The true story of what happens when an unemployed dad and his rambunctious six-year-old son are forced to conduct an involuntary experiment in homeschooling. Introducing a new five-part series about fatherhood and other catastrophes
My son's hippy charter school did not do Christmas. Instead, the administrators created an artificial, substitute holiday called the Labyrinth Celebration, and they took it very seriously. So seriously that the teachers didn't think twice about marching dozens of children—and me—outside in howling winds and numbing cold for an hour to practice a stupid song about a shiny lantern.
"I don't know the words," my son Wilson confessed through chattering teeth. He'd only paid sporadic attention in music class.
"Let's fake it," I said.
As the shivering kindergarteners around us mumbled their way through the song, Wilson and I lip synced, cracking each other up with exaggerated faces. The humor wore off after we finished the song and waited, and waited, while the organizers dithered over where the other K-6 kids should stand and sing.
Anita*, Wilson's teacher, fought a losing battle to keep her batch of five-year-olds standing still in the arctic freeze. But back at the end of the line, I let Wilson spazz-dance around and jump off a short garden wall. "Paratrooper!" he screamed. At least he was keeping warm. I only gave him a token warning about crashing into people after he joined hands with a girl named Daisy and spun her in circles. Wilson and Daisy both laughed as they fell to the ground. But Anita wasn't amused. "Hey!" she shouted at me. "Would you keep them under control?"
When I agreed to chaperone Wilson at his school a few weeks earlier, I hadn't signed on to be scolded by a kindergarten teacher. Not that I really minded—she was just cold and overwhelmed. And it's not like I had much dignity left anyway. Getting leg cramps at Rug Time and being jostled by kids at the pint-size urinals during Bathroom Break will do that to you. Actually, my entire experience as a parent had done that to me. Years of playing stay-at-home dad in family-friendly Austin for two "spirited" boys had burned me out. As much as I loved my kids, I'd counted the days until Wilson started school and his younger brother, Oliver, could start daycare. I had a cushy part-time job editing an alumni magazine for a small university nobody cared about, but I hadn't had any real time to myself for years. Finally I could get my life back. Do more freelance writing. Read an entire book. Use the bathroom without interruption.
That simple dream vanished when the principal at Wilson's school demanded that I chaperone him all day and every day. "For safety," she said. By this she meant that she wanted some way to stop the other parents from calling to complain about Wilson. Once he started school, our witty, creative, energetic son had begun using his considerable powers for evil. He'd verbally and physically abused most of his classmates, disrupted nearly every class he'd bothered to participate in, and even managed to kick Anita in the head. (His side of the story: she got in the way of his flailing.)
After second guessing everything we'd ever done as parents, my wife Erin and I started to wonder if Wilson's past was catching up with him. We'd adopted him when he was only five months old, but life hadn't been easy for him up until then—he had been abused and then separated from his mother. A therapist we saw told us that early trauma of the kind he had experienced can wire a child's brain to distrust the world. She recommended a fresh injection of close and constant contact with us—attachment therapy for a kid who'd always kept us at arm's length. We figured the chaperoning might help us reconnect.
Besides, I'd just been laid off, so I had the time.
Not long after the class came in from the cold, Anita had a breakdown during a particularly chaotic Choice Time. Wilson wasn't the only troublemaker in her class. She lined up the most rambunctious kids along the wall and shouted at them, then burst into tears. Did I mention this was her first year teaching? I felt horrible for her. Like me, she was in over her head, doing her best in thankless circumstances. Even so, I was glad Wilson didn't witness her freakout; he'd already been sent to the Focus Room for trying to smash a stack of popsicle frames.
We should have had the sense to take Wilson out of school that day. Kindergarten—the new first grade—was like a gulag to him. But what was the alternative? Home school? That was for creationists and refuseniks whose kids turned out to be maladjusted weirdos or annoyingly successful weirdos like that teenager who wrote Eragon, that fantasy book about dragons. Wilson was a great kid, we reasoned, and if we all just kept trying a little longer, he could be a great student, too.
So we stayed, and slowly, things began to turn around. Over the next few weeks Wilson engaged more with his classmates. He began learning how to calm himself down. He didn't even call me "chicken fart" or "garbage butt" in front of everybody quite as often.
One day, Karen, the school's behavior coach, pulled me away from Anita's reading of Charlotte's Web, which had degenerated into a lecture about interruptions. Karen told me Wilson had improved but was using me as a crutch. I agreed wholeheartedly. "I think we're ready for you to pull back how much time you're spending here," she said. Words kept coming out of her mouth, but all I could think about was one word: freedom.
We set up a meeting for later in the week to plan my scaled-back hours. On the way to school the next morning, I brought it up with Wilson.
Me: "I've got good news. You've been doing so well, I won't have to be with you in class as much."
As soon as we got to school, I knew I'd made a mistake telling him so soon. Within the hour he had stabbed a classmate in the hand with a pencil and hurled a chair across the room. He caused such a ruckus in the Focus Room that Karen—the professional voice of calm and reason—shouted at him and sent us home.
I didn't bother to take Wilson in the next day; we both needed some time off. We hung out at home watching TV and eating the unhealthy food his school didn't allow. Then we went to the indoor YMCA pool, where Wilson launched himself head-first off one foot with his hands behind his back. "It's the No-Hands-One-Foot Dive!" he shouted. We grabbed lunch at Whole Foods, where he learned how to skate on the environmentally unfriendly ice rink they'd refrigerated on the roof. I'd been his prison guard for so long I'd almost forgotten how amazing he could be. "I've had a blast today," I said later in the car. He bugged out his eyes and nodded vigorously, his way of saying "me too."
We showed up after school let out for the meeting Karen that had scheduled before Wilson's big blow-up. But something told me we wouldn't be talking about his improvement anymore. Erin was out of town, so as Wilson ran around on the playground, I faced the principal, Karen and Anita alone.
Karen got to the point. "We don't have the resources to handle him." She said we should re-enroll Wilson in our neighborhood public school, which had a special needs program. The principal blathered on about how they'd tried to help kids like Wilson in the past but it "only made things worse." Anita praised Erin and me for our hard work as parents in a way that sounded patronizing, even though I could tell she felt bad.
Each of them had more to say, but I wasn't really listening. I couldn't get past the part where they'd actually kicked a five-year-old—my five-year-old—out of kindergarten.
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