As a parent, I was not an enthusiastic advocate for my children when it came to fighting the school system. There were, of course, a few notable occasions: once I kept both children out of school until the principal could understand my point of view, and I reminded him that some of my best friends were newspaper reporters. (I won that one) Another time I went to the school board when the high school principal insisted that my daughter’s grades in the US Senate Page High School would not count toward her Honor Society Membership. (We lost that one.)
Generally speaking, though, I always felt that an important part of learning was understanding that power is power, no matter whether the people who have it are good and kind, or bigoted and dumb. I think children need to know that. “The hand that wields the pencil over the grade book is the hand that wields the power,” I said. “Learn to live with it.”
But yesterday I found myself in another one of those battles I thought were over when my children were grown and graduated. It seems that Miss Brenda’s granddaughter, Dera, had been kicked off the school bus. Now Dera is a smart and beautiful 12-year old, and in the 6th grade she had won a scholarship to a private middle school some 45 minutes away. Brenda recognized the prestige of this honor, and encouraged Dera to attend, despite the added expense to the family (which they can ill afford).
Picture a busload of smart, energetic 12-14 year-old children on a rickety school bus for an hour in the morning and again in the evening. Add to it an illiterate immigrant school bus driver who doesn’t know the language and can barely keep the bus on the road. Recipe for disaster? You bet.
So whether or not Dera bonked the boy with the shoe is not really the issue, though for the school principal it was. And Dera had no way to get to school, as there is no working car in the family at the moment — and even if there were, Kervin would be using it for his fishing and construction businesses. Further the high cost of gas on the island (over $5 a gallon) would make a twice daily drive financially impossible for this family. Off we went to Deep Creek to reason with the principal.
We found the principal was adamant, in the way that only PhD’s in education who don’t much like children can be. “I’m sorry,” she told Brenda. “There will be orderliness on the bus. That is non-negotiable. Dera will learn self control before she can ride the bus again.”
Brenda asked, politely, about the other five children who had been banned from the bus during the last two weeks. “That’s not my concern,” the principal said. “We will not have children in this school with no self-control on the bus. The parents must find their own way to get the children to school until I say they can ride the bus again.”
“How long will that be?” Brenda asks.
“I can’t say,” said the principal. “Whenever they demonstrate responsible behavior.”
“How can they do that,” Brenda asks, “if they can’t ride the bus?”
Answer: “That will be up to me to decide.”
By now, Brenda is furious: I can see it in her eyes. She argues, respectfully, not that Dera is innocent, but that the boys do tease her unmercifully and she gets angry. No, that isn’t right. But kids are kids, and they are on a bus unsupervised for long periods of time, and these things do happen. Isn’t the punishment a little unreasonable? Doesn’t it hurt all the children to be out of school for that long? Because there really is no transportation alternative.
“Non-negotiable!” says the principal (her favorite word today).
Now Brenda is angry. “I am a Christian woman!” she says. “I am 46 years old and I grew up with 8 brothers and sisters. I tooks care of them and my children and Kervin’s children and now these grandchildren. I bring ’em up right, I do.” Her brown eyes are snapping. “But I tell you, Miss, if other children be raggin’ on me day after day, and if they be teasin’ me about my breasts and such, I tell you I beat the piss out of ’em! That’s what I do!” Tears are running down her cheeks.
“That,” says the principal, her pale skin gone even whiter, “is certainly not socially acceptable behavior.”
“Come on, Brenda,” I say. “Let’s leave. There’s no point in further discussion.”
Dejected and angry, the three of us head back to Tarpum Bay.