Sitting in the Ontario airport as we await the departure of flight 334 to Oakland, Matt Vaudrey (His account of this story) and I are interrupted in our conversation about Google Forms and “The Givachit Scale” by an upset mother’s reprimanding of her son. We’ve all been there - you piss mom off, you’re going to feel her wrath. Many of us have also been there - your kids are driving you crazy and you make a threat that you know you can’t cash in on.
Hypothetical Angry Mom: “You’re gonna be grounded for a year! And no Nintendo! And you’re doing dishes for 6 weeks!”
If only her punishment was so harmless, knowing that it’s never going to amount to half that. No, this was much, much worse.
“Keep going and I’m going to 400.
*no wait time*
You don’t want to stop crying? Fine. 450.
As soon as you stop being oppositional, I’ll stop adding sentences.
*no wait time*
600. No, now you’re up to 700. You are 12 years old and I expect you to listen.”
This mother of a 12 year-old son, whom we’ve never met and haven’t the slightest clue on the history between them and their struggles, has apparently made the decision that giving her son sentences to write is a viable punishment for whatever he has quietly done wrong prior to boarding their flight to Oakland on a Tuesday night. Prior to this mom losing control, it was just another empty airport with faint sounds of CNN playing in the background and an occasional looped Ontario Airport Public Service Announcement about free Wifi (well hey, that ain’t so bad!).
Anyways, I had to do something.
Younger John goes up to the mother, tells her that it’s not right to give her son sentences as punishment. Younger John reminds her that her son is still learning to like learning, and requiring sentences to be written as punishment conditions his brain to believe that this is the best use of sentences, therein leading him to hate learning and hate school. Younger John also makes a couple off-handed smart-ass comments about her poor parenting skills and lack of ability to keep herself together when her son needs a good role model.
But this isn’t Younger John.
Instead, right or wrong, I get up and walk away; Matt follows along, his heart and stomach certainly boiling at a similar temperature as mine. I didn’t stand up because I was avoiding her; I stood up and walked away because the only person who loses in that situation is the young man who, by all accounts, was merely reading a book to himself in the airport prior to this onslaught of threats. If Younger John approaches mom, mom turns around and takes it out on her son, regardless of how effective my message about ‘The Bigger Educational Impact’ is. That’s not fair to him. No, the more mature me decides to let this stay internal.
“I told you that I’ll keep going, right? You’re up to a thousand now.
*no wait time*
Eleven hundred. Twelve Hundred”
“Mom?! I’m not gonna write that many sentences. This isn’t fair!”
The young boy, avoiding his mom, is sobbing heavily at this point, red in the face and uncertain of what he can possibly to do dig himself out of this open pit mine.
My stomach is still turning over not saying something, but sometimes it’s better to bite my tongue, no matter how hard it bleeds.
I feel for the kid, immediately triggering memories of 6th grade in Ms. Daly’s class when a big group of us thought we could leave a couple minutes early for Thanksgiving Break to head to the bus. To this day, I swear she said it was OK. We got to the bus, boarded with the blessing of the bus driver, all before Ms. Daly stormed through the rickety swinging door to tell us all that we had 600 sentences to write over break. Why? Because we left early without her permission. I felt cheated. I felt helpless. I felt like this was a completely unfair punishment.
Looking at that 12 year-old, who is probably near the end of 6th grade, I was looking at myself. The only difference is that my punishment was coming from a 6th grade teacher who I already disliked and my mom, along with many of my friends’ parents, worked to talk some sense into. I couldn’t do that with a parent I’ve never met and that hurts more than I ever thought it would.
The bigger issue is that this scenario is a microcosm of hundreds, no thousands, of conversations that happen around the country on a regular basis. Every night, it is fair to assume that young men and women are being served math problems, sentences, and spelling punishments by their parents and/or guardians for one reason or another. Regardless of race, social class, or religion, parents are handing out a disdain for learning because it’s the most readily-available non-physical punishment that they can think of. While I applaud their lack of physical force, I’m speechless.
What am I going to say in that instance that is going to change her mind?
“Excuse me ma’am, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with your son and I would like to help. See, I’m a teacher (as I wear my ed-tech Remind.com shirt proudly) and I’ve seen so many young men and women be turned away from learning because of punishment that was handed out when it was really a learning opportunity. Rather than having your son write sentences, how about having a conversation with him about what his decisions were, how he could have made adjustments, and having him choose the punishment?”
Hah! I wouldn’t have made it past “help” without her telling me off. Truth is, I’m a stranger to her and always will be, regardless of what cool ed-tech shirt I’m wearing, the job that I’ve had, the effect that I’ve had on students, or the research that I’ve done.
I hate leaving blog posts that have questions with a void of answers, but 19 years after I was on the receiving end of such an outrageous punishment, I have none.
To the young man in the airport, I’m sorry that I don’t know how to stand up for you in a way that is going to have a lasting effect. I don’t know if you were in the wrong, but that shouldn’t matter. I hope that you are able to look past speed bumps like this on your road to learning to love learning and are able to persevere. I hope that you know when it is right to stand up for yourself and when it is best to bite your tongue. I hope you reconcile with your mother - she is the best one you will ever have and I truly believe that she loves you; she just may not know how to reach you in a way that isn’t physical.
Still standing and removed from the situation, we see our plane arrive, passengers de-board, and our plane-mates heading to Oakland start to collect their carry-on items in anticipation. The man at the ticket counter jovially lifts the garbled microphone to his mouth:
“A1 through 60, you are free to line up”
Those are the only numbers I was hoping to hear tonight. We board our plane, take off, and try to move on, although this one will sit with us for a while.
Unfortunately, there are times when the less painful option is to bite your tongue so hard it bleeds.
Once again, Matt's version. Take a moment to read it - he's good with the words.