The Parent Imperfect does not have the energy he once had for evening meetings. More than a few people are happy about that. Last night, I very much wanted to sit home and vegetate after a stressful day at work, but something told me that I should accompany Liz in an evening pilgrimage to the nation’s oldest public school, so I did. My evenings on Ave. Louis Pasteur don’t always leave me in the best frame of mind, but this one did.
The Friends of the Keefe Library at Boston Latin School sponsored a talk by Michael Thompson, School Psychologist at Belmont Hill School and author of many books about the psychology of adolescent boys, most recently, The Pressured Child.
We arrived late, of course, and I was honestly shocked to see that one of the library’s main open spaces had been cleared and filled with chairs. Almost every one of the chairs (I counted something like 120 of them) was filled with a BLS parent. If the School Parent Council is able to attract one-sixth of that number for its monthly meetings, it is considered a great night. I know that many parents at BLS are concerned about the effect of the school experience on their child (or children), but it was an eye-opener for me that so many people would attend a meeting like this one.
I have to admit that I get a little cranky when someone starts right off talking to me about “independent” schools and public schools. If private schools didn’t depend on government in a million ways, I’d feel better about that language, but I got over it, in this case. He is, after all, an employee of a private school.
Thompson is an engaging speaker who obviously does a lot of this. He is very good at connecting the substance of his talk to a series of stories about his experience counseling boys in a school that isn’t so different from BLS, in terms of what it expects of its students. As a noted embellisher, myself, I was clear that Thompson’s stories had been gently massaged to serve a purpose, but that doesn’t bother me.
He wanted to get a roomful of parents to let go of our own needs and anxieties for a moment and try to see the BLS experience from the perspective of our sons and daughters. Thompson’s own perspective is informed by his clinical experience at Belmont Hill and other places, but it is also rooted in a practice of accompanying students through entire school days at many different types of schools. He asked who in the room had ever done such a thing and raised hands were conspicuously absent.
I can’t imagine doing such a thing, but the talk did push me to think about what it must be like for Vince to enter that building at 7:30AM, rush to his locker and then to his homeroom by 7:35 (to avoid “tardy detention”) and then begin the long march through seven periods of “drinking from a fire hose,” separated by four minutes of frenzied transit between classes (woe betide you if you arrive late to class!). Somewhere in the middle of all that, he gets 20 minutes to stuff a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a couple of cookies into his mouth before rushing off to the next class. In every one of these periods, a teacher will be expecting to be attentive to his/her rambling and enthusiastic about the material, and this will be just as true at R8 as it was at R1. And there are, of course, occasional study halls, but these, too, are moments of intense social control.
At a school such as BLS, according to Thompson, perhaps one-third of the students have a brain that is very-well suited to such an environment. Those are the “fast processors” whose parents were doing something else last night. Another third get along OK, but they are very aware that something is “not quite right” for them at the school. If they develop good friends and a supportive social environment at the school, they can be quite happy there (provided that they parents can adjust to the reality of the situation). And then there is the “other third” of students. They can be quite “bright” (they had to be to get into the place), but, for one reason or another, their brains are just not designed for the kind of environment in which they find themselves. Everyone at the school experiences stress, but this last group of people can really struggle in such environments. This strikes me as a good description of what I see at BLS.
This narrative definitely raised the tension level in the library. Thompson balanced this with many stories that allowed the assembled parents to shed stress through laughter. Through it all, he encouraged parents to “find another way to think about your child’s journey through school.”
For anyone who was looking for specific answers, he had few. The psychologist in him offered three things that he looks for when he speaks to a youth who seems to be struggling. These are connection, recognition and a growing sense of mastery. If he sees these things in the experience of the student, he is able to look beyond the specifics of the report card to sense that s/he is doing OK.
Vince’s insistence that he wants to stay at BLS comes from the strength of his connection to his friends and the fact that he gets some sort of recognition from them and (very occasionally) from his teachers and parents. This question of a “growing sense of mastery” is more difficult for me to discern in relation to my dear son.
Late in the talk, Thompson told a story of seeing a teacher taking a run with two high school girls. He started out at a pace that was too fast for the girls. They ran with him, but struggled to keep up. Before long, the girls slowed and finally started walking. After walking for a time, the girls started to run again and, before long, had returned to a pace that was comfortable for them. When they started running again, the teacher took up a spot, “running with them, a quarter step behind.” When the girls slowed down, so did the teacher. When they found energy to speed up, so did he, and, in this rhythm, they completed the run.
This is a story that you know is made up, but the point is one that stayed with me. Thompson is suggesting that thoughtful parents might follow the example of the running teacher in accompanying their children as they face the stress of schools like BLS.
The discussion got more real in the question and answer period. Parents (all women) put before Thompson their angst about the decision they are making right now about sending their child to BLS. Others talked about their own experiences with young people whose anxiety made it impossible for them to get up in the morning and go to school or whose attention issues left them struggling to keep their heads above water. In a setting very different from his office at Belmont Hill, Thompson showed why a wealthy private school would pay him what he asks to speak to its children and parents. The interactions also made me wonder who the people gathered in the library could talk to about their attempts to help sons and daughters through this “journey.”
- The Exam School Choice #11, The Letter and the Number (parentimperfectct.wordpress.com)