It’s all made for long, busy days full of shuttling. And, although it’s mostly gone well, he hasn’t been thriving in his regular elementary school. It’s been a bad fit academically and socially. And it was starting to show.
We noticed that he laughed less, that he was less interested in things, and that he was more prone to tangent and rumination. We also noticed that his admirable impulse to protect justice among his peers had morphed into an unhealthy version where he wasn’t picking his battles wisely, where he was inserting himself into no-win situations, and where he was making himself into a target unnecessarily.
This came to a head last week on Friday, a day that I was out of state for work. I had been gone for a few days and was missing everyone terribly, so I stepped into a hospital waiting room and called Wendy just to check in. She was crying.
Isaac had just gotten home from the elementary school. He’d been given a disciplinary form and had lost recess privileges over a hallway argument. He had challenged someone else’s behavior in just the sort of way we’ve counseled him not to. This triggered an argument. And the situation escalated when the other boy made physical threats and Isaac—to his credit—said that he would defend himself.
He actually was ready to defend himself. That wasn’t a bluff. Isaac has got competent blocking defense, a reasonable right cross, and an uncommonly good rear naked choke. After suffering my own 6th-8th grade challenges, I always knew that my son would at least enter that frightful age with a better set of skills than I had.
But unfortunately, defending yourself is not elementary school policy, and Isaac’s statement was deemed as “negative and threatening.”
It took me a long time to climb back out of this funk. I barely graduated high school with a two-point-something GPA. My first few years of college were marred by multiple class failures and unofficial withdrawals. And I’m still apologizing today to the several victims of my shockingly bad behavior in the first few years after high school.
Happily, I did repent and recover from all this through the miraculous combination of going on an LDS mission, marrying a wonderful human being, seeking out capable mentors, and slowly building a wonderful career. But this was all much harder than it needed to be. So I’m not a really big fan of letting a kid just “tough it out” through a few rough years of elementary and junior high school.
When I landed home Friday night, I didn’t know what we could do, but I was certain we would do something.
We talked as a family all weekend. Not just Wendy and I; we involved both kids candidly in figuring out what to do. We talked as a group and we paired off to talk more privately. I called several of my siblings. I spoke at length with my mother. Wendy talked to hers parents and siblings.
We prayed. We studied. We meditated on it.
And on Monday, we went to the school district office and pulled Isaac out of elementary school. He’ll continue with the morning math at the junior high school. He’ll also start a science class there next term. He’ll continue the all-day accelerated program on Wednesdays. He’ll still complete annual standardized testing. But he’s done with elementary school. He’ll homeschool this year to complete that content. And in the spring, he’ll apply for transfer to the specialized science and technology school that spans 7th through 12th grades.
As we met on Monday with his principal and with the district director, Wendy and I were prepared for a fight. Having grown up in military-sponsored schools, I was sure we’d face heavy resistance. My parents were once refused their request to transfer my brother to a different teacher in the same school even after they reported that that his current teacher was actually hitting him and pulling his hair!
So we dressed in our Sunday best and practiced our mad-dog faces. But it turns out that there wasn’t any fight to be had.
The consistent message we got was that the district supported us 100% in finding the best fit for our own child. No one resisted it. No one pushed us into a labyrinth of red tape to make the decision harder. They just congratulated us on advocating for our son and made the changes we thought were best. “You know your son best,” the principal assured me. And the district director said, “I actually wish that we had more parents advocating for their children this way.”
Today was Fast Sunday, the day each month when Mormons go without food and drink. It’s a day to remember gratitude. And it’s a day to pray for guidance and blessing. Today, Wendy and I both fasted for spiritual direction in getting it right as we navigate this new challenge. We prayed for confirmation that we’d chosen he right path for our son.
As Wendy and I sat in Sunday School, I came across a quote I’d highlighted months ago by our late prophet, Ezra Benson:
Strong families cultivate an attribute of effective communication. They talk about their problems, make plans together, and cooperate toward common objectives...Fathers and mothers in strong families stay close to their children. They talk...Every family has problems and challenges. But successful families try to work together toward solutions...They pray for each other, discuss, and give encouragement. Occasionally these families fast together in support of one of the family members. Strong families support each other.
After church, I found Isaac in the hallway and we talked a bit while we waited for Wendy. He was smiling. He looked confident. I thought of the unbelievable week he’d just had and the abrupt change we’d made. But mostly I thought about how much he’d laughed this week. His name means “he will laugh” in Hebrew. And it fits; no one laughs like Isaac does.
My son is laughing again.
I put my hand on his shoulder and told him how much I loved him, how proud I was of him, and what a blessing he is in my life.
He just smiled and asked how soon we were going to break the fast and eat dinner.