I remember when my daughter was in the sixth grade almost as though it were yesterday. That year was monumental in so many ways for her, for me and for our family going forward. I’d like to think it had a lasting impact on her teacher as well. In the middle of her fourth grade year our little family of three broke apart. Up until that time I had home-schooled her and she had attended what was known as Edmonds Cyber School or the Edmonds Home School Resource Center. As much as I loved teaching my daughter it was not purely for the love of teaching that I had home schooled her for that long. We were stuck in an abusive relationship. One where he controlled most everything that I did and reminded me on a daily basis that what I thought and said did not matter, unless of course I was agreeing with him. Ironically he thought I was very good or at least adequate at teaching his daughter. He was insistent that she not attend public school. His position was that public school would teach her horrible things and she would turn out to be a delinquent. And so I home schooled her year after year at his insistence.
When I ran with my daughter I had to work full-time in order to provide for us. That meant enrolling her in the local public school. My daughter was happy for the change, at first. She had longed for daily interaction with others her age and had a desire to learn whatever she could. School provided endless opportunity for both. The second half of 4th grade went quite well. Going to school each day was so new and wonderful. Thankfully she made a couple of great girl friends right away. As we rolled into 5th grade more changes had happened for her and I. The newness of being just the two of us had worn off. I began dating which had positive and negative effects on my daughter. As much as she longed for her mother to be happy and to be loved she also longed for these feelings for herself as well. The first man I dated was a very kind man who treated me very well. While he was very different from her father and in no way abused her, it became very clear to her and to me that he didn’t love her. Once I realized this it was very easy for me to end that relationship. One thing I had made clear when I took her and left was that going forward we were a team. Any man in our lives either loved both of us or they got neither of us. Crazy? Unrealistic? Maybe, but that is how it was going to be.
My daughter started 5th grade with a renewed confidence that she was in fact mine, 24/7, 365 days each year, and I was good with that. At no time did I wonder when her father would take her for a weekend or a holiday. She was not a burden to me nor something I needed a break from. She was my world, and nothing or nobody was every going to change that. Not now, not ever again.
As the newness of being just the two of us wore off and we settled into our day-to-day routines, along with it came the idea that her father did not want her. No matter how many times I told her that it wasn’t about him not wanting her, but more accurately him being incapable of being who she needed and wanted, the feeling of being unwanted settled into her heart and her mind. Having grown up myself feeling cheated of what a little girl deserves in the daddy-daughter relationship department, I understood these feelings all too well. And yet, I also had to acknowledge that my life was not her life and hers had elements, both good and bad, that mine did not.
Her 5th grade teacher happened to be a man. When I first became aware of this my heart skipped a beat. Would having a man in charge over her on a daily basis stir up the feelings of fear and pain that she had lived with and through? Would she be able to ask questions, raise her hand and speak out in class, or would she turn inward and return to being shy and quiet. It wasn’t long into the school year when the phone on my desk at work rang with a call from the school nurse. My daughter was not feeling well and needed me to come pick her up. I did, only to find no sooner were we home and she was fine. Her spirits lifted, the tears dried up and she wanted to play a game or go on a bike ride with me. This happened several times over before I realized a pattern was setting in and we had a problem that was not health related, at least not physical health.
I decided to set a meeting with her teacher to check in with him on how things were going. After sending him an email he set an appointment and suggested the school counselor join us for the meeting. As the three of us chatted I shared with them what my daughter and I had lived through and what had brought us to this school. Then I shared with them what I saw was happening with her in needing me to come get her more days that not. She had also started to cry in the mornings begging me not to make her go to school. Not long into our meeting it became clear that it had little to do with school or the teacher and seemingly more to do with being away from me. I shared my concern with the teacher about him being male, but assured him that honestly I felt she liked him as her teacher.
Together we made a plan of action we hoped would help get her through this difficult time while assuring her that we were all there on her side, helping her as best we could, however we could. The teacher suggested that each day when I brought her to school that I bring her into the classroom right to her desk. He would then come be by her side as I left assuring her that he was there to support her. He would also let her know that at anytime she could come to his desk to talk to him or ask him to go to the office to see the counselor. The counselor suggested that I come to lunch for a while and eat with my daughter. When it was time for me to go back to work if she struggled I was to bring her into the counselor’s office for the good-byes and she would then transition her back to class after I left. We worked together! It took several weeks of this plan of action, and I nearly fell apart more than once wondering if it would ever work. Through our efforts and seeing an outside therapist as well, my daughter gained her confidence in us and in her self to overcome this fear of separation. Together we showed her that she was our priority. I was so thankful for how they both came along side me, as a mother, and helped me help my daughter. To this day that teacher is my daughter’s all time favorite teacher.
