Rivets and Chocolate

His beard was always the first thing you noticed about Dr. Thoms; you really could not avoid it as it spread from ears to lapel to 3 buttons down his shirt. Usually, there was also a smile in the depths of that beard, but on this morning, he was doing his best to suppress that smile and maintain the stern look of a principal discussing a student returning after being suspended. That suppressed smile was the hint that other than a Ph.D. in some field of education, he was a perfectly reasonable and likable person. Trepidation on entering the principal's office? No, I had left that behind long before I had children of my who could cause this kind of problem. If there was trepidation, my daughter, Heather had claimed it and then hidden it away. Heather, I am afraid, had learned well from her father that there were times that the schools sometimes got their priorities somewhat out of line with those of her family.

She saw this the first time when she was in the first grade. We got a call from the school requesting that we come and discuss her behavior, a call that Heather could not explain as she was sure that she was not in trouble at school. I was surprised because both Heather and her older brother, Travis, had been taught the fundamentals of reading long before entering first grade. Their understanding of using the language came from parents who valued reading and writing, including suggestions that when they wanted to know how to spell a word it was always d - i - c - t - i - o - n - a - r - y and that sentences never ended in prepositions. When we entered Heather's classroom we were greeted by a wonderful young woman with a bright smile and a sparkling North Carolina accent; not just the accent but the syntax of a Tar Heel as well. We quickly got to the point that the problem was that Heather had taken about a week to correct her charming first grade teacher with a stern “My father says that sentences never end in prepositions!”; embarrassing moments caused by honesty.

Travis had his own moment of understanding the rules of school versus the rules of home. His came in the spring of his first grade year as the days grew warm and he was taking large doses of the best cure for winter induced cabin fever. He had to walk across the playground to reach his school every morning and the warm weather made the brief fling on the playground equipment totally irresistible. One morning I called back to his room to warn him that if he did not get out the door, he would be late for school. I was immediately confronted with the determined and tearful face of my son who informed me that he would skip school rather than be late. Travis had been late on several occasions because of his morning detours on the playground which caused his teacher to make it clear that the next time, he would be off to face the principal to help him keep his schedule. Travis had come to the conclusion that there was more trouble from being late for school than for missing school.

Now, Dr. Thoms was talking to the father that helped create these attitudes out of agreement that education was terribly important for young people and disagreement about some of the methods for achieving that goal. Heather had been suspended from school for eating candy in English class and the school required a parent to come in before the student was allowed to reenter the classrooms. Now I agree that teachers need to run their classrooms by their own standards, so I accepted that my “A” student daughter deserved her fate even if I agreed with her that, in general, classes in middle school need some sweetening to maintain full participation. The problem that I was presenting to Dr. Thoms was another of those places where the priorities of the home were somewhat different than those of the school.

First, came the phone call from the school to let us know that Heather's need for chocolate was apparently larger than her need to pay attention to the rules and the daily lesson. That leftover from the Halloween collection would cost her a day of suspension from school. Less than an hour later, we got the second call from the school. Travis was taking the basic shop class learning to use power tools and fashion things from wood and metal. His teacher had intervened in a rivet tossing battle that had broken out in a lull in class productivity. This teacher wanted me to have a talk with Travis about the need for safety around tools making sure that no one got hurt in a moment of careless frolic.

A conflict of priorities was joined. Rules that we have to prevent accidents and injury to each other like everyone driving on the right side of the road just have a higher value for me than rules that maintain a code of civility like standing up when being introduced to someone. If I was of the mind to inflict punishment for these types of transgressions in the hope of altering behavior, I would make sure that the penalty for a safety issue was far greater than for a civility transgression. I explained my thinking to Dr. Thoms that morning and suggested that I thought the school would be better served to tell the English teachers to maintain perspective, to make sure that the shop teachers stayed on top safety standards and to consider that they may have suspended the wrong one of my “A” students.

I do not believe that Dr. Thoms ever considered changing any of the policies of that school, but I would like to believe that there was some discussion among the teachers about how to handle future events. That beard, full and covering his otherwise gentle countenance, allowed him to keep his thoughts to himself. It may be that he grew that beard because I was not the first parent to discuss divergent priorities with him, and he found that the best way to keep the peace was to find a way to keep his thoughts obscured. I was just one parent who thought good grammar was important, being there was more important than being late and that safety was more important than civility.

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