Something is rotten in…Roslindale

HamletThe Parent Imperfect loves the springtime, despite the fact that it is his most frantic time of year. It is the time when I add spending a lot of time with a group of kids in the Regan Youth League to a life that is already barely doable. The RYL Opening Day was “postponed” this year, not because of the April showers that often do the trick, but because it was scheduled for the day after the city had been locked down as thousands of police combed Watertown for Suspect #2 in the Marathon Bombing. The games started on the following Monday and the parade happened on a gorgeous day a week later, so the season is now well underway. It seems that playing baseball is part of what has gotten life back to “normal” for many of the league’s children….and parents.

Getting back into the rhythm of school has been another part of starting to live life again in Boston. Both Connie and Vince were unusually ready to get back to school after the week-long vacation that began with Patriot’s Day and the Marathon. They were in full complaint mode (and, in Vince’s case, nonviolent resistance to homework) by Wednesday of the first week back, but that, too, was part of beginning to put behind them the wild mix of feelings that had resulted from two explosions on one of their favorite streets in the city. Connie is still not sleeping well, plagued by dreams playing out horrible scenes that she’s not talking about in her waking hours. Today, she’s planning to go to a large gathering of people for the first time since Patriot’s Day. I know she’ll have some different emotions than what she had the last time she helped Wake up the Earth.

Spring is always a difficult time for her in school. Like most kids, she really wants to be outside at this time of year. Her declining patience for the routine and the boredom of school coincides with a natural increase in the stress level of the teachers who must somehow deal with 25-30 kids, most of whom are constantly contemplating a group jailbreak. Add to those tensions, the nine-hour day in force at the Irving, and you have a recipe for trouble…even for the children who carry the “teacher’s pet” label in the cafeteria.

Connie definitely enjoys some parts of her day at the Irving, and one of the things that makes life bearable this spring is a theater elective that she has two or three times in alternating weeks. Yes, there is a theater elective at the Washington Irving Middle School. She is frustrated by the fact that many of her classmates could care less about something that she really loves, but she has grown accustomed to that…matured, one might say. Her teacher has, however,  noticed her love and found some ways to feed it. One of those ways was to cast her as Hamlet in a production of a fragment of that famous play. The small group of theater enthusiasts in the class so rose to the occasion that the teacher arranged for them to do their scenes yesterday at an assembly of the students of a nearby school.

Connie was more excited leaving for school yesterday than any day this year. I was sorry that I wouldn’t be able to see her as Hamlet. It turns out that the neighbor who often goes to school with Connie was playing Claudius in the show, so their energy on the way to school was palpable.

When I got home too late last night, I was excited to ask Connie how it had gone, but she wasn’t home. Before I had a chance to ask Liz about it, she said, “Connie didn’t get to do Hamlet today, so she’s pretty upset.”

It turned out that a scheduling confusion at the other school meant that they had to cancel the production there. This was certainly a huge disappointment for Ms. Connie and her fellow thespians. Knowing how excited they were about this day, the teacher scrambled to organize a show for several classes at the Irving. Having succeeded at that Herculean task of organization, he gave each of the cast members a pass to get out of class to be in the show.

MCAS quoteUnfortunately, for Connie and the others, this meant presenting a pass to the teacher who has been very difficult for Connie and some of her fellow classmates since the beginning of the year. Predictably, when they presented the passes to the Teacher, she said something like, “He can’t do that…he had to tell me that at least a week ago…you can’t miss this class just before MCAS.” And she outright refused to honor the pass, telling the children that they’d better take their seats and be quiet.

Connie was crushed. Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that MCAS scores are definitely not Connie’s problem at the Irving,  she just couldn’t believe that someone could be so heartless. It got worse when they proceeded to spend the next 80 minutes practicing this ridiculous “clicking” mechanism that they use, quite inexplicably, to identify the right answers on the test.

Since the theater teacher had already organized the presentation, he had to scramble to find other kids to read the lines off a script. Those students were all excited about having done so and understandably shared their excitement in the halls during the short break between classes. This pushed Connie over the edge. When it came time to go to Science class, she just couldn’t do it. Quite thoughtfully, she asked if she could go see the Guidance Counselor, and seeing how upset Connie was, her Science teacher gave her the pass to do so.

The Guidance Counselor was very welcoming and comforting to Connie. Upon hearing the story, she immediately told Connie that “Ms. — was wrong. When a child comes to her with a pass from another teacher, she must honor that pass.” That made Connie right, but she’d much rather have been Hamlet than right. The counselor’s affirmation made her feel the injustice of what had happened even more strongly.

