Letters to the Principal

by

02/04/2002

350 w 15th st ny 10011

Neighborhood: Manhattan

All the names in this article have been changed, except for the author’s.

November 29, 1998
Carol Suskind, Principal
Fielding Elementary Day School
Lower Manhattan

Dear Carol,

As you are probably aware, my son, Luke is a student at Fielding, in Debra’s 4/5’s class. Last week, I found Luke huddled in a corner outside his bedroom, crying. When I asked what was wrong, he said, “I was so homesick today. I was so homesick.” It is unlike Luke to cry like that all alone. He looked very scared. After a bit of prodding he told me that two boys in his class, Billy and Jim, had threatened to give him a good pounding that afternoon in yard. I said him that if anything like that ever happened again, he should tell his teacher, Debra, and left it at that.

Then, yesterday Luke mentioned that Billy’s parents had given Billy a Swiss Army knife. Billy told Luke he was going to bring the knife to school. Luke said Billy was sitting next to him at lunch, when Billy said, “Raise your hand if you hate who you’re sitting next to.” Billy held up a metal fork. Want to fight, Luke?” he said. “I bet my fork can go through you.” Luke said to me, “I was so frightened. I really freaked.” When I asked if he told Debra, he shook his head, “She was on her lunch break.”

Luke was concerned that Billy might bring the new knife to school and cut him. I assured Luke that Billy wouldn’t bring the knife to school, there was no way his parents would let him. I suppose this was naïve. Today Billy brought in the knife. Luke said that when Debra saw the knife, she told Billy to put it in his cubby. This struck me as odd. The common sense response—or so it seems to me—would have been to take the knife away.

I understand that it’s somewhat ridiculous to be worrying about knives in kindergarten. And Fielding Elementary seems the last place on earth where any real violence would occur. On the other hand, five-year-olds are only just learning to take responsibility for their actions, to understand that their actions have a real effect. I don’t want anybody—particularly my own son—getting hurt.

Best regards,

April 27, 1999
Notes for meeting with Carol Suskind, principal,
Fielding Elementary Day School
cc: Carol Suskind

Last week Luke’s teacher, Debra, called to schedule a meeting with herself, me, and Fielding’s behavioral specialist, Nadine. Debra’s tone was casual. She said Luke had made some drawings she thought we should take a look at.

I was a bit anxious going into the meeting—I had no idea what to expect—but since I am always on the lookout for tips on parenting, I tried to view the whole thing as an opportunity. After dropping Luke off as usual, Debra led me down to Nadine’s office. The office was in the school’s basement, and was the size of a closet, with no windows. Debra introduced me to Nadine, who immediately asked, “Are you claustrophobic?” It seemed strange for an opening line. I felt as if she were judging me in some way, as if this were a test. “No,” I answered, slowly. She said, “Okay, so we can close the door.”

Nadine pulled out a folder, arranging 5 drawings side-by-side on her desk. The drawings, she said, were Luke’s. They showed two figures lying on their backs, with stakes in their heads. In place of eyes, there were little x’s, as if to imply that they were dead. Next to the figures were the names Billy and Jim.

The drawings didn’t look like anything Luke had ever done and my stomach twisted at the sight of them. There was a side of Luke, I realized, that I didn’t know, or that I’d refused to see. I was overcome with shame and horror.

Nadine said that, although Luke was extremely bright, his behavior was not up to the first grade (which he’s supposed to attend this fall). “His murderous, annihilating drawings,” she said, “are not appropriate in this school.” Luke would not be welcome back this fall unless I agreed to take him for a psychological evaluation, the most extensive possible, which would run upwards of $2000, and which would include a neurological exam.

My heart was racing and I began to blubber like an idiot. I reminded Debra of our fall parent-teacher conference when she said Luke was having a fantastic year. Debra shook her head. “There were problems then, too.”

I asked Debra if she thought that the drawings might have something to do with the situation with Billy and Jim in the classroom, then cited specific examples of Billy and Jim hitting Luke and calling him names. “Well that’s funny,” said Debra, dismissively, “because Luke doesn’t even spend that much time with Billy and Jim.” I repeated what Luke keeps telling me, that these things tend to happen when Debra isn’t around. Nadine, the expert, interpreted this as further evidence of Luke’s deeply afflicted imagination. “Luke has a problem with boundaries,” she said. She was of the mind that he was letting himself get hurt or else imagining things. “We need to help Luke feel safe at school,” said Nadine, condescendingly.