During that year I began dating another man. This time I was even more cautious, even giving him a list of the Nine Things Required of Dating Me. Seriously, I did! Again, I had friends who told me I was crazy to think I could ask for so much. Number 9 was simply this: A man who would love my daughter as his own. One who would be a role model of what a husband, partner, father, friend should be so that she would know what to look for in her future mate. I told him if any of the items on my list, especially number 9, scared him, then we should not proceed with dating. He assured me they were not scary and for him, doable. That year and as time went on my daughter and I learned that we had found the real deal. A man with a heart bigger than any we had ever known. One who loved my daughter as his own, something we both longed for. And she and I both found that we loved him right back.
Sixth grade rolled around and my daughter settled into her new classroom at the middle school next door to the elementary school she had been attending in the Edmonds School District. The past year had ended so well, she found she was still riding the wave of excitement in learning the previous teacher had help her re-ground herself in as she kicked off the new year. Many days after classes ended she would walk across the campus and waltz into her 5th grade teacher’s classroom to say hi, check in and spend time before I picked her up or she caught the bus home. Life was moving forward, the pain of the past was healing and we were happy. My daughter was once again thriving in school and I was breathing more easily.
One afternoon she sat in my office after school working on some homework while I finished up my end of the day tasks. She had come in from the bus with a scowl on her face and her lower lip in a pout. Not wanting to get into it at work, I had given her a quick hug and sent her off to the kitchen for an after school snack. I had caught her peeking around the corner at me a time or two vying for my attention. A knot began to form in the pit of my stomach as thoughts of the previous year wiggled their way to the forefront of my mind. I shook them off like rain drops off an umbrella refusing to give way to the notion that we were heading back down that spiral again. I wrapped up my work, gathered my things and called to my daughter that it was time to go.
We both settled into the car and buckled our seatbelts before I put the car into gear and began the short drive home. The silence was palpable one stop light after another. Without turning to look at her I asked what was on her mind.
She inhaled and the air caught in her throat as she swallowed back a sob that was determined to escape. My head snapped to glance at her and then back at the road. Giant alligator tears were spilling over her lower lashes and rolling down her cheeks. I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car.
“Honey, What in the world is going on?”
“My teacher said I can’t write about Tom.” [Sob, inhale, sob]
“What are you talking about? Of course you can write about Tom! I mean, why are you writing about Tom?”
“Our assignment in writing class is to write about our family. I started mine the other day. We had to turn in our rough draft for her to take a look at. She called me up to her desk and said that I can’t write about Tom. When I asked her why, she said because he isn’t my family. She said I have to write about my real dad! Oh mom, I don’t want to do that.”
“Okay, hold on a second. Let me get this straight, the assignment is to write about your family, is that right?”
“Yes, but she said I have a dad so I have to write about him.”
“Family is who you live with, who is raising you. That may be your mom and your dad, it may be just your mom or just your dad, it could be your grandparents, foster parents, adopted parents, or even friends. Who is she to say who your family is?”
I have to insert her that I was growing more and more livid by the moment. After all the two of us had been through up to this point in our lives, after what we had lived through for the 10 years before I had taken my daughter and ran, after what we had overcome during the previous school year alone, I was not about to have one teacher’s view of what is and what is not family set my daughter back to square one.
“Hey sweetie, take a breath, a deep one. Okay, now another. Yep, that’s it, How about another? Good. Now, look at me. This is going to be fine. Just fine. You are going to keep writing that assignment and you are going to write about whomever you feel is your family, be that me, Tom, The Gallaughers, The Carrolls, Auntie Dawn (who is not biologically her aunt).”
“But mom, she said I couldn’t! I don’t want to fail the assignment.”
“You are not going to fail the assignment. I will go meet with your teacher tomorrow at school. She and I will have a little chat about the assignment and about family. Don’t you worry, everything is going to be just fine. We’ve got this!”
I reached over and gave my girl a quick squeeze letting her know that was that. Then I put that car back into gear and headed home to have dinner with our family.
The next morning I called the school and requested a meeting with the teacher. I told her I was available to come over to the school that day at anytime. I was invited to come early that morning while the kids were in music. Not wasting a minute, I jumped in my car and headed to the school. I parked my car in the parking lot, took a minute to breathe calmly and said a quick prayer for composure, patience and grace, before heading to the classroom for my meeting.
I walked in and found the teacher sitting at her desk with a chair opposite her waiting for me. I greeted her with a smile and thanked her for seeing me on such short notice. We shook hands and sat down.
