Connie took her last final exam of the year on this past Thursday. The Parent Imperfect now officially will spend ONE MORE YEAR as a parent of a student in the Boston Public Schools (unless something really strange and unexpected happens). When Vince began K-1 at the Rafael Hernandez School in September 2001 (just a few days before the bombing of the World Trade Center, and Connie’s birth), we knew very little about Boston’s exam schools, and couldn’t imagine anyone from our family participating in what seemed like one of the most elitist and unfair aspects of the public school system. Never say “never.” Connie’s completion of her Pre-Calculus final closed our ninth year as a parents at the nation’s oldest public school, Boston Latin School (BLS).
I can’t say that we now know a lot about how the exam schools work, but, like many parents at the school, both Liz and I have felt a responsibility to understand at least some of the mysteries of BLS. It has been a humbling, and sometimes maddening learning experience that has involved both attempting to understand the systemic issues implied by the school’s place in the system, and to also understand how to keep our own children healthy and somewhat happy at the school. Like all schools I know, BLS is not a happy and healthy place for all of its students, at all times. When Vince first entered the school in 2009, we had no idea what we were getting into.
One way to understand a school is based on how it responds when the students faces a health or other personal crisis that affects their ability to meet the school’s expectations. This happens a lot, as we have found out over the last period. Vince missed days due to illness during his six years at BLS, and also took his share of mental health days, but never had a crisis that required a significant accommodation on the part of the school. Connie hasn’t been so lucky. On Mother’s Day, she suffered an injury that required surgery (more about that another time). After having ACL repair surgery on June 12, 2017, she had another one on June 11, 2018 (we’ll be watching out next year at this time). The surgery happened, at Children’s Hospital in Waltham ( a much easier place to navigate than the one in the Medical Area), on Monday of the week during which most BLS students are stressing about the dreaded final exams, and most BLS teachers are focused on preparing their students to take those exams. I can’t imagine a worse time for a student to have surgery, and then spend a week trying to get to the point where pain is controlled and they are able to get around on crutches. The alternative was to wait almost a month and have surgery after the end of school. This option would have totally disrupted an already-altered set of summer plans. Not surprisingly, Connie wanted the surgery ASAP. Liz and I sighed repeatedly, and agreed.
This time around, we had better ideas about how to help Connie through the break in school attendance. Just a few days after the injury occurred, we made an appointment with her guidance counselor at the school. Guidance counselors at BLS play a critical role, but each one of them plays that role for hundreds of the school’s 2400 students. I have to say that we have had decidedly mixed experiences with the this support service, but this time Connie’s counselor really came through for her. At that first meeting, the counselor committed herself to work with Connie’s teachers to be sure that it would be possible to get access to study materials and re-schedule exams, when necessary. This was important due to Connie’s absence during the review week. In one case, the counselor was able to get a teacher to waive the final exam, entirely. One of the school nurses also attended that first meeting, and explained how her office could help with Connie’s medications (of which she would still be taking a lot during the final exam week) and get her easy access to the school elevators. If Connie felt overwhelmed or uncomfortable at any time, she would be welcome in the Nurse’s Office. They set all of this up prior to the surgery, so everything was ready when Connie could finally return to school on crutches, eight days after her surgery.
We are extremely appreciative of the support we got from the Guidance Dept. and the Nurse’s Office over the past few weeks. Some of her teachers have also showed considerable compassion in this very hard moment for Connie. This injury will surely impact her final grades, but this will be much less of a disaster (from Connie’s perspective) than it could have been, mostly because of her determination to make this work. The whole thing has helped us put all of the insanity around grades in some kind of perspective (we’ve been well-trained by the school, in that regard). That said, the fact that Connie is someone who responds quite positively to the very specific educational philosophy of the school also made a huge difference. On several occasions over each of the last two springs, I wondered what would have happened had our son, Vince–someone who quickly showed that he learned in ways not always consistent with the BLS philosophy–faced the same kind of crisis while a student at the school. Thankfully, that’s something we’ll never know for sure.
This is one experience of one student at Boston Latin School. It doesn’t describe or define the culture of the school, and certainly doesn’t describe the experience of all of its students, but it does suggest what is possible. Such support, should be possible for any student, regardless of who they are, or whether or not their parents or guardians have the time and institutional connection to set up these kinds of meetings. We share this information in the hope that it will help other students and parents who face such challenges, and we await the day when any student at BLS, or any BPS school, can expect the sort of support that our daughter received when she really needed it.