BOUNCING BACK - A hard fall means a high bounce . . . if you're made of the right material. ~Unknown
Right from the start, I worried about the educational quality of that town. Higher learning I didn't expect. However, Youngstown State was the only school in the vicinity that offered a postgraduate degree in counseling, so I enrolled there a few months after Ed, Katie, and I settled into our apartment and Ed began his ministry at the First Unitarian Church.
I wasn't particularly optimistic for lower learning, either, but I hoped Katie's education wouldn't be a huge disappointment. We had moved from Fayetteville, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, where Katie had attended an excellent school.
While I studied Carl Rogers' Client Centered Therapy and role-played I-messages with fellow students at the university, Katie became ensconced in fourth grade at Harding Elementary School. Her teacher, Miss Miller, was a single woman who lived with her ailing mother, and who, according to Katie, couldn't get married until her mother died.
After a few weeks in her class, it became clear that Miss Miller doled out punishments and rewards according to an emotional pendulum manifested by the ups-and-downs of her mother's medical condition. Every morning, Miss Miller updated her students on her mother's health - skin rashes, knee pains, food allergies, spastic bowels – either to justify her bad mood or to receive commiseration from her class.
Katie gave us a running commentary.
"Miss Miller's mother's pills are giving her fits, so we had to eat lunch without talking."
"Miss Miller’s mother kept down all her supper, so we got two recesses today - with candy.”
"We have to write an essay about Being Appropriate because Miss Miller's mother is constipated."
Ed and I considered scheduling a conference with Miss Miller and put a halt to this dismal intrusion into Katie's education. No child of ten should be subjected to the slow demise of a teacher's parent. We weren't concerned with Katie's school program. Her homework suggested that the curriculum included the ususal fourth grade material - multiplication, division, US geography, and the weather cycle - that a barometer measured air pressure, "Whatever that is," Katie said. But we wanted to put the cabash on the personal issues brought into the classroom.
Katie was conflicted. She didn't mind the stories because they provided a diversion from the tedium of classwork. But she didn't like the unpredictability of Miss Miller's vacillating temper that accompanied the stories and the melancholy they spewed into the atmosphere. Regardless of the dilemma, Katie didn't want us to intercede on her behalf. She said she'd be mortified if we scolded her teacher for talking too much about her mother's ongoing health issues.
"I can handle it," Katie assured us. "I won't let it bother me."
At the end of the first quarter, Miss Miller announced that she refused to give students an 'A' unless they completed Extra Credit.
"A-students demonstrate exceptional effort," she told the class. "A-students submit more work than is required by the curriculum. That's what A-students do. B-students, on the other hand, do only what's required, and that's not good enough."
Katie refused to do extra credit. As far as she was concerned, she deserved her 'A.' Period. She had followed the entire program as it was presented to her - completing homework accurately and on time, acing her tests, participating with enthusiasm, and listening with baited breath to the health updates of Mother Miller.
The extra credit issue made Katie mad. She figured, probably rightly so, that Miss Miller came up with the extra credit idea out of frustration that her mother refused to die. To Katie, extra credit was a devise to lord it over somebody. "She can't bully her mother, so she's bullying us."
"I'm not going to do more work than necessary just so Miss Miller can feel better when she goes home to clean up after her mom," Katie said. "Just 'cause she's got extra work doesn't mean I should."
But Miss Miller stuck to her guns. Until Katie completed an additional project, she would receive a 'B.' Therefore, much to Katie's chagrin, Ed and I scheduled a conference with Miss Miller.
We found her to be polite and gracious. During our discussion, we dropped hints about discontinuing her ceaseless updates on her mother's health.
"Katie is sorry your mother is deathly ill," I said. "She cries a lot," I lied. "Maybe you could hold back a little on the, say, more distressing news."
Because Miss Miller agreed to stop talking so much about her mother, we agreed that Katie would do one extra credit project.
Ed spent the next week helping Katie build a barometer and teaching her what air pressure meant. Katie received an 'A,' and all was well. We think Miss Miller's mother died that summer because she discontinued her Extra Credit requirements the following school year.
Katie's fifth grade teacher recommended Katie for the gifted program after she demonstrated higher than average talent. It was during the parent orientation that Ed and I wrestled with the shortcomings of fifth grade. Ms. Cran, the fifth grade teacher and the leader of S.M.A.R.T. (Students' Minds Are Remarkable Things) announced, "The gifted program here at Harding will focus on essential communicable skills." Ed and I wondered which disease Katie would come home with first.
One of the early assignments of this gifted program was to research a famous person using the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. Miss Cran assumed her eleven-year-olds knew how to use the guide - "You're all gifted," she sniffed. "You're supposed know these things." No instruction. No field trip to the school library. Nothing. Ed and I took Katie to the Youngstown library and taught her what to do.
One afternoon, Katie pounded up the stairs and slammed into the apartment. "I'll show her yet. One of these days I'm going to be famous, and then she'll see!"
"Oh, my," I said to Ed. "Let's get out of this town."
In February of Katie's ninth grade year, Ed accepted the position of minister at the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, and we moved to the suburbs of Chicago.
Katie attended Lyons Township High School, where she spent four excellent years building a solid foundation for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Badger. Now that's a mascot. An animal that can run up to 19 miles-per-hour and maintain its hold with utmost tenacity.
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