Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cheers


I am a teacher and I am a parent.  Most teachers are like me in that regard.   We have a vested interest in the culture of our schools. What that means, in basic terms, is that when you step inside the front doors of your child's school, you should be stepping into a place where you are respected and feel at ease.  As a teacher, part of my job is to make you feel that way.  
Carol was one of those parents who always seemed to be in the school.  She sat on the School Parent Council.  She helped out on Hot Lunch Day.  She assisted with Pediculocis checks. If you ever were short a driver for a class trip or an adult to go on an outing to help maintain supervision ratios, Carol was always available.  She was a very helpful and positive presence and, as such, became part of the social fabric of our school.  Because she was always around so much, it became quite common for teachers to call her by her first name and for her to reciprocate in kind.  Carol was not alone in being accorded such a warm reception. There was a cadre of almost a dozen parents who formed a core group of parent volunteers that we, as teachers, could count on day-in and day-out.  The culture of our school was to encourage positive parental involvement and, as a result of our efforts, we felt blessed to have had the attention of such a good group of Moms and Dads. 
Our school was located not too far from the big General Motors Car Plant in Oshawa, Ontario.  Consequently, the economic power of GM drove much of the local economy, spurring a housing boom in Oshawa and surrounding communities.  Subdivisions sprang up in all directions around my school. The population of our school doubled and an influx of new families poured in. These families were known as "GM Families" by the locals.  While many of the long established local families had extensive social networks set up among themselves, many of the families inhabiting the new subdivisions found their social experience to be different.  In a majority of cases, the husband/father would get up early, make the short drive to the GM plant and work their shift (often staying late to work the higher-paying overtime shift), leaving the  subdivisions, in daytime, to consist almost exclusively of women and children. Because most children went to school, this often meant that many area Moms ended up coming to school, too, as part of their daily routine.  Whether through boredom, loneliness or the simple basic desire to have social contact with other adults, this is how Carol and her GM Family co-horts came to be at my school and established themselves as volunteers extraordinaire. 
Carol had three children.  The oldest child, a boy named Paul, became a student of mine when he entered Grade 2.  Up until that time, my interactions with Carol had been mainly comprised of the friendly hallway banter that she exchanged with all staff.  I sat as the Staff representative on our School Council so, I knew Carol from School Council meetings, too.  But now, I was about to enter into a different sort of relationship with Carol; the Parent-Teacher relationship.  
The Parent-Teacher relationship is a relationship upon which the cornerstone of each school rests. It is vitally important that parents and teachers work in together for the benefit of the child. When such a respectful, co-operative , supportive relationship exists, the results are almost always good......almost .........always.
It became quickly apparent to me that Paul was having difficulty with the Grade 2 curriculum.  He routinely failed to complete, even half of his assigned tasks.  He seemed uninterested, lathargic and, even, unsure of the most basic of Grade 2 readiness skills such as his phonics, a basic sightword vocabulary and so on.  Before approaching Carol with my concerns, I talked with my fellow teachers, including Paul's Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers and our Special Education Resource Teacher, to see what insights they had to offer. They said that they didn't think a learning disability existed but that, certainly there was a developmental delay. No one was quite sure how much support Paul was getting at home with regard to having been read to as a young child or how much time his parents were spending with him in order to give him healthy childhood experiences like going on nature hikes, planting a garden together or sharing a joint hobby.  There was definitely a deficit of experience in Paul's make-up that caused him to be showing signs of intellectual delays in his development.  A simple example is, when you read to your child, your child begins to develop an oral vocabulary that, when it comes time to read, makes written words easier to recognize and understand.  If a child hasn't been read to, as Paul clearly hadn't, then their oral vocabulary doesn't have a chance to grow and the transition to reading books becomes that much harder. 
Regardless of my initial concerns about Paul, I could always count on Carol being right at my classroom door, everyday at dismissal time.  She would cheerfully inquire as to how the day went and would express much concern when I would inevitably tell her about another day of poor results for her son.  One day, I finally asked her to  stay for a few minutes after school so we could develop a joint strategy to help her son. She happily agreed. I outlined Paul's behaviour and his acacdemic results and, quickly mentioned that a most helpful first step would be, simply, to read to Paul every night.  Carol replied that, while she agreed with the suggestion, she often had to put all three children to bed by herself because her husband was working overtime and that, as a result, it was very difficult to read with any of her children because bedtime was just too chaotic.  I offered some "whole family" reading time tips but, I could see that she wasn't really willing to go there.  What she did suggest was that each day I send home any unfinished work that Paul had and that she would help him with his "homework" before supper.  She, also, wondered if it would be possible to send a note home, too, indicating whether Paul failed to complete the work because it was too hard or if he was talking too much, etc.  I agreed to send home a daily activity log which outlined, in point form, what Paul accomplished and didn't accomplish each day, along with a small sampling of the unfinished work.  I continued to encourage daily reading at home.
