Perils of the interfering parent

WARNINGI’ve been told before. I’ve read the advice. Hell, I’ve given the advice – don’t email in anger. Or when tired. Or when the tide mark on the wine bottle drops below the halfway mark.

Last week I ignored those words of wisdom and shot off a cranky email to my kid’s history teacher. It was 2:00am. There was no wine in the mix, just an overdose of frustration layered with too little sleep. It was the worst possible time to start a conversation with anyone, let alone a teacher, but I hit the send button anyway.

What a pity the enter key doesn’t come with an access code. In fact, after midnight it should go into automatic lock-down, accessible only with an encrypted key and a uniformed Denzel Washington to concur.

Crimson Tide

Or maybe there should be a robot in the corner to waive its arms warning ‘danger, danger’.

RobotIn the absence of a Denzel safeguard or a robot warning, I hit the send button on a very inflammatory message and started a correspondence nightmare.

The youngest child, my last at high school, works hard. Her passion is dance and she trains six days a week for two or three hours at a time; the pain from blistered and blackened toes a distraction from her aching hips.

She wants to do well at school, too, but study doesn’t come easily to her. She worries so much her face aches from teeth clenching. Many mornings she sets an alarm for 5:30am and gets up in the dark, warms a wheat bag in the microwave to nurse in her lap, then catches up on homework before classes.

I should declare one other background fact. Between ages two and five this child’s body was pumped full of poison and steroids to combat acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She’s fine now, but I’ll always wonder how that treatment affected her. Leukemia likes to hide in the lining of the brain, so the regime of needles included chemotherapy agents injected directly into her central nervous system.

I think about that sometimes when I watch her struggle to articulate her analysis of Lady Macbeth or find the axis of symmetry on a parabola. I also think about it when I see her raise one leg above her head, quadriceps like rocks and a pretty smile hiding her fierce determination to get it higher.

Noise bothers her. It’s aggravating. Similarly a crowded assessment schedule overwhelms her. It paralyzes her. Still, other kids struggle too, and she manages with her 5:30am alarm and support from very good teachers. We tell her marks aren’t important, we just expect her to learn to the best of her ability. We’ve never hired tutors for our kids. And beyond some help with maths (from her father, not me), the youngest child muddles through on her own too.

StudyingUntil a couple of weekends ago, when I was two glasses into a bottle of Riesling on a Friday night, and she sat down on the couch beside me, teary, because she didn’t know how she could possibly finish her history assignment by the due date.

The history assignment involved three parts: a record of research, a digital exhibition and a curatorial paper. Education has come a long way since I was in grade 10. Back then we just wrote an essay or did an exam. In fact, it was the same when I studied history at university. But I digress.

The kid had chosen to report on the country’s response to Kevin Rudd’s “sorry” speech to Parliament. She’d spent hours beavering away and had acres of notes but not much in the way of digital anything. I pulled out my phone and with a quick Google search found a couple of video clips, pictures and news articles. I told her just to get on with the written task and worry about the digital side of things later. “But I can’t,” she wailed. She was convinced she couldn’t tackle the curatorial paper without the digital exhibition. I told her not to worry (fat chance of that), sent her to bed and pulled out my laptop to explore Wix.

Now I’m a dab hand at a web site. I’ve written about that before. But even with my experience it took some work to determine how to present the information. Pages or posts? How could I break it into the categories and then sub-categories the kid wanted? It wasn’t rocket science, but it took me quite a few hours over the weekend to build a home for her research. And once I’d started I couldn’t help but add the videos and pictures I’d found myself.

At 2:00am one morning, when she was tucked up in bed and I was still fiddling with text box alignment, I paused to draft a furious email. I felt guilty for having done so much of the assignment and I was angry at what I believed to be an unnecessarily complicated task.

Here’s a sample:

… it seems my history major is less valuable than a design qualification given this task requires a digital exhibition. And as for the curatorial paper, the sample she showed me had my eyes glazing over. I’m sure it’s wonderful but it presumes a level of analytical skill my daughter simply does not possess. I tried reading the ‘STANDARDS MATRIX FOR MULTIMODAL PRODUCT’ to see if I could simplify the task but – well I have to be up again in a few hours and life is short.
So in short. The website (NAME) will submit in a couple of days is largely my doing – not the analysis (or lack thereof), but the time-consuming design, embed, cut and paste palaver that comes with a digital exhibition. The creation of categories to organise posts and tags to enable sub-categories – all me. I’ve also helped her find some additional sources … I’m not going near the curatorial paper. I’m worried I’d fail.

Could I have been more passive-aggressive? Unlikely. I fell into bed exhausted but feeling better for having declared my involvement and dumped my frustrations on someone else.
Two days later I received a response from the teacher, the guts of which reads:

Whilst this term’s History task is indeed one that challenges the girls, it is not one that is beyond their capacity. The girls have been provided with ample class time…The key challenge of this task is time management… In order to assist the girls …they were provided with an Assignment Planner… Due to the fact that … did not create the Digital Exhibition herself, she cannot be credited for this component of the assignment. Please see the parts of the standards matrix below that will be discounted as a result.

Really? Time and resources aside, this assessment overwhelmed my kid. And what of the students who have tutors or parents who routinely help them but don’t declare it? Were their grades “discounted”?

I drafted many, many responses to this email. But my inner Denzel kicked in and they all benefited from the delete key. Finally I settled on the following:

Ah. I see. The punitive approach. Ok. Lesson learnt. Thank you for your considered response.

I know. Your mind is boggling over the drafts I deemed too incendiary.

So now the big guns stepped in. The Head of Department promptly wrote with an offer to meet and discuss my concerns. But by now I was thoroughly deflated and feeling ashamed.

Everyone has a back story. I’ve told you my kid’s, but the school’s history department has struggled this year too, with teachers battling their own illnesses. I regretted my churlish messages (especially the second one) and preferred to move on. I wrote to the teacher:

Please accept my apologies … There is no excuse for my belligerent emails. … is lucky to learn in a challenging and supportive school and I hope my tired rants haven’t caused undue stress.

I also apologised in a separate email to the department head, with a gentle caveat:

The purpose of my (ill-timed and inflammatory) original message was simply to alert you to the stress caused by the technical requirements of the latest assignment and my concern about the disproportionate amount of time spent putting yellow borders around text boxes rather than learning history. We could simply blame …. lack of time management skills for this and penalise her for needing help from a parent. But I’m wondering if there’s scope for broader reflection.

And finally, in her lovely response, I felt I’d been heard:

Thank you for your email Angela. There is definitely scope for broader reflection and we are currently doing a lot of it at the moment with the girls and amongst ourselves.

So the history department and I are friends again. Assessment is over for the term and the ballerina can sleep till seven, dance as much as her feet permit and stop grinding her teeth. I won’t get a grade for my Wix site (I wonder how I’d have gone?), but the student and I are both happy we declared how it was built.

There are so many communications lessons in this exchange; maybe some about parenting too. I’ll admit to being particularly protective of the youngest child and I suspect it won’t be the last time I’ll consult with her school as she journeys through the senior years. But I shouldn’t get involved in her assessment. And I should probably trust that her teachers know what they’re doing. Most importantly, I should never send an email after midnight.

copywriting me

Angela Bensted is Brisbane-based freelance writer who likes to listen first and struggle with syntax later. She pitches stories to magazines and helps businesses produce compelling copy for print and online.

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