer than it should. The parent never expected to reveal that much information. Yes, it is going to be hard raising kids when they know a parent does pot or porn or two women at a time. The parent is only angry because his children won't let him be a child anymore.
His little feelings, juvenile attention span, and truncated capacity for responsibility isn't large enough to even have a family much less a balanced opinion. He thought aggressive language would somehow illustrate his frustration over injustice, a virtue he assumes I value. He also thought I would respect his space. He thought I would somehow try to calm or comfort him. He thought I would "take the heat" for him like I'm his little nanny or his Negro.
It is obvious to me why many of these wonderful children never get the help they need: they have parents who block their path to genuine healing by insistence in ambiguous mediums of conversation (Who will ever understand what is really going on?) and in various levels of blame-shifting (Who will ever really know the real causes?). These parents often reinforce the right combination of dysfunctional environmental factors that replicate the high-functioning behaviors their children manifest and that eventually drive them to ever-widening circles of insanity. At a modeling level if there is no change in the parent, there will be no change in the child. Period. No matter how fun a student thinks I am. And I'm a lot of fun.