Schools function based on the success of the relationships that exist within it.  Whether it is Principal to staff, Teacher to students, teacher to parents and, finally, school to the surrounding community, one of the key factors to keeping the relationships working well is the understanding of all participants as to what the roles and responsibilities of each happen to be.  In Carol's case, the start of the daily activity log going back and forth between me, at school and her, at home, was the moment when lines in the parent-teacher relationship began, for her, to blur.
Every day I made short comments in the log and sent it home.   Every day, the log was returned with her comments included, too.  This now meant that I, not only spoke with Carol at the door of my classroom everyday but, I had inadvertantly entered into a daily written correspondance with her as well via the activity log.  Gradually, as the year unfolded, her comments began to shift from Paul to her husband.  "I tried to talk to Rick about reading with Paul but he won't listen!", "Had a big fight with Rick about Paul maybe not passing Grade 2!"  I always re-directed Carol back to Paul.
Eventually the school year ended.  It was decided that Paul should go to Grade 3 and that extra Special Education support would be implemented to help him achieve academic success.  I received a lovely gift and card at the end of the year, thanking me  for being "such a kind, caring and patient teacher."  Carol expressed the hope that, although Paul wouldn't be in my class the following year, I would still involve myself in Paul's schooling.  I replied that I would be happy to help Paul's Grade 3 teacher with anything she requested but that Carol should focus on building up a relationship with that teacher since Paul was now under her care.
When the new school year started, I didn't see Carol as much.  The Grade 3s were in a portable classroom at the back of the school, far from my classroom near the front.  However, a few weeks into the school year, Carol began appearing at my classroom door again, "on her way to the portable", just to say, "Hi."  She'd ask about my day, comment approvingly about my attire or, simply ask questions about my class.  Not too long after that, Carol began complaining to me about Paul's Grade 3 teacher and how she wasn't as supportive and open to dialogue as I had been.  I told Carol that it would be unprofessional of me to comment on another teacher's abilities or personality.  I repeated my assertion that she needed to work to cultivating her own relationship with Paul's teacher and reiterated that I would happily help out if his teacher requested me to do so.   This was not what Carol wanted to hear but it was the way it had to be.  Carol left my classroom.  I did not see her for almost a month.

It was early November.  My classroom was in desperate need of being "de-Halloweened" so I decided to stay after school and tidy things up.  Several hours later, with only the custodians and I still left in the building, my focus was shattered by the sudden appearance of Carol at my door.  She had a wild look in her eyes.  She stated that she needed to talk to someone and could she talk to me. Then, she burst into tears and flung herself into my arms. I gave her a gentle pat on the back and then backed away from her embrace. I walked her over to my "teacher" chair which was nearby and asked her to sit.  Once seated, I went across the room to gather some tissues and buy myself a few moments to settle down. Carol sat in the chair and sobbed. When I returned, I did so with a student chair, which I placed about a meter or so across from her.  As I looked at her, I noticed her nurse's uniform for the first time.  I asked her about it. She said that she worked as a nurse prior to having children and returned to work recently, mostly just to get out of the house. She said that she couldn't stand her life at home any more; the loneliness, the isolation, the fatigue from constantly having to meet the demands of three small children.  However, she said that she despite going back to work, she remained unfulfilled and had realized that the problem wasn't her need for adult company, it was the state of her marriage.  She said she wanted to leave her husband and start a new life.  What did I think about that, she wanted to know.  She looked at me with eyes reddened from crying, waiting, longingly for me to say that she was right to leave her husband.  The ache from her heart was palpable.  If I wasn't a gentleman, those words she wanted to hear would have poured easily from my lips, she would have happily fallen into my arms and then, into my bed.  Yes, you can leave your husband,  I'm here for you, now and for always. I always have been. I always will be.  It will be all better now.
But, I am a gentleman.  I am, also, a teacher at her child's school and would not be the white knight she was envisioning.  There would be no emotional rescue for her that night.  Carol was a good person and like everyone, was deserving of a happy life. I told her this. But, I reminded her that it was not my place to be a party to the breakup of anyone's marriage. I would not say that she was right to go or wrong to stay.  She would have to make that decision herself, without factoring in any scenarios about a future with her child's former teacher. 
It is difficult to know what causes a person to cross that line than separates illusion from reality. It is difficult to know which person at the Mall, for instance, is actually harbouring thoughts of suicide or malice.  It doesn't always show.  The scars from a life wavering and teetering on the brink are often unseen. But, to people like Carol, these scars sear.
