Friday, February 25, 2011

The Room Mom-Part Four

The only thing about  Ryan’s  behavior  that stood out was him  sitting in the back row on a regular basis working with  his mother, Mrs. Spencer, the Room Mom.  On the day Carlene had complained, Mrs. Spencer had not  reproached Ryan for his behavior, minimizing the incident.
“Oh, the girls are exaggerating. They don’t want the boys to exclude them from basketball. They can have their own games. Nobody is complaining when they exclude boys.” These were Mrs. Spencer's remarks at that time.
“Is that what this is about? Girls wanting to be included?” I had asked, not sure I knew the whole thing, but nevertheless not wanting to jump in and solve their problems too readily.
The next day Carlene came to school with her mother.  
“Carlene is upset,” her mother began, “you and the aide did nothing about the harassment she suffered yesterday.”
I turned to Carlene, “Why don’t you tell me the whole thing,” and then to the mother, “I might have been too hasty yesterday."
Carlene's account of the incident was that Ryan had been teasing her and her friends, and the basketball part was the last straw. Mrs. Sarnoff  finished Carlene's remarks with one of her own, "He's being abusive with his language, calling her and her friends 'whore'!" Then, turning to Carlene, "Tell your teacher the whole thing, all the times he's been teasing you and your friends."
  I remembered Mrs. Sarnoff as the lawyer who came to talk to the class on career week. Surely, she has places to go this morning.
We talked for a good twenty minutes and when the bell rang for the class to start, I got up to usher her out with, “I'll talk to Ryan and the other boys, and if things don’t calm down," I turned to Carlene, " let me know.”  I wasn’t sure we had finished, but I had a squirmy group of sixth graders pounding at the door, and she seemed fine. She handed me her card, as though I was a potential client and scurried out.

After Christmas, both Carlene, Ryan and Mrs. Spencer changed classroom assignments, and I forgot the entire incident until  I saw  Mrs. Sarnoff ,in the parking area, after school ,waiting by her car for Carlene. I was doing supervision when she came to talk to me.
“I know Carlene is no longer in your class, but I wanted to talk to you anyway.”
         “What happened?” I asked.
         “She won’t ride the bus and she doesn’t want to come to school. I took your advice, let her work out her conflicts with her friends, but it is getting worse.”
            “Have you spoken with her present teacher?”
         “I want her back in your class, and if it’s o.k with you, I’ll make a request from the principal.”
         “Sure! If that’s what you want.”
         “Mrs. Spencer  is always protecting her son. She's been like that in every class since kinder. We used to be friends, she and I. Our whole family used to take vacations together. She's now so wrapped up with her boy's school, she can't see anything else. Does his homework for him. Did you know that? Well, what Carlene tells me, he's out of control."
         Usually, parents have to have a darn good reason to change classes; but, I understood the situation and had no objections. Besides, the students who had been promoted mid-year needed so much work, it was good to get back a good student like Carlene.

Two days later, Mrs. Macke, the teacher in the classroom Ryan was in approached me at lunch time.
“Jean, what I’m about to tell you is between us,” she started, “promise that whatever…” I interrupted her by pointing to the three students who were doing their homework. She waited for me to dismiss the children before continuing.
“Ryan has been expelled,” she started, "Mrs Spencer called me at home late last night and was furious with me. She thinks I am being partial to other children. But I don't doubt what I had to report."
“What happened?” I asked.
“He touched a little girl inappropriately. I was wondering, how did he act when he was with you? I heard another child had complained about him in your class. Is that right?”
I couldn't say much that would explain or improve the situation for either Ryan or Mrs. Macke.
"He and Carlene had words at lunch time a while ago. Nothing that they couldn't handle themselves, if you ask me. But, Ryan has some kind of anger issues, and is on an IEP according to Mrs. Jones."
"Oh? I heard nothing of that!"
"Well, if the expulsion is put in place, you will. You should have known."

          In a few hours, everyone knew about Ryan’s expulsion. His mother was absent from school, and his aunt, who was the dean probably had to do all the paperwork and interviews for that expulsion. Mrs. Jones asked me to join her at the pre-expulsion hearing.
     “You are one of our most trusted educator, Jean. Please attend.”  These are the words Mrs. Jones sent me in a handwritten note. She even offered to drive me there, way out of my way. I thanked her, but drove myself.
     The room was full with parents and community members. I had never been to these events, and didn't know if I just raised my hand and spoke, or had to wait to be called.
    The district administrator called different people to the podium.  Everyone was angry at a teacher or at the principal for something they did or didn’t do to one of their children. He could not control the angry crowd, and was letting anybody who wanted to speak, speak on anything, even not directly related to the case. 
     Mrs. Spencer was there with a man I assumed was her husband. She didn’t speak; but, he did, complaining that Ryan’s teachers didn’t bother to help his boy whenever he needed help. Why, his wife had to quit her job to volunteer at school, so Ryan wouldn't get further behind. 
     Another spoke about his child being kept at lunch time as punishment; another, about the transfer of his child and how upset the whole family was with this arrangement. Even kindergarten parents  showed up to complain about low test scores, even though they wouldn't have any scores for their children. I took notes, trying very hard not to take any of these complaints personally. Though the parent who complained about the lunch time homework  had not bothered to come to me with that problem.  I would have told her to sit with her child at home and get the work done with her child. 
     This was a lynching mob, I thought. The Spencers had created a major distraction so nobody would be talking about Ryan's problems. Even Carlene’s Mom was blaming the teachers for not being alert and preventing harassment.
            The district administrator just sat there and took notes.
The room was  buzzing with a year's worth of accusations when I finally left without my two cents being shared with anyone.
By the time I reached home, I was in tears.
The minute I walked in the door, I called my son in Oregon.
“What is it Mom? Did something happened?”
           “David,  I’m glad you’re  up. It was a long day at work."
          "Are you  O.K?"
          "I'm just realizing I've not seen you guys for a while."
          "Well, come spend the summers with us. Little guy is a joy right now."
         "Easter! I want to visit you during Easter. And summer too. I can't wait another day."
      "Great! Just tell us where to pick you up."
      "I want to drive, put this place behind. Guess I'll take your suggestion too.”
“What suggestion, Mom?”
“To live a little. To get to know my little grandchild!"
“Great, Mom. You’re welcome anytime.”
“You know, I’m not getting any younger.”
“None of us are! So, next month?”
"Yes! Yes. My love to Moanie and Keeley."
      I didn’t know what I would do next; but, I knew that my teaching days were over.