I reminded Debra of the hundreds of drawings of smiling creatures and airplanes that Luke has made throughout the school year, of Luke’s four-year old classmate, Brian, whose mother keeps telling me, Brian wants to draw like Luke. I told Nadine about Luke’s composure this past weekend at the first chess tournament of his life, when he won a trophy and walked up on stage in front of 300 kids to accept it. Debra merely shrugged. “That’s true,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like Luke.”

That I had always liked Debra only intensified the burn of her betrayal. I could accept that Luke had made these drawings, but she had to accept that there was another Luke, who was mild-mannered and sweet. “I suppose it doesn’t help,” I said indignantly, “that the Columbine killings happened three days ago, and that the profile on the murderers bears a vague resemblance to my son, in that the murderers were highly intelligent, liked games, and shied away from conflict.” Nadine and Debra exchanged glances. Then Nadine gave her final assessment, “These drawings are the cause of great alarm.”

I asked how I should tell Luke to defend himself against Billy and Jim in particular and bullies in general. At least drawings aren’t violent, I argued. “Or are they?” Nadine stood up. The consultant would help me with all that, she said, adding that she happens to offer the type of exam she’s suggesting on the side. “We’ve done everything we can,” she said, washing her hands of me.

I had an important interview/luncheon uptown and it was all I could do to put my napkin in my lap and speak coherently. After the interview, I headed straight for the park where our babysitter usually brings Luke and my younger son, Sam, on the way home from school.

Luke was sitting with the sitter on a bench; I rushed up to hug him. Then Luke said, “Mommy, a terrible thing happened to me today in yard. Billy and Jim pushed me on a bike until it crashed. Jim pushed me off the bike onto the dirt. He tipped the bike over. Billy was there, too. They threw a tire at me. Then they threw the bike at me. They trapped me with the bike. Then Billy went and got a broom that had mud on it and started hitting me with the broom.”

As with the previous incidents reported by Luke, Debra was not present when this happened and it occurs to me now that this is a pattern. The incidents probably have been occurring precisely because Debra’s not there and the class is under-supervised. Luckily, this time, an assistant saw the whole thing, and, when Debra returned, the assistant’s account matched Luke’s. Luke appeared reassured by Debra’s handling of the situation. On the way home from the park, he said, “Debra’s going to make a report.” Then he squeezed my hand, and smiled. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I love my pants. I love myself. And I love my life.”

I have spoken with Keith, my husband. We both feel that we have been treated unfairly, and that Nadine’s use of the words “murderous and annihilating” to describe Luke’s drawings shows a lack of perspective. We suspect her (over)reaction has more to do with Columbine and violence in American schools generally, than it does with Luke and us. We agree that Luke’s drawings express his increasing helplessness and rage. And we want to help him. But since the trouble is taking place in the classroom, we believe it should be addressed in the classroom.

We are entrusting you with our child. And we are, frankly, appalled by the suggestion that Luke’s getting hurt in school is somehow his fault, that he’s brought it upon himself.

We look forward to meeting with you and discussing this further.

April 27th, 1999

Our meeting with Carol is set for the day after tomorrow.

April 28th, 1999
(Diary entry)

This afternoon, when I picked Luke up at school, Wendy gave me a meaningful look and her eyes immediately welled, “Luke had a great day,” she said. Luke had finished his handwriting book and she sent it home with him, like an apology.

April 29th, 1999

Carol is a moron. But she said she’d look into the situation and get back to us.

May 6th, 1999

In school today, Jim told Luke to say “shit, ” then Jim told the teacher. When Luke was discussing it with me later, he asked me please to tell him all the bad words, so he won’t say another one by mistake.

I cannot know what Luke is doing when he’s not with me. I keep hoping he’s okay.

May 24th, 1999

At today’s follow-up meeting today with Carol and Debra, Nadine was not present, at Keith’s and my request. “I know you have asked that Nadine not be present,” said Carol, stating the obvious, as usual, “but let me begin by saying that Nadine is a highly qualified professional.” Carol went on to list Nadine’s credentials, none of which dazzled either Keith or me.

During the three weeks since our last meeting, Carol said, the school has had Billy and Jim “shadowed,” meaning that an adult has observed Billy’s and Jim’s activities more or less constantly during the day. Since there was no evidence of any trouble, they have deemed that the situation between Luke and Billy and Jim “not a problem.”

As for Luke’s neuro-psychological exam, Nadine who “is very qualified” still felt strongly that we should pursue it. “Luke seems to have a problem with boundaries,” reiterated Carol.

Keith was irate. He said, “What if we refuse?”

