Mandy’s 15 minutes
So, it’s been an interesting week.
With one week left of school for my daughter, naturally everything hit the fan. Kind of like it did two years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I love the public school she’s in. It’s one of the best in the city. Other schools score 60-70% in math and science and Mandy’s scores 90%. I felt truly blessed to have gotten her in there four years ago when she started kindergarten, since children are selected by lottery. Extracurricular programs were recently started for the students at the school, but here’s where the organization falls apart a little bit. My own policy when it comes to my daughter’s participation in special events is that I need to be informed of when the group meets, and where and who’s in charge at all times. This requires that I get a paper announcement sent home in Mandy’s school folder. If the group meets weekly, a schedule would certainly be helpful. I will go through personal inconvenience to make sure she gets to her event every Thursday morning at 8 am if that’s when the group meets, but I have to know for sure that the event will take place and who’s in charge.
For the first 6 months of 3rd grade, Mandy went to Poetry Club at her school every Thursday morning. I tried to find some alternate way of getting her to school at that time, since I pay for before-school supervision for her 3 blocks away at the YMCA, so when no other options turned up, I took her there myself. Two teachers were in charge of the club, let’s call them Ms. Oriole and Ms. Jackdaw, and I took my daughter every Thursday morning, from the time Poetry Club started until the green flyer came home in her school folder just before Christmas stating that Ms. Jackdaw was having a baby and there would be no more meetings. That was the last flyer I got about Poetry Club. I asked my daughter when school started up again in January to find out if they were still having it, and she said that as far as she knew they were not. The girl who bullied Mandy two years ago who was also in the club mentioned that she hadn’t seen my daughter at Poetry Club, but we didn’t trust the source of the information. The two teachers in charge of poetry club saw my daughter at school nearly every day and never asked her why she stopped going. No fliers came home saying the club was meeting again. Then on Easter Sunday in April, I heard Mandy telling her grandmother on the phone how much fun the club had been, saying that she guessed the teachers kept all her poems because she didn’t have them that I took up my inquiry again. I brought her to school on three different Thursday mornings after Easter for Poetry Club. The first time we went there was testing. I thought testing was just the week before, but apparently math testing was still going on. The principal saw us in the hall coming back from the library and said rudely,
“You can’t leave your daughter here; there’s testing.” I asked her how I was supposed to know when Poetry Club meetings were when nobody sent fliers home in Mandy’s folder.
“You aren’t aware that the teachers are volunteering their time, and they don’t have to tell you anything,” the principal explained. We left. Mandy did have a place to go Thursday mornings before school, just like she did the other days of the week. I tried again on a different Thursday morning and the club was actually meeting that day. The teachers didn’t have Mandy’s notebook any more so she had to write her poem for the day on the back of pieces of scratch paper. After she wrote her poems and turned them in, they disappeared, just like her notebook had. Presumably the teachers were keeping her work, along with the work of other student participants in the Poetry Club. The third time I tried to bring her to Poetry Club, which had always met in the library, Miss Tiggy the librarian was there.
“What are YOU doing here?” she demanded.
“It’s 8 am on a Thursday morning, doesn’t Poetry Club meet here every week?” She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. “We’re having a staff meeting in a few minutes, and you need to leave,” she told us. Mandy and I left. As we walked to the YMCA, I explained that I didn’t think she should go to Poetry Club any more because there was no way to tell when and where they were meeting. She said she understood. So we never went back.
Exhibition night at Mandy’s school happens twice a year. It was Wednesday, just the other night. Mandy got a glowing compliment from her art teacher as we were walking in. We checked out her work in the lower gym, then went to the media room. There was a poetry slam going on. Mandy wanted to sit in the front with the students participating, so I sat in the back. It took me the better part of ten minutes to realize these were the kids from the Poetry Club. I listened and watched different students reading their work, each of them shared 3 of their best poems for a delighted audience. When I realized none of Mandy’s work was there, I left to find another teacher to talk about the upcoming talent contest. Last year, Mandy won 2nd place for reciting King John’s Christmas in its entirety from memory. I came back just after the poetry slam ended to see Mandy walking away by herself with tears in her eyes. I put my arms around her and hugged her and said, “I’d love to read the poems you wrote, I bet they were all amazing. Did the teachers give you back your notebook?” She said no.
“Did you ask for your notebook back, Mandy?” She hadn’t, and so I grabbed her and we ran back to the media room as fast as we could to try and catch the teachers before they packed up and left. When we got there, Ms. Oriole and Ms. Jackdaw were handing back notebooks to the children. I began to get annoyed. I had been sent all over the school building looking for teachers and I had not been able to discuss the talent contest with any of the ones I found. Even the principal seemed to be mocking me. Ms. Tiggy had told Mandy the week before at the audition that “she would be angry” if Mandy took more than 90 seconds, and when Mandy auditioned with FDR’s first inaugural address, she was stopped just after the third sentence: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” . So Mandy and I had a talk and we decided that her special talent wasn’t appropriate for the contest and that she shouldn’t compete this year. We decided to try and find a different forum for her, and that was what I had gone around asking the teachers about on Exhibition Night.
