Yesterday was the 5th Grade Farewell Assembly, aka “Graduation,” at Big Red Dog Elementary School. With the exception of a couple of years the boys were in private school in the late 90’s, I’ve had a child at Big Red Dog every year since 1991. Their experiences were varied.
#1 Son struggled there to learn to live among the people, and never really figured it out until middle school. He was smart and eccentric, and the other kids knew it, and he did not want to show it, and the whole exercise was a struggle from K-3. His worst year was 2nd grade, the year we didn’t figure out he needed glasses until summer vacation was underway. It was easy to understand later why the year had been so difficult for him. In 3rd grade, he told us he didn’t like the Gifted and Talented program. When asked why, he explained that the teacher told the class that most of them were there only because their parents had made a request, and he felt it was embarassing for those kids, because the teacher went on to name them. He was not one of those kids. We sat with the G&T teacher and told her gently why #1 Son wanted to leave the program; she wept big, hot tears that splashed on the table between us. When my dad offered to help send him to private school the next year, we accepted.
#2 Son was supposed to enroll at Big Red Dog a year later, but as our family went through its traumatic year of separation and divorce, he found the big old-fashioned building (1907) overwhelming, and a call to the private school followed by a call to my beloved dad made a change possible after the first two weeks. He had two years in that more sheltered setting, but when I bought my house in 1998, after my dad died, we were back in the neighborhood of Big Red Dog, and #2 Son started there in 2nd grade. His experience was mixed. Unlike his brother, he loved the G&T teacher, and I give her a lot of credit for being so gracious in liking him, too. His worst year was 4th grade, when a boy in the class began bullying him. I was very unhappy with the way the school handled the situation. When a boy who has been to detention on a regular basis and a boy who has never been in trouble seem to have a problem, wouldn’t it be logical not to assume they are equally to blame? I will always regret telling him to turn to the teacher for help. From that poing on a difficult situation became a horror show. The other boy’s parents harassed me with letters slipped through our mail slot, as well as phone calls. The mother suggested that #2 Son was the cause of the problems because his father and I were divorced. When #2 Son responded to a physical threat by “using his words,” Bully Boy reported the response as a threat and the parents called the Superintendent’s Office and the police, both of whom brushed them off politely and sent them back to the Principal of Big Red Dog. I’ll never forget that June day, BRD Principal explaining that they found no general fault in #2 Son but that they had to make some gesture of disapproval over his words and had sent him to detention for that afternoon. All this meant they would separate the boys for the next year. Bully Boy would go to the teacher all the parents in the know were requesting, which is to say all my son’s friends, and my son would get the other teacher.
“Are you saying there is no choice but for #2 Son to have Mr. W?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But Mr. T is the teacher who gets all the discipline issues, and Bully Boy needs to go there.”
“I hope you realize #2 Son is getting the message that he was wrong to trust his teacher and confide the trouble he was having with Bully Boy.”
“Yes, I can see that it might look that way.”
“This is the first time #2 Son has ever been to detention. Can you say that about Bully Boy?”
She hesitated, then answered, “No. This is by no means his first trip there.”
“And you understand that no matter what your reasons are for next year’s placements, it will appear to the group of friends that Bully Boy has been rewarded and #2 Son has been punished.”
“Yes, I’m afraid that is the case.”
It was some consolation that #2 Son won a Citizenship Award the next year.
The Princess stayed at Montessori for kindergarten, because I was in seminary and needed the full day of school. As the bullying scenario began to play out, I looked for other possibilities for The Princess, feeling I did not want her at Big Red Dog. We entered the lottery for an alternative ed program at another public school here, and she was chosen. I remember telling BRD Principal and thinking, “huh! so there!” But the alt ed program was a very poor match for The Princess, and so was the teacher, who expressed her dissatisfaction at year’s end by telling me she didn’t think The Princess was very bright.
I placed a call to BRD Principal. As I did, I remembered how our last conversation, although difficult, had been carried out graciously on both sides. I believe that is one of the reasons that when I called and explained that alt ed had been a mismatch, BRD Principal could not have been nicer. Everyone has been wonderful to The Princess; it was here she blossomed into a confident young lady. There has been no “worst” year for her. The teachers have been marvelous, the friends have been plentiful, the growth has been thrilling to watch!
One of the best things I can say about Big Red Dog is how supportive the entire staff always was of my children’s involvement in performing arts. Over the years they have missed school for performances with two local children’s theatre groups, two professional companies and one musical group. No one made it difficult. On the contrary, they were proud to have their school represented by such talented children. When The Princess brought in a long explanatory note about her concert tour this spring, the teacher read the first line and said, “Sounds great!” The three paragraphs of justification might be needed at some schools, but not at Big Red Dog. I am grateful for it.
Yesterday was another wonderful day for The Princess. She sat on the stage in a cute new outfit and looked genuinely surprised and thoroughly pleased when she was called to come forward again and again: Art Award (there were lots of these), Music Award (there were a few), recognition of being in Video Club, BRD Honor Roll. Finally they reached the big moment of the day, the Citizenship Awards. Ten children are honored each year for being the kind of young people the teachers find cooperative, helpful, kind and reliable. I look at her and know she has been all these things, but of course we don’t know what other people are thinking, do we?
I must admit that when her name was called, I saw her shining face through tears.
Today, the 5th graders are on a bus to Boston, visiting the Science Museum. Tomorrow they will have an ice cream party, and Monday a breakfast, and then they walk out the doors for the last time, carrying their report cards and ready for Middle School. In the next few years, Big Red Dog will either get a major renovation or be closed in favor of more modern facilities, turned into condos or offices or apartments. I would be sad, but I would understand. If these have been the school’s waning years, they have certainly been good ones. The school community opened its arms wide to students and staff from a school closed due to mold issues. Although the school has always been socio-economically diverse, it became racially diverse for the first time. Many of those students will go now to the newly built school in their neighborhood a couple of miles away, but those older students who want to finish at Big Red Dog will be allowed to stay.
Farewell, Big Red Dog Elementary School! And thank you for everything, the good and the bad times, for both have formed my children and me, allowing and encouraging us to grow into the people we are now at 10 and 15 and 20 and 45. Fare Well!