Carol looked at him and chuckled smugly, as if Keith’s anger shed further light on Luke. “You mean,” she answered, “will we let Luke come back this fall? Well, I guess I’ll have to think about it. I hope it doesn’t come to that.” Then she looked at me. “I don’t think it will.”

I mentioned that I’d been asking Luke about the situation with Billy and Jim, as well. That Luke, too, had been saying things were better. Luke had also said that Billy had been away in Germany for ten days. I asked about Nadine’s lack of professionalism in her judgement of Luke’s drawings as “murderous” and “annihilating.”

“Let me say once again,” droned Carol, “that Nadine is very quailified. In the 15 years she has been with Fielding, nothing like this has ever occurred. Nadine was extremely effected by the incident at Columbine. If Nadine were at this meeting,” said Carol, “she would be apologizing to you in person.” Carol asked that Keith and me “find it in hearts” to forgive Nadine.

She was treating us like children. “Forgiveness is one thing,” I said. “But you’re asking us to trust Nadine’s judgement. Talk about lack of boundaries.”

Carol smiled. “I know how difficult this is,” she said. “I have a son, too. But please remember: we only want what’s best for Luke.”

May 25th 1999

Today Luke came home from school and asked me what “duh” meant.

May 28th 1999

Luke’s drawing of a magnolia branch is in the school’s year-end art fair. Everyone keeps coming up to tell me how much they love it.

June 3rd, 1999

At the class picnic, Billy was fighting with another boy who was bigger than him. The boy punched Billy and, instead of hitting the boy back, Billy turned to Luke, who was sitting on the ground nearby. I was sitting on a park bench with the other mothers. Luke noticed me and started to come over. Billy grabbed both of Luke’s cheeks and stuck his thumbs in Luke’s eyes, throwing his head back. As Luke’s head returned upright, Billy punched him between the eyes.

I rushed over to Luke and together he and I went after Billy, who ran straight to the teacher, Debra. I let Debra handle Billy, while I comforted Luke.

Eventually Debra and Billy came over. Debra said to Billy, “Tell Luke what you just told me.” Billy mumbled something. Debra said, “Billy wants to tell you it was an accident. He didn’t mean to hit you. He meant to hit the other boy instead.”

The other mothers offered sympathy and stories of similar run-ins with Billy. One had checked out ten books on bullies from the public library. She suggested starting a support group. I prefer to crawl under a rock. I didn’t know when I became a parent that I would have to relive all the horrors of growing up. It occurs to me that I am no better at handling this now than I was at ten.

June 4th, 1999

I have taken to walking around with a sheet of paper and a pen. I can’t sleep. I can’t move Luke to a new school, either. This is Manhattan. I have made a slew of phone calls. If you don’t apply in kindergarten, there are no new spots until middle school, unless someone leaves. Would Luke be better off in public school with a high student-teacher ratio and less supervision? I know these are the lessons of life, I just don’t know why he has to start learning them this early.

June 5th, 1999

Among the smiling creatures and airplanes in the year-end stack of Luke’s drawings, I see something strange: scribbly figures with frowning faces. The drawings look frighteningly like the ones that started all this trouble. I am scared. They are so different from Luke’s other drawings, it occurs to me that my son might be schizophrenic.

In the park, I stuff the drawings back into Luke’s backpack, so no one will see them. Later, surreptitiously, I take another look. I can’t decide whether to throw them out or to keep them as documents of this phase in Luke’s life.

“What’s this?” I ask Luke finally, when I am studying one of them, yet again. “Oh, says Luke. “That’s Brian’s drawing. The ones with the spikes, the kind of scribbly ones, those are all Brian’s. Because he’s only 4 and he can’t draw so well.”

I separate all the scribbly drawings from the stack. Luke confirms that they are all Brian’s. He says Brian gives him lots of drawings because Brian loves him so much. I call Brian’s home. “I have a whole bunch of Brian’s drawings,” I say. “I guess he gave them to Luke.” Brian’s father is delighted. “Brian thinks the world of Luke,” he says. “He really looks up to him.”

I am beyond vindication. I’ve started seeing a shrink.

October 1999

The psychologist who evaluated Luke said the lack of structure at Fielding was making Luke anxious. She suggested a school with more “limits” and intellectual focus.

February 2001

Luke is still at Fielding. So far, we have been unable to move him. People are having their second children, and, instead of moving to the suburbs, they are buying bigger apartments. There are still openings, however, in kindergarten.

This year’s perennial interview question: Would you consider sending Sam [Luke’s younger brother] to our kindergarten, even if we have no place for Luke?

I can’t help but feel that on some level I have failed Luke. That I keep failing him.

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