“Where’s Mandy’s folder? She says you’ve been keeping poetry notebooks for all the students,” I asked them. They looked like they didn’t want to be bothered. One of them said, “Oh, we gave Mandy her notebook already.”
“Did they give you your notebook?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “Well, then, where is it?” I asked the teachers. They didn’t have it and struggled for a moment to come up with something to tell me so that I would go away. “Maybe Ms. Tiggy has it somewhere in the library,” one of them finally said. I followed Ms. Jackdaw to discuss Mandy getting the opportunity to recite at school and she turned her large backside toward me and spoke over her shoulder on her way through a door with some students and closed it in my face while answering, “maybe you can put it on YouTube….” I was so angry on the way home with Mandy that night that I broke a blood vessel in my left eye. Thursday, wearing dark sunglasses, I chaperoned an end-of-year field trip to the public market and Friday morning, remembering the 3 days I spent calling everyone on the school board all the way up to Rochester city schools then-superintendent Jean Claude Brizard about Mandy’s bullying problem, I called the school superintendent Bolgan Vargas and told his secretary this entire story. At 10:15 am I got a phone call from Ms. Tiggy. She sounded a little strange, and after a moment’s hesitation she said she called to talk about the talent contest. She said the judges were really impressed by Mandy and chose her as one of the finalists.
“Mandy and I have already discussed it, and she agrees that it isn’t appropriate for her due to the unfair advantage she has over other students and the time constraints you’re placing on her speech,” I told her. I explained that I realize a short attention span is considered normal and appropriate in the 21st century, but real problems in our country don’t get solved in under 2 minutes, and a Presidential speech can last 15 minutes to a half an hour. I suggested to Ms. Tiggy that Mandy needed a different forum and she needed between 5 and 8 minutes to recite the over-800 words of FDR’s first commencement address that she’s memorized so far. “It’s the last week of school,” said Ms. Tiggy apologetically. “I just don’t know what we can do with Mandy this late in the year. Maybe she can wait until next year.”
“An eight year old is not an adult, you can’t expect them to wait until next year,” I told the school librarian. “I wanted her to have this opportunity because I believe school is the appropriate forum for her to demonstrate what she knows. Mandy has put more into memorizing this speech than she ever will again if you don’t find some way to acknowledge her efforts. If you ignore my daughter’s hard work when she’s in third grade, you won’t see this kind of engagement when she’s in high school. Just forget about it.”
“Oh, well, did you think of putting her in the Frederick Douglass club? That’s where the kids go to prepare the speeches and compete city-wide.” she said brightly. I remembered that the Frederick Douglass club had sent home a form that made me cringe. It said when the children would be meeting after school but didn’t say where or give the name(s) of any teachers who would be responsible for the children, and when I called the teacher I was told would responsible for the club I didn’t feel better about Mandy’s safety, I felt worse, so I decided not to let her participate.
“Strangely enough, do you realize Mandy was in Poetry Club this past year?” I asked Ms. Tiggy pointedly. I reminded her that the kids had been meeting in the school library every Thursday morning at 8 am and suggested that maybe she could recall seeing Nancy there last Fall. I told her that after Christmas break no forms had been sent home telling us when or whether the club would be meeting, and on one of the occasions I brought her to the library for the club meeting she had asked me what I was doing there. She remembered that. I asked her if she noticed Mandy sitting in the front of the media room with the other students who had been in Poetry Club and the way everyone treated her as if she wasn’t there. She said she hadn’t been in the media room that night. I told her Ms. Oriole and Ms. Jackdaw didn’t know what had happened to all Nancy’s poems she had written during the time she was in Poetry Club and presumably they had thrown her notebook away. Ms. Tiggy said she might have it because she still had some of the students’ notebooks in the library. What I had told the superintendent’s secretary was that the teachers treated my daughter as though she was dead. When she stopped going to Poetry Club, they never said Hello to her in the hall and invited her back. They lost her work or threw it away. And when she came to the front of the room to be with the other students, she was treated as though she didn’t exist. My daughter was suffering academic assassination at the age of 8.
“Have you ever heard FDR’s first inaugural address?” I asked Ms. Tiggy. She admitted that no, she had not. I told the school librarian that the entire speech was about 2,000 words long and probably took about a half an hour to listen to in its entirety, but there was a reason why people sat beside their radios listening to it over and over again. I told her that the words in the speech showed why FDR was elected President, it demonstrated the qualities of a four-term president and described in detail the solutions to problems we face in the United States. It remains an inspiring speech today and if the other children could be persuaded to sit and listen for 8 minutes or so to the portion Nancy knows, they would get a lot out of it, they might gain an interest in history, in economics, in moral behavior, in how this country is run.
“Why don’t you get a copy of FDR’s speech and read it?” I challenged Ms. Tiggy. “Or, if you don’t have time, why don’t you get a hold of Nancy during this next week and ask her to recite it for you, the part she knows? It will take about 15 minutes out of your day. Fifteen minutes. Is that a lot to give up for a child who has spent this entire year memorizing presidential speeches?” I made her promise me she would make an effort to listen to my daughter. If the year ends with my third grade daughter being ignored by teachers who don’t have time to listen to a presidential speech, what does it mean for the other students at my daughter’s public school?
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Somebody tell me where that quote comes from. I can think of two places.