Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning Lessons Young

April 28, 2009

It’s been a week since the shocking email hit my in-box. It was from Mr. Earls and the subject line was simply Matthew.

I wanted to touch base with you about Matthew. He has a realistic fiction writing piece he has been working on---it was due a week ago Friday, but I didn't put much heat on him due to finishing testing. He told me he would have it last Friday and still doesn't have it.

“Due last Friday,” I think aloud, “Today is Tuesday.” My blood pressure starts to rise and I panic wondering if Matthew can even define realistic fiction, let alone produce it.

I kept him in for both recesses yesterday and told him he would not be seeing the light of day from me again until I have it.

What? He missed both recesses yesterday and never saw fit to even so much as mention this to me. In fact, when I asked him the same-old, same-old questions designed to draw out any important assignments, accomplishments and general excitement from a day in the life of fifth grade, all I got was a story about how he perfectly timed a release of gas right as Mr. Earls called on him. I was horrified and asked what Mr. Earls said in response to such a disrespectful and disgusting – yet incredibly entertaining for adolescents – reply. He calmly told me that Mr. Earls said, “Matthew, sadly was the smartest thing that has come from you all day.” Looking back on the story, I wish I could have put my own feelings aside long enough to consider the motivation behind Mr. Earl’s response.

He and his best friend are my two holdouts---I am not really sure what they are up to.

“Best friends? Best friends my hinny. What kind of a ‘friend’ drags my kid down to this level of irresponsibility and deceit?”(Because of course, my kid wouldn’t sink to this level on his own –right!) Just yesterday this young man came over after school and I asked him and Matthew together about their performance at school. Almost in unison they assured me all was well and neither of them mentioned they were in deep, hot water with their teacher. Intuitively I thought their response was a little suspicious and warned them that if I were to find out differently then I would not be encouraging this friendship by allowing him to visit after school.

This boy reminds me a lot of one of my brothers, Chris. He’s polite and charismatic and I can’t help but like him, despite the fact that I know he would feed me a line of bull at any moment – all with a smile on his face. I have a heart for him. Maybe it’s because he’s being raised by a single mother and I can’t imagine being in her shoes. Maybe it’s because I was raised by a single mother and remember the struggles. Maybe it’s because my heart broke the time he and Matthew were watching basketball on TV and he told Matthew he’d never watched a basketball game in his life – or any sport for that matter. But nonetheless, it was time I make good on the promise I had made to these boys and they weren’t going to like it.

Could you have a chat with him to see if you can get him back on track? I will be sending it home with him tonight. Let me know if you have questions. Thanks---


I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. Any questions? Oh, I have questions alright. Where is he? How quickly can I get to his class, yank him out of his seat, take him to the hall and tell him how deeply disappointed I am by this behavior. And how did this happen anyway? When did my sweet and innocent baby become a pathological liar? How did I miss the signs?

I not-so calmly typed a response letting Mr. Earls know that I in no way was aware of the situation. Then I stewed about it all, trying to figure out the best way to begin understanding how Matthew could think any of this was OK, wondering how he is sleeping at night with the burden of this work and his lies. (OK, so a hint of my drama queen was showing through.)

Of course, in perfect “dad timing,” My Executive, His Father was hosting a meeting out of town and couldn’t answer one of my ten calls to his cell phone. Left to deal on my own, I decided to call the school and leave Mr. Earls a message asking him to keep Matthew after school so we can confront him together. Later I found out that Mr. Earls cleverly passed the written message along to Matthew – just to make him sweat it. Sweet!

I spent the rest of the afternoon formulating the perfect mix of words for this meeting. When I got to school, he’s at his desk writing and looks up and smiles at me. It was one of those “I’m gonna test the water smiles – like how-mad-is-she smiles. I don’t smile back and immediately he gets it. His eyes begin to water. See that’s the thing with my Matthew – he’s a good kid at heart who hurts when I hurt. He knows this conversation is going to make him sad.

After the story is all told, I explain to Matthew that my heart will always be for him and there is nothing he could ever do to make me love him less. But, (and you knew that was coming), I was shocked and deeply saddened by his decision to blow off his work and then lie about it for days!

…Fast forward a week. Consequences are in place. The TV is gone. The gaming systems are packed away. The computer is limited to homework only. No email. No phone. Sure, the paper is turned in, but are there any lessons in it all?

Ask Matthew and he’ll tell you he learned that crime doesn’t pay and that bad choices not only hurt yourself but those around you. I believe in my heart he wants to be a man of integrity and wise character. These aren’t new concepts to him; we talk about them regularly. He was as miserable as anyone during the last week.

Ask me and I’ll tell you there are lots of lessons to take away from this little experience on Matthew’s road to manhood. First, I had to ask why. Why did he flippantly blow off this writing assignment? Sadly, for me, I realized he did this because he hates to do it. My kid hates to write and what’s even worse is that he thinks he’s not any good at it. My heart aches in sadness at the reality. How can a person who is half me despise something that gives me so much pleasure? And is he really that bad at it, or does he just think he is? Either way, it doesn’t matter. He has created his reality.

Because I love to write, I want my kids to love it too. Looking back, I am sure they both feel this pressure. I have never said it, but I guess if I am honest with myself I would have to admit that I also expect them not only to love it but to be good at it. It’s like I have become one of those parents I despise. You know, the ones who need their kids to be all that just to make themselves feel complete.

This incident shows me that Matthew is ready to give up on meeting an unrealistic expectation that I have misplaced on him. While his actions are still unacceptable, I have to take responsibility for two things. First, I have to get Matthew the help he needs to translate the brilliant thoughts in his head to something cohesive on paper. I can no longer sit by and watch him struggle at something he’s convinced he can never do to suit me. Without shame for either of us, we are hiring a tutor to help Matthew gain the confidence he needs to - “write enough.” I’m not asking him to love it or create realistic fiction stories for fun. I’m just asking him to write enough – enough to graduate, go to college and support himself and hopefully his family.

Secondly this is an opportunity to remind myself to celebrate Matthew’s individualism. He’s incredible with math and science. He’s funny. He’s caring. He’s handsome. He is my heart. And he is just as God created him to be. He, like his mother, isn’t perfect but rather is being perfected by our Creator. In the process, God is perfecting me too. Some days (and weeks), it’s a painful process.


  1. Okay, type AAA hypertwit I-can-do-it-all supermom. I think it's time to take a deep breath and put things into perspective. I didn't really do well in school until I got to college, realized it was important and really hit it. I don't know, but I think I turned out okay! He doesn't have to like writing, but he does have to do it. Along with math and science, etc. He doesn't have to be the best student. It WILL be okay. As you know, it's only going to get more difficult in the next few years. But it will get better.


  2. When I asked one of the teachers at SMS how she was yesterday (in that casual I-am-acknowledging-that-we-are-both-in-the-same-room way, not in the hold-your-hands-and-look-into-your-eyes way), she replied, "I am blessed." I thought that was wonderful. It was so much more thought-provoking and spirit-uplifting than complaining about the rain or the last month of school craziness or simply saying, "Fine, thanks, and you?"

    I remembered that comment, and I felt blessed, when I read Robin's pieces. I finished "Learning Lessons Young" with tears in my eyes, and then I went on to read "Minimal Invasion" and wept for the loss of Robin's mom.

    The theme I found in both of these is the importance of being able to ask for help, from God and from one another. It takes such humility to accept that we cannot do it all and be it all.