I’m a reasonable individual, I think.  I have some very sure-footed people in my life, and they keep me grounded.  I make every effort to be honest with myself.  I am acutely aware of when I am deceiving myself.  I know when I have spoken out of turn.  I know instantly when I have hurt someone.  I try to be better than I am. It is a never-ending effort, an unreachable goal for which I continue to strive.  I work hard to be the exact same person in private that I am in public, save the fact that most people who know me have never seen me REALLY pissed off. I’m not saying I never morph into the demon bride, just that I am totally aware of when I am doing so.  And I do exert some measure of energy to control it.

I believe this is what it means to be an adult.  I assume that all other adults understand this and live it themselves.

I am wrong.

My son is 11.  6th Grade, first year of middle school.  A difficult year for most preteens.  They have enough crap to deal with.  Schedule changes, tardy bells, lockers, gruff gym coaches.  Oh, and let’s not forget the emotional side of middle school – too young to be left on your own, too old to be babied.  It’s a tough spot to be in.  It’s hard enough to watch.

Aaron is intelligent, quiet, and shy.  He is too much like me in that he will not stand up for himself or speak his mind.  My husband and I worried most about the potential for him to be bullied in middle school.  Aaron dealt with mini-bullies in elementary school.  Kids who, for the most part, just didn’t know how to be friends with a quiet dude.  Aaron took it all in stride.  I communicated regularly with his teachers and the counselor so that we could avoid any emotional damage from these more aggressive children.   As Aaron went to 6th Grade, Dom and I talked with him a lot about bullies and the need to come to us if ever another student made him feel threatened.  We ask constantly about his relationships with his peers.  We monitor and we decipher and we talk.

So when Aaron started having trouble sleeping right as Christmas break was ending, I couldn’t help but think he was anxious about returning to school.  He assured me that wasn’t it.  But then, he would end up in my bed within ten minutes of tucking him into his own, claiming that he couldn’t sleep, that he was “nervous” or “had butterflies.”  What in the world was there to be nervous about?  We talked about how the other students treat him – ad nauseum – and he assured us that all his student relationships were fine.  Maybe he was just nervous about his assignments, he offered.

Last night I had just closed my eyes when Victoria came into my room to inform me that Aaron couldn’t sleep and was upset.  Again. “Send him in,” I said.  When he curled up beside me I looked at him in the darkness and said, “Dude, you’ve GOT to come clean with what’s bothering you.  It will never go away if you keep it all inside.  I love you, and I will protect you until the day I die, but I have to know what we’re up against.  Spill it, and don’t leave out ANYTHING.”

It’s the grades.  True, they reflect that he has not put his best effort into his studies, but we also know that he has blown off more than a few homework assignments.  Poor grades are a consequence for not doing the work, and we don’t sugar-coat that fact.  To ease his mind about “failing” anything, I grabbed the iPad and we logged into the parent portal on our school system’s website to review his current grades, which are likely to be the final grades for the quarter that ends in three days.  His worst are high C’s, the “proof in the pudding” of not exerting the effort he is capable of giving.

It struck me as odd that he was most concerned over a class in which he has a high B.  “What if I fail the project that’s due Wednesday?”

“It’s a slideshow project.  You love putting slideshows together.  How can you fail?”

“I don’t know…just…what if I do?”

“Why are you worried about failing something you haven’t turned in yet?  The power to succeed still rests with you.  If you need to change something, you can.  Just, you know, change it before Wednesday.”  I offered to look at the assignment and his progress tonight and offer constructive comments.  He looked relieved.

Our talk lasted probably thirty minutes, laying there in the dark while Victoria examined the website and chimed in about her own grades as the faint glow of the screen illuminated her sweet face.  As we talked, he shared the comments of one of his teachers – one that I am less than impressed with – and I began to see that we are dealing with a bully after all…

An adult bully.  Chastising the class for their performance, telling them that they “are not going to make it” if they have a C in her class, doing her best to shame them into performing at her standard. That approach infuriates me.  Especially since this is coming from the woman who assured us parents at Back-To-School Night that her classroom would be “an oasis and an escape” from the cruel world of middle school.  Sounds more like a two-hour torture chamber now.  If her goal is simply to leave her mark on the students, she is succeeding.  If her goal is to actually help them grow and improve, then I believe she is way off base.

So I did what any half-rational, fully-aggravated mom would do:  I told my son in no uncertain terms to not pay any attention to the crap she says.

Yes, I used those exact words.  I gave him my express permission to ignore his teacher’s criticism.  “You have to do the work she assigns, but you do not have to believe anything she says about your ability to succeed.  Children should be challenged at school, encouraged to perform, and held accountable.  They should NEVER be scared at school.  You should NEVER feel SHAMED into doing a good job.  You are dealing with an adult bully.  You cannot escape her this year, but you CAN dismiss her comments and choose NOT to believe her when she says you will fail. And you can prove her WRONG!!”   I also informed him that two, four, ten years from now, no one is going to give a rat’s half-apple what his 6th-year-2nd-quarter grades were.  So there.

But I am reminded how awesome is the power that a teacher holds.  Even more so than a peer.  This is someone who is inherently supposed to be a support for the student.  Not a crutch, but a genuine mentor.  Everyone has his or her own style.  I’m willing to bet that sarcasm and chastisement don’t affect positive outcomes as often as she might believe.  And I get genuinely peeved at having to undo mental damage caused by teachers. Fortunately, Aaron is mature enough to distinguish personality differences, so he understands when I explain that this teacher’s personality certainly doesn’t have to affect his own.  I just happen to know from personal experience…that’s a whole lot easier to say than to put into practice.

When Dom came to bed he and Aaron talked about the grades and Dom offered reassurance.  Then Dom tucked Aaron into his own bed.  And there, with Mason at his side for extra security, my ‘tween slept like a baby.