  1. O.k. it is over and done with! Sometimes, that's how some incidents feel after I write them down. The meeting at the district office did actually take place, much more exhausting and debilitating than this story portrays. I had to put some distance before I could write about it; specifically, ten years!

    I wrote this as one piece, originally, a year ago. The first part never really fleshed. Rewriting it in four parts forced me to slow the action down to a crawl.

    One person, The Room Mother, like a butterfly in Chaos theory, can be related to so many changes. This story can evolve; I may want to evolve it, if only I could warm up the personalities, give them more texture.

    I need to do that, I know.

    Thanks so much for following this narrative, and for your valuable feedback.

  2. Wow, stunning.

    I had wondered if this was a real life experience or if it was a fictional account based on a variety of experiences.

    What a story, and I wish that it had left me aghast, but it feels like the way things are right now. My daughter is ten and in fourth grade. I see parents who have made it their full time job to be a part of their child's class. What it interesting is how this room mom knew about her son's issues and I think inserted herself to the class to protect him, but ended up wounding so many people.

    I wanted for you/her to be able to stand up in front of that mob of parents and set them straight, but knew that it could never happen. They wouldn't listen.

    Oh, standardized tests - loved the way that got woven into this too! i felt the pressure of those tests as part of this story.

    This is a great start - I agree that you can add even more depth the personalities. I think it will easier to create and play with them now that the emotion of it is out of you and into the writing.

    Wonderful journey, for us and for you!

    Thank you for brining it out!

  3. Thanks, Marion, you honor me with your visit, your feedback. Sharing this kind of story is not easy. It tugs at you, makes you feel uncomfortable because you are there as a puppeteer and as a memoirist. It's a fine balance, to give the story its arc and maintain the focus on one person without pontificating or blaming anyone.

  4. Good for you Rosaria, for getting this part of your life purged into words where you can take time to look at them and see that there was nothing else you could have done under the circumstances. I agree with Marion that the characters could be more fleshed out; perhaps you could encounter Mrs. Spencer in other places (the grocery, church, etc.) to see how she reacted with other people; the same for her son Ryan. Just a thought.

    I know that when I wanted to purge a major event in my life, I decided to write a book. Every day for months, I would sit at my typewriter after work for a minimum of two hours and the words just poured out of me. But when I read the 698 typewritten pages, I realized it was not believable because I had left so much of "me" out of it as well the personalities of others involved. It would never work as a complete manuscript, so all that time and energy and emotion just sits in a box but I accomplished what I wanted which was to get it all out. It's done.

  5. ! One person, The Room Mother, like a butterfly in Chaos theory, can be related to so many changes. !!

    This I love. I love how the story moves around her, this elusive figure.

    The ending surprised me, but I love that. The whole resolution, the case, could have taken a lot longer for me though, with those holes filled in, the butterfly exposed. There is so much potential here, exhausting for sure, Rosaria. Just how parents work, how they (we) all feel privy to being central! We all want our wings to beat so.


  6. Rosaria,

    Thanks for being such a faithful reader of (and commenter on) my blog! You have a good ear for dialogue, which moves the action along and reveals the characters and their points of view. Here is some feedback, which you requested:

    Something you might consider (if you revise) are creating a more tangible sense of place with descriptions of the classroom and the meeting place. For instance, how full was the room? Where were the characters sitting? What kinds of chairs were they? Details.

    Another way to flesh out characters would be to show how they respond within their environment. What about Ryan sitting in the back row made his behavior stand out? Did he listen to his mother? Was his head bent over his book, or were his eyes rolling? Did he stare out the window or whisper across the room to a friend? I want to see what the characters look like and see their expressions and gestures.

    Excerpted from my blog post, Writing Fiction from Life:
    When drawing from life experience to write fiction, however, Coshnear [my teacher at the time] warned that the translation can be problematic. "It's harder to start rooted in your own experience and fictionalize it," he said. "Instead, start with fiction and place elements of real life into it."

    "Real life" doesn't have to be your own. You can draw from a conversation overheard on the bus, media commentary, a dream, historical research. In his book, Turning Life into Fiction, Robin Hemley writes, "Writing from real life is a constant dialogue between one's memory and one's imagination."

    Keep up the great work! I'm impressed with the volume of your writing and encourage you to keep at it.