I hadn't seen Carol much since that November night. No one at school had.  She still showed up with her son each day but, the daily doorway conversations became increasingly infrequent. But, they didn't stop altogether.  She still stopped by the odd time with updates about Paul and, occasionally, about her marriage. But, she never came into my classroom again.
I had begun to put that unnerving November encounter behind me and had allowed myself to move forward with my life. I went out to parties with friends.  I dated a couple of women along the way.  I got together with my family for the Christmas holidays.  I went back to living my life.  Life was good.  I was happy.
As Spring Break arrived, I eagerly began preparations to remodel my kitchen.  It was Friday night.  I had the wood arranged on the floor of the kitchen, ready to be cut and installed in the morning.  The cans of paint sat ready to be opened.  It was 10:30pm and the prep work was just about done, when the telephone rang.  I had no idea who would be calling me at this time of the evening. I picked up the receiver and heard a woman's voice that I didn't recognize.  The woman gave her name and quickly stated that I wouldn't know her but, that we had a personal friend on whose behalf she was calling.  My first thought was, "Is this highschool?"  I was rather abrupt with the woman and demanded to know who the friend was. She confessed that the friend was Carol.  She stated that Carol had been wanting her to call me for a long time but that she had always refused until tonight, when she couldn't take Carol's badgering any longer.  She went on to say that Carol wanted me to know that she wanted to be more than friends and that she wanted to get together with me to discuss her feelings. Was I interested?  I was floored!  I had put Carol almost completely out of my mind but now, she came roaring back!  I told her friend that, under no circumstances, could I get involved with a married women. Furthermore, Carol was a parent at the school I taught at and I valued my integrity too much to throw it away by being party to the breakup of someone's marriage.  I ended the conversation by apologizing to the woman for raising my voice to her but, I stated that the whole scenario was inappropriate on a whole host of levels and that this was the message she should relay back to Carol. I hung up the phone. My heart was racing.  What a way to start Spring Break!   
At 10:30 on Sunday, my phone rang again.  I saw on the call display that the call was coming from a hospital in Toronto.  Carol was actually calling me at home herself!  I let the machine get it.  There was no message.
At 10:30 the next night, the phone rang.  Carol again!   I let the machine answer it again.  This time, she left a message.  She said that she was sorry that she had her friend call for her and wanted there to be no misunderstandings between us.  She wanted to get together to talk things through. Would I please just agree to meet.....any time, anywhere.  Please.
She called again the following night but left no message.  The next morning she drove her minivan past the front of my house. Carol drove past my house every day for the rest of the week.
On Saturday, as I was preparing to get in the shower, I noticed a shadow pass by my front door.  Despite all of her drivebys, I thought the shadow belonged to the local paper boy and gave it not much thought.  But, an hour later, as I prepared to leave the house, I opend the door and a letter fell to the floor.  The letter had been wedged between my doorknob and door frame.  The letter was from Carol.  Delivered by Carol.....to my door.
The letter was an apology of sorts.  Carol stated emphatically that telling me that she cared about me was the worst mistake of her life.  She was so sorry that our daily conversations were over because they had been the highlight of her day. Now, she claimed, she had nothing good left in her life.  She ended the letter by begging me to meet her at a local restaurant.  She said that she would be there that night (Saturday) and the next as well, between 6pm and 8pm.  She promised that she wouldn't bother me again, as long as I would take her back into my life.
There was no way I was going to meet with her in a public place.  There was no way I was going to meet her any place!  So, I spent Saturday night in the company of close friends.  They were completely supportive and even offered to go with me to the restuarant.  I declined their offer.
The next evening, Carol sat in the restaurant from 6pm-8pm.  I sat in my house.  My friends called at 8:30 to see if anything had happened.  I was in the midst of telling that that everything was quiet when, Carol drove past my house.  This time, however, she actually stopped the van and parked.  Carol walked along the sidewalk and then up the walkway to my door.  I told my friends I'd better go.  They wished me luck.  Carol knocked at the door.  I opend the door a few inches but braced my foot behind it to keep her from opening it wider and entering.  Carol was dressed for a date.  Her hair was freshly styled. She wore make-up, (which she never did).  She wore a soft, lilac-coloured sweater, black dress pants and shoes.  The scent of her perfume quickly reached my nose.  She asked if she could come in. I said no.  She asked why not.  I stated that I didn't feel it would be appropriate because she was a married women. She countered by saying that all she wanted was to be friends again.  I stated that we were never friends to begin with.  At that moment, Carol's eyes seemed to twitch and cross.  I grew truly nervous, unsure of what might happen next.  She took a step back to gather herself. How could we not be friends after all those conversations at school?  I was so friendly and made her feel so important.  How could that not be real?  I replied that we had a relationship, sure but, it was as a teacher to a mother of a student at my school!  I went on to say that I had two lives; the one at school where I was Mr. MacInnes and the one that began the minute I left the school parking lot and entered the world where everybody knew my name as Tom.