Anyone associated with the Irving in any way knows the characters in this tale, regardless of my feeble efforts to protect the innocent and the non-innocent. I’m sure the teacher in the story is a perfectly good person who could probably do many jobs in the BPS quite well, But, at this point in her life, the demanding task of teaching a living and breathing group of our sixth graders is not one of those jobs. In our system, however, she has just that responsibility and will probably continue to have it next September.

No MCASIronically, this sad tale transpired on the day after the inaugural meeting of the Quality Working Group of the Boston Public Schools. That group, which came out of the long debate about school assignment in Boston, will spend many hours trying to unlock the magical formula to “measure” educational quality. I don’t know how one would measure what happened to Connie yesterday. Incredibly, if Connie scores one point higher on the MCAS test (which won’t happen) because she was “clicking” instead of reciting Hamlet, the spirit-crushing arbitrariness of the teacher in question would count as a “quality intervention” in our current way of defining educational quality.  Even more incredibly, the extraordinary efforts of the theater teacher to nourish the special interest of a few kids in theater, and then, against all odds find an outlet for that interest, would have no place in our considerations of what makes a quality education. If, over the next weeks and months, the Quality Working Group can find no way to change that equation, its time would have been better spent savoring the lilacs in the Arboretum.  

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Something is rotten in…Roslindale

  1. Darcelle

    That is a heart breaking story. How awful for your daughter. Unfortunately, the antics and story you have described happen more often than anyone would like to admit. This is why I have chosen the a different path for my two sons. I couldn’t even wrap my brain around the idea that my 5 year would have to endure some of the bs that my 2 older children did. They attend a private school now and we have been very pleased and the children are happy. Imagine that! I hope things get better for your daughter very soon.

  2. Thanks, Darcelle. It is a heart breaker, but I hope you see something positive about the BPS in the story, alongside the antics. Unfortunately, it’s always about this ying/yang thing, and the downside is big. I have to admit that I used to be pretty judgmental about moving to Brookline, the private school option, etc., but, after a total of 19 years in the BPS with two kids, I have to admit that we’ve considered all these options. And we’ve considered them knowing full well that we are “empowered” parents in the BPS (and lucky in the lottery). For now, we are where we are and it is what it is…

  3. “step by step, the longest march, can be won…drops of water turn a mill, singly none….” It is a breathtakingly simple story of what happens in schools, and in lives, every day — caring, courageous acts partly undone by callousness, disrespect, and the abuse of power. But I do believe the reality is that there are more people doing the right thing in the story (the theatre teacher, the science teacher, the guidance counselor, and Connie herself) than the single idiotic act of the other teacher. And the steps Connie, her friend who was to play Claudius, and we can take to change the process or rules so that 1) the teacher, minimally, thinks twice before acting in such a way (or, better, can never do such a thing again), and 2) add non-MCAS factors to “quality education” measures, will have an effect far beyond Connie.

    • I have responded to this, Pearl, but the WordPress gremlins have spirited away that response. You know I agree with you about seeing the whole story, but, unfortunately, in a few years Connie will remember very well the brutish behavior of one teacher, and the rest will have slipped away. I’m also with you on remaining hopeful that something good will come of this.

  4. Kathy

    I’m sorry for Connie. What a huge disappointment. Events like this make me feel so discouraged. Even the purported offerings of arts and music are nothing if the school can’t follow through on valuing them within the curriculum. I worry about all this testing and the long days, especially as my unconventional 4th grader moves up in grades.

  5. Thanks, Kathy. I hope it’s not just discouraging. The courses in art, dance and theater have made a huge difference to Connie this year, and the Parent Imperfect has spent less time talking about this difference. What you say, however, is true. It is easy for a small number of people to really undermine the benefits of such classes in any school.

  6. Claudius

    hi this is connie’s niehbor, and i was also in the awful shakespear experience. It was only me, connie and the kid who played laertes and the ghost that where efected by the teacher. The rest of the kids in the cast got to go becuase they had ela, and the ela teacher let them go. May i also add that the theater teacher had sent the principal up to rescue us but the theater teacher didn’t want to piss off the math teacher so he stopped the principal from going up and getting us. i am so glad im going to bls next year

  7. Hmmmmm…sorry you had to go through that, too. I hadn’t heard that tidbit about the Principal’s involvement in the whole thing. I assumed he didn’t know anything about it until it was all over.

    If BLS is where you want to be, then I’m glad you are going there, too. I wouldn’t idealize it, though. The difficult things about BLS will be different than those at the Irving, but there will be difficult things.

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