“I wanted to check in with you on an assignment the kids are working on. A writing assignment about Family?”
“Oh yes, the students are supposed to write about their families. I know your daughter is struggling with this assignment, but I have made it clear that the requirements are quite simple. We will have time for creative writing as the year goes on, but this assignment is simply about the students family, their heritage so to speak. It’s a good way for us all to get to know each other and for the kids to follow the directions about keeping it to the topic at hand. I do it every year with my students.”
“Uh-huh, I see. Okay, well actually my daughter doesn’t have an issue with the assignment. She is completely fine with writing a paper about her family.”
“Oh great! I am so relieved to hear that. I didn’t want this to become a big deal. She’s good student. I’m glad to hear she will be able to complete the assignment after all.”
“Yes, she will. In fact she is nearly done with it. I looked it over last night with her. She has done a terrific job of sharing who her family is, myself, Tom and her have a wonderful family home life and she looks forward to sharing that with you and the class.”
“Oh, I’m sorry there is a misunderstanding.”
“No I don’t think there is.”
“Yes, there must be. You see this assignment is to be about the student’s family. It is only to include, their biological parents, their mom and dad, siblings, grandparents, etc. It’s just about family. In the future she will have a chance to write about other things, but this one is quite specific.”
“I see. I want to be certain that I am hearing you correctly. My daughter is writing an assignment about her Family. And you have determined that she and the other students may only include themselves, their biological parents, siblings and grandparents in what they call Family?”
“Yes, that is it. I know she is fond of your boyfriend, Tom, but he is your boyfriend. He is not her Family.”
“Uh-huh. I see. In the way you see Family, he is not her Family. I can see how some people might say that. Those who are closed-minded to think that Family is made up of blood, and only consists of the people you are related to by birth. I can’t help but think there are so many other situations out there. Not all children are brought up in a home where there is a father and a mother and a kid or two or three. Homes and the families that live in them vary greatly. I wonder what would happen if a student had let’s say, two mothers and no father at all and wanted to write about that. Would you have a problem with that? Would you tell the student and their two mothers that they were in fact not a family? Or what if they had two fathers? Would you look at those two fathers and ask them to choose which one of them the student could write about as their family, because surely one of them was not actually the student’s father and thus not their family? And if you did in fact state that to such a family, er I mean couple raising one of your students, how do you think they might respond? I imagine they may decide to have a conversation with the Principal and quite possibly the District about your definition of what is what is not Family.”
“I didn’t mean that couples raising a child together are not in fact a couple.”
“You didn’t? Because it seems to me you did when you told my daughter who she could and could not write about as her family.”
“I just mean, she has a father, she should write about him.”
“I am going to let that go. That is an entirely different conversation and one that quite frankly, I am not having with you. The assignment is for each student to write about their family. My daughter is very clear on who her family is. I wanted to come here today to make sure that we are all on the same page on what family is and the fact that it varies quite greatly. If we are not on the same page then we will need to have a further conversation with the principal in order to resolve the issue at hand.”
“Oh no, I think we are fine here. I think we can agree that families vary.”
“Wonderful. Just so we are clear, families vary and my daughter will be writing about her family as she chooses and determines them to be. And she will not be graded in a negative way if and when the structure of her family does not meet the scenario that you had laid out in the required dynamic of the family as you see it?”
“That is correct, she may write about whomever she would like.”
“Wonderful. I appreciate your time. I’m glad we had this chat.”
I stood, shook her hand once again and left the room. As I walked down the hallway, I saw my daughter in a line of kids coming towards me. I gave her a wink, a wave and a smile that said, ‘I told you we got this.’ She smiled back at me as she skipped into class and took her seat.
In no way did I plan to fight all of my daughter’s battles for her. As the years went by she found time and time again when she needed to stand up for herself. And other times she found herself facing the consequences of her own actions or lack thereof when it came to school assignments. But in this case when the battle was greater than what the average 6th grade child should have to face, when it was something that struck a personal cord with all my daughter had been through in regards to family, and due to the fact that I felt this teacher, this adult, had a small and closed-minded view of just what a family is, I felt it was my job to step in and square things away. Honestly, I felt I did the teacher a huge favor! Here I was, a single white mom with a boyfriend that my daughter considered family. No harm, no foul. If our situation had been different in one or more of the ways I had challenged her on she may have received a lot more than a simple parent teacher conference. Stepping off of my high horse, I truly hope that it opened her eyes to the students around her then and in the future that may not fit her old school mold of what family is. Just as my daughter and I were growing and changing, I hope she was too.