She refused to believe that I could turn my back on the school so easily.  She cried out that the person she knew and cared for at the school was, in fact, the same man she was talking to now.  I told her it wasn't that way at all and that she should leave.  She stood there with her mouth open, speechless, seemingly unable to comprehend what she was hearing.  After a brief pause, I told her in a quiet but, firm voice that I was going to close the door now and that she should leave and never come back on my property.  She said nothing.  I closed the door.  She stood there for a few moments but then, walked back to her van and drove away.   My telephone rang.  It was my friends. They were glad to know I was still alive.  I told them everything.  Carol did not come back.

Spring Break had ended and school was set to resume the following morning.  I had no idea what to expect that day at school.  Carol had gone from being a friendly face in the school hallways, to being a parent in my classroom, to writing back and forth everyday, to seeking my counsel as to what to do with another teacher, to what to do with her marriage, to having a friend phone my house, to phoning herself, to driving by, to leaving a letter in my front door, to knocking on that door herself.......who knew what she would do next.  I was somewhat afraid that the next step would involve a gun.  
I thought about going to the Police and reporting Carol as a stalker. But, I wasn't completely confident that they would take me seriously.  In the manly world of manly men, a guy like me should be able to handle a "soccer mom" on my own.  To present myself as fearful could be viewed as cowardly.  It shouldn't work that way but, for many men, it does.  A real man handles his woman!  End of discussion.
So, I fell back on the closest relationship I had with an authority figure. On Monday, I went to school as soon as the doors opened and sat in the Office.  When the Principal arrived for work, I followed him into his office, closed the door and told him the whole story.  It is at times such as this that the value of integrity makes itself known.  The Principal knew me and the type of person I was.  He believed me when I declared that I had done nothing to deliberately mislead this woman into thinking I was her saviour or hero and that I was only a teacher trying to help create a welcoming atmosphere in my classroom and in our school.  I stated that I could not predict what was going to happen when Carol brought Paul to school but that it would be prudent for him to run a little interference so that she stayed far away from me.  To his credit, he shook my hand, told me not to worry and spent the rest of his time outside,  welcoming parents and students back to school after the Break.  
I did not see Carol at all that day.  In fact, Carol never spoke to me again.   
However, Paul still had many years to go until he graduated from our school and there were two younger children coming through the system as well.  As it stood, if I stayed at the school, Carol and I could, potentially, be in close proximity to each other for another ten years or so.  Ten years is a long time to watch over my shoulder.
As the school year wound down, I applied for a transfer to a new school that was being built in the next town.  I loved the school I was at.  I had been there for eleven years and would have stayed longer if things had been different.  On my last day of teaching in June, a group of parents waited outside my classroom door to shake my hand and thank me for all that I had done for their children and all the others who had come through my room.  What an awesome moment!  It was a great way to end a great stay at a wonderful school.  The parents at that school were amazing!  
Moving to my new school turned out to be a life-changing event because, as it turned out, that is where I met my beautiful wife, Keri.   If it hadn't been for Carol, I would never have left that school and, as a result, would never had met my wife or become a father to the two wonderful daughters that I have.  I can't exactly say that I am thankful for what happened but some good did come out of this situation for me.  For that, I am very thankful, indeed.
About a year later, my phone rang at home late in the afternoon, just before supper.   It was a former colleague, now a Vice-Principal, calling.  She wanted to know if I had heard the news.  What news would that be?   She asked me if I remembered someone at our old school named Carol and, if so, had I heard that she had commited suicide?  A flood of emotions ran through me before I answered. No, I hadn't heard.  Did I want to go to the funeral with her and some of the staff at my former school?  I lied and said I couldn't get away that particular day but that I would send my condolences to the family.  I never uttered a peep to the family.   

You know how, sometimes, when you first log on to Facebook, you'll see a list of people on the right side of the screen who "you might like to have as Friends"?   Sometimes, Paul's photo appears on my screen.  He and his family have stayed in the area, Obviously he is friends with some of the people I am friends with.  Whenever I see his face on my screen, I sit and wonder what might have been.  I am curious to find out how his life has tuned out without his mother but, I can never contact him.  Never can. Never will.  But, his face on my screen, it just always seems to be there. Always there. Always will.