Sometimes the best way to get things done may not be the ideal way. I learned this one summer, trying to protect my son Vincent from his rare condition FOP at a K – 12 enrichment program.
“There’s this kid in magic class, and he keeps bugging us,” said Lucas. We were standing at the door of summer kindergarten, waiting for Celine, watching a teacher scrape clay from a silver wheel.
“What does that mean?” I said. Two-year-old Isabel was restless in the umbrella stroller, trying to walk with it on her back like a shell.
“He calls us names and stuff,” said Lucas.
“Today he was throwing rubber bands at us,” said Vincent. “And so were his friends–”
“Anything else?” I needed to know. Because of the FOP, which could worsen with even slight trauma, I had to do all I could–within reason–to protect my twelve-year-old.
“Sometimes they fire paper clips,” added Lucas.
That does it.
“And he’s older–and he wears, like, chains,” said Lucas.
That does it even more. The kid and his gang could start getting physical.
I rolled Isabel in her umbrella stroller over to the summer school office the next day, wound through corridors, and met the principal, a middle-aged man with a gray mustache who knew me from my calls and letters, and listened carefully to my complaint.
“Can you kick them out, please?” I concluded.
The principal sighed. “We can’t do that.” What? Why can’t they? Who says summer school is mandatory? “But I can do something else. We’ll put an aide in there.”
I’d seen aides: somebody’s grandmother or a friendly college girl, powerless against teenage boys.
“Thank you” I said lamely. Isabel looked up at me from her stroller: You lost, said her little face. I could always pull my sons out.
The next day at summer school pick-up, Vincent announced: “We got a teacher’s aide in magic.”
“Oh?” I didn’t want to let on that it was my doing. Vincent was already growing weary of my interventions.
This aide, I was told, had instantly kept the unruly kids in line, and not a single rubber band or paper clip had been set off that morning. Good work, Mom.
“He’s tall,” said Vincent.
He? I hadn’t pictured a male version of a teacher’s aide. Well, this was a good idea, something like an FOP bodyguard.
“When those guys were acting up, he said, ‘You’re laughin’ now, little brother, but I’ll be the one laughin’ if you end up in the Big House.'” Lucas made the aide sound like a cowboy.
The Big House, in this context, I learned, also meant the slammer, the joint, jail, prison. A new kind of child psychology seemed to be in effect.
“He’s an ex-con!” said Lucas, in the same tone any other ten-year-old might use to say astronaut or secret agent.
I was pulling out into traffic and checked my sons in the rearview mirror. They couldn’t be happier. But what had I done? I had gotten the principal to install a criminal, maybe even a convicted felon, in my children’s magic class.
Surely the man hadn’t been guilty of murder–or worse. “Do you know why he was in prison?” I kept my voice nonchalant.
The boys shrugged. “Mom! You worry too much! He’s a good guy!” I could see the wheels turning in their heads: That’s the last time we tell her anything. “And he’s keeping those other kids in line!”
Keeping the other kids in line was key. Even so.
I let a week go by, meaning to ask the principal about the aide’s credentials. Every day that week, the boys got in the car, happy to recount tales about the Big House. The teacher’s aide had even started in on some ghost stories, something about noises at an aunt’s, a haunting, and how you never want to mess with a Ouija board. As it turned out, he had served time for a petty crime, but had been scared straight at the Big House. And from all accounts, the kids with chains and paper clips and rubber bands had been completely neutralized.
“They don’t want to end up in prison,” explained Lucas.
“Are you learning any magic in that class?”
“Card tricks,” said Vincent.
I wanted to visualize this teacher’s aide as another Shawshank Redemption inmate, a guy, who–if it turned out he hadn’t been falsely accused–had the excuse of being raised by a distant relative in a haunted house, with a Ouija board telling him to make bad choices. But he was doing his best to rehabilitate himself, setting youths straight on the Big House and protecting a boy with a rare disorder. On the other hand . . .
One day, not long after, the boys pointed out their magic aide proudly: he was a mountain of a man, with a no-nonsense voice, keeping chaos at bay. The man had a regal presence, and it was clear nobody would dare disobey authority if he had anything to do with it. He was perfect.
The last week of summer school, I rolled Isabel in her umbrella stroller back through summer school corridors to give the principal another FOP article. “Are things going better in magic?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “Yes, they are! Thank you.”
“You know,” he said, looking thoughtful. “I’ve noticed it’s good to place certain aides in certain classes.”
Amen to that.