I didn't know anything about the troubles until well into it. I got to school at 10:45am to get a good seat for the 4th-grade "Gold Dust or Bust" school play performance. I thought it odd that Gabriel didn't have a hat like all the other performers, but didn't think much of it.
The performance and songs were really cute. The kids were well-prepared, the lyrics were funny, it was historically significant, and I was impressed at how much better and more synchronized 4th-graders for singing in groups than are 2nd-graders.
The rest of the school, minus the kindergartners, was there to see it too, Katrina complained vociferously about that.
But Gabriel didn't stick around for the photos afterward -- I saw him slip out of the auditorium purposefully. Puzzled, I went out of the auditorium to find him, and the principal stopped me and told me Gabriel had had a horrible day. I redirected toward the office, then was intercepted by his teacher, who told me Gabriel had been calling out in class and then acted proud of his unacceptable behavior, and lost the privilege for a cool game. Then he was rude to the school secretaries in the office -- !
I ran to the office to talk to Gabriel. I found him nearly in tears (very unusual for him) and very distraught. It was impossible to get a straight story out of him, but he was upset about having lost the class game privilege and, he thought, almost not being able to perform in the school play. He reluctantly admitted to some other offenses, including being rude to the school office staff, but mostly he was mad that he had to write letters of apology.
Seeing how upset he was, I sensed that scolding would get nowhere, so I tried to get him to talk about his feelings, while appealing to his practical side. I told him: don't make it worse. He said the day was ruined, it couldn't get better, so I told him, OK, but it can get much worse. What do you choose: worse, or not worse? I strongly encouraged him to do what he had to do (write the apologies), cut his losses, and move on. I even wrote down for him: "Do what you're told, accept responsibility for your actions." I hugged him a lot and told him how sad I was that he was so unhappy, but that I hoped he could dig deep enough to salvage the day.
I was late for a lunch meeting, but I hoped that my spending so much time with him and hugging him would help, though I had a sinking feeling that most of what I said was dumb grownup things that kids think are stupid.
It so happened that Dave got home before I did, and not knowing the background he found that Gabriel still had some letters of apology to write and still hadn't written them despite spending the whole day in the office to do so. With any other kid, I'd insist that no other interaction occur until he'd met his obligation, but Gabriel can outlast anyone. So I took him outside to talk about what had happened today, and about what he had left to do.
I spent nearly 2 hours talking to him, starting with trying to establish the facts as he saw them. Kids are very poor conveyors of fact, so I didn't believe anything he told me, but mostly I was trying to understand what he believed had happened. (He believed that the school secretary mistakenly told his teacher he was forbidden from the play, but then that his teacher had come back to let him into the play because I'd intervened - none of which turned out to be true).
I talked to him about responsibility, practicality, rudeness, cutting your losses. I told him about the time I saw a snowboarder tumbling out of control, picking up speed and losing things as he went along, and that Gabriel's situation reminded me of that. I made it personal, telling him how sad it made me to see him spiraling, that I felt helpless watching that snowboarder from the lift and calling out to him, "STOP YOURSELF!"
I talked to him about what he thought he'd really done wrong, and what he thought was a genuine injustice. I explained that if he can't take responsibility for what he did do wrong, then we can't respond to the true injustices. With a little kid who's not responsible for anything and can't make things better for himself, we can't find out what truly was done wrong to him by others.
Aware of his challenges with empathy and social pragmatics, I asked him how he thought this made his teacher feel, or the school secretaries when he talked back to them. I asked him if it made him feel good to lash out at someone with a nasty comment, in the moment, and then later?
After all the philosophizing, I turned it practical and talked to him about what he had to do to get out of this. Without letters of apology to both secretaries and to his teacher, and finishing his last homework due tomorrow, he would be suspended. And that's with 2.5 days of school left!!
I told him if he got suspended, I'd take away the video game camp I'd signed him up for -- so he'd better write those letters. He tried to tell me I didn't have to do that, that it was my choice, and I almost laughed and told him that I knew he didn't understand this now, but good parenting demanded that I give him a consequence for truly unacceptable behavior (rudeness to adults and not apologizing and getting suspended).
I didn't leave him on his own for the letters, knowing how angry he was to have to write them. I talked to him about the content, what he should say he knew he did wrong, and talked to him about separating what he did wrong from what he thought someone else did wrong. I explained to him that he must apologize for his rudeness, even if he felt someone else had done something wrong to "deserve" it. No adult "deserves" rude behavior from a child (even if that child's adult has endured rude behavior from that adult! which I didn't say).
(A note from the principal later explained that Gabriel had misunderstood, and that in fact no one had ever intended to keep him from attending the school play. I'm still not sure of the facts, but for some reason he thought he was going to be kept out of performing, and that seriously upset him. I talked to him about how that made him feel, upset and disappointed because he'd been looking forward to the play -- and he knew I was making a point of attending. I told Gabriel he owed his teacher a big thank-you for letting him perform in the play, though later the principal said that no one ever intended to keeping from it, he'd just misheard. Between you and me and anyone who lurks this blog, I wouldn't put it past the secretary to tell him he couldn't go -- no love lost there -- but Gabriel's rudeness to any adult can't be tolerated, that rudeness immediately cancels any "reason" for it.)
What a monumental MESS!
I told Gabriel to join me in the kitchen, and we'd talk about the apology letters he had to write while I made dinner. Thank heavens, by then he'd calmed down and was willing to write them. We spent extra time on the letter to his teacher, who's worked really hard all year with this challenging student.
Gabriel also had a "Spanish Keyboard" homework assignment to finish, plus a 5-paragraph essay. The essay was another terrific idea on his teacher's part: a letter to his future self, describing what he thought was memorable about 4th grade. I talked to Gabriel about 4th grade, reminded him of things he'd liked about it, and he cranked through the letter pretty fast once he had the basic content down.
Still, this was not easy because Gabriel was really burnt out by now, but he had to do this, lest risk suspension. I noticed he started humming and tapping his pencil a lot, with The Blues flooding his head. He was fried and needed that outlet, but I had to keep him focused. Let me tell you, it's not easy to compete with the powerful musical impulses i kids' head!
In the end, Gabriel finished his obligations and narrowly avoided suspension and losing his video game camp. And like a kid, he woke up the next morning refreshed and as though none of it had ever happened.
Though he'll forget the details, I hold onto that silly grownup idea that the time I spend consoling and counseling him will build a lifetime of trust with me (beyond "Mom can you get me out of this?"), and he'll always feel secure with me even if he can't point to any particular reason or incident why. I'm keenly aware that I only get a few more years to build that relationship while he has a child's need for Mother, before he becomes a rebellious teenager (who also needs Mother but in a completely different and must more distant way). The narrow miss on performing in the school play will be lost on him in a few days, but what about the time and energy I spend trying to get closer to him? I wish I knew.
I wish we could build that relationship without so much involvement from the poor beleaguered principal's office! But Gabriel's never been one to make it easy.