By Tiffany Duncan
The mysterious role of certain parents
An incident that I accidentally witnessed in the classroom was an indication of yet another angle on things—but I didn’t know that at the time.
One morning shortly after that fateful Wednesday, I hung around the classroom a few minutes longer than I used to. I was watching Andrew and Neil happily putting together a puzzle. Andrew had pulled his chair over to Neil’s desk. Suddenly one of the teachers descended on Andrew and said something to him. I could not see or hear her but I saw Andrew look up at her and ask, “Why?” She repeated herself and he repeated, “Why?” Eventually she made him leave Neil’s desk to go back to his own. (So much for her sadness over Andrew not getting to play with Neil.) Angrily, Andrew carried his chair back to his own desk, and looking straight into the teacher’s face (the way he had done the day he told her what she was asking him to do was boring), he slammed his chair on the floor. Then the teacher saw that I had seen what had happened. She came over to me and mumbled something to the effect of, “I see that you saw what just happened, but…” Again she was not coherent.
After we left the school, in conversation with other mothers I stumbled upon the fact that there were certain parents in the classroom who strongly disapproved of some kids. (I was not part of the gossip circles in the school.) So when, during the Christmas break, Andrew told me that he had heard Neil’s mother telling the teachers that she did not want Andrew to play with Neil, I put two and two together. The reason the teacher pulled Andrew away from Neil that day was probably because she was operating under Neil’s mother’s instruction. I later learned that Neil’s mother had complained (to other mothers as well as the teachers) that the way Andrew treated James “traumatized” Neil. (“Traumatize” is such a convenient word—so hard to define and to disprove.) But I think we had displeased her long before Andrew started traumatizing James. She had ignored us—birthday invitation, calls to make play dates—long before Andrew had shown any particular interest in Neil.
As it turned out, this woman was not the only one who was displeased with Andrew and/or the rest of the family. Through the grapevine I heard about another mother, very involved in various capacities at the school, who also took strong dislikes to some kids. In fact, I was told that she was instrumental in getting rid of Thomas (I will come to this) the year before. Hearing this I was reminded of an uneasy feeling I got when talking to her one day. At a picnic at the beginning of the second year I was mildly complaining that the classroom could be a little more spontaneous and joyful. I don’t know how she turned the conversation to Andrew and casually commented that with the new “learning specialist” in the classroom that year he might find school more enjoyable. I must say that I am so clueless in gossip and innuendo that after this comment I only felt a bad taste in my mouth but did not make much of it. But after Andrew was badgered with a string of “problems” and other mothers filled me in on the influence of this particular woman, I was horrified at the possibility of a connection here. The possible cruelty of this woman astonished me but it did not excuse the ineptitude and unprofessionalism of the teachers to let her wield this kind of influence.
During Andrew’s last week of school, while I was still in my clueless state, I thought it was appropriate that I mention our impending departure to other mothers I encountered while waiting to pick up our kids. To my surprise, a number of women with whom I was on smiling and chatting terms, suddenly turned cold and hard. One blurted out, “It’s because I complained.” I didn’t quite understand. Her son, Daniel, was older than Andrew. Had Andrew been "traumatizing" him too? (As chance would have it, the very next day Andrew showed up with a big scrape on his elbow. “Daniel pushed me,” he said. I let it go.) The real clue had already been given us by the principal during our talk a few days earlier (I will come to this too) but I was slow to put two and two together. Apparently, the minute word got out that Andrew was leaving the school, rumor spread that he was being kicked out. So in fact Daniel’s mother was taking responsibility for (or pride in?) the expulsion.
During the winter break, after we had told Andrew that he would not be going back to Hillside, and he had told me about Neil’s mother telling the teachers that she didn’t want him to play with Neil, he said, “Don’t get mad at me if I ask a question.” I reassured him. “Do you think Neil’s mom is stupid?” he asked. Once when he had called someone stupid I had said that only cruel and disrespectful people are stupid. “Yes,” I told him. “I do think she’s stupid.”
I think he sighed in relief. After that Andrew finally opened up to talking to his father and me and telling us things about the school. After three months we still hear new stories.