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While my son would tell you I’m over-involved, I swear I stand back as far as I can and let him run his own life. I do this for a number of reasons. If he’s in charge of his homework, for example, then I don’t have to, say, re-learn math word problems or add his research paper deadlines to my already deadline-heavy calendar.

There’s a more practical excuse, too. If I insist that he be responsible for himself, then—please Baby Jesus—that will ultimately mean one less irresponsible adult in the world. And— pardon the sweeping generalizations this may evoke— but more specifically, it means one less irresponsible MAN. I’ve taken care of enough losers already. I don’t want to perpetuate the bad-man-reality by foisting upon the world yet another spoon-fed, sense-of-entitlement afflicted adult male searching for some woman to wipe his emotional ass for the rest of his life.

My plot has worked fairly well. Yes, my son borders on slobbish (then again, so do I), but he takes care of his own business and shows consideration for mine. He feeds himself when he’s hungry, he takes out the trash, he asks me how my day was and he makes decent choices most of the time without me dictating how it’s always going to be. So it irked me this past school year, when one of his teachers put me in the position of having to step into action in a situation which, technically, my son should’ve been able to handle himself.

Henry began the school year in orchestra, playing the violin, which he had really enjoyed in elementary school, but was growing increasingly disenchanted with. I sensed three causes: the distraction of a new school filled with pubescent children trying to find their footing in the hierarchy of junior high; a pompous orchestra teacher whose attitude ostracized; and a new, different musical passion. For Henry had taken up guitar, which he plays constantly and without coercion.

He told me he wanted to drop orchestra. I questioned his motives. He gave me a thorough, well thought out answer that made good sense. I gave him my signature and sent him on his way to navigate the rest of the process. His school allows for dropping and adding just like in college. Parent intervention—beyond a consent signature— is supposedly not necessary to accomplish a schedule change.

Which is when his teacher decided he would bully Henry simply for the fact that Henry is a child. I can’t think of a stance I dislike more—adults pushing kids around because they can. I see it happen all the time. Last year, I escorted my writing camp students to OfficeMax to copy their work. An employee told us we needed to leave a machine open for the "real customers." I pointed out that our money was as green as anyone else’s and told her to back off. But this shit happens all the time and if you’re a kid without an adult advocate you’re screwed.

In the case of orchestra, the teacher told my son, in essence, that he would never make it as a guitar player, especially not in Austin. I know this not only because my son told me, but the teacher proudly verified his sentiments in an email to me. To which I responded, in part:

"Henry is not exploring music in hopes of procuring marketable skills. He is in it for fun and passion. I worry that if you tell students the ‘realities of being a guitarist... where everyone plays guitar’ that you risk quashing their dreams by suggesting they don't stand a chance in hell of experiencing success. Surely you'll agree that success is how you define it, and to reduce this definition to something gauged by the potential for monetary rewards is to, pardon the pun, greatly cheapen it."

I then offered him a few (hundred) other choice thoughts at which point he responded that Henry could drop the class but that he would not sign the paperwork since he did not support this choice.

And so—why oh why do these people push me?— I emailed the principal:

"Dear Mr. X.

I'm writing today to try to resolve an issue Henry seems to be having with Mr. J--- . I'd like to preface by saying that I only write to you as a last resort. As far as I'm concerned, I'm trying to raise an independent young man, not coddle an oversized little boy, and so typically I have Henry handle as many of his own affairs as possible. However, seeing as he has followed all the correct avenues (a fact I have double-checked) without getting the appropriate results, I'm now asking for your assistance. I hope in the future protocol will be followed-- I'd hate to give my son the impression that the best method of achieving a goal is to bitch and moan to the top dog (though I know too well from experience just how well this can work)."

I then outlined the dispute, in the sort of detail a freelance writer avoiding a deadline might. Here is another excerpt:

"Mr. J then told Henry he still would not sign the form, as he felt this would be advocating Henry's quitting. I emailed Mr. J and assured him this would not be the case at all. Henry neither advocates piles of homework nor getting up pre-dawn to attend school. However he does both on a regular basis because a deal is a deal, as I've taught him his whole life. If he wants a public school education, he has to play by the rules at whatever school he attends. Likewise, I believe it is important for teachers and administrators to follow the rules.

"Mr. J replied that he still would not sign the form but told Henry that there were other ways to do the drop though he did not mention what these mysterious other ways might be. I think this is ridiculous. He also said that he informed Henry (and I paraphrase) that guitar players are a dime a dozen in Austin and violin is a more marketable skill. This miffed me and I informed Mr. J as much. Henry is not in orchestra to learn marketable skills… If Henry wants to play Norwegian Wood to the cats for the rest of his life, his only payment their contented purring, then I view that as a worthy enough goal-- must everything be commercially based? And besides, the class Henry is going to pick up is computer science, which I'd wager is slightly more marketable than playing the violin (I think bagging groceries is more marketable than playing the violin).

"While I respect Mr. J passion for what he teaches and his dream that among his little lambs sits the next Yo Yo Ma, I think the bigger issue here is a matter of willfulness. If Henry were a less confident child I fear this lack of teacher signature would have coerced him to stay against his will. Such refusal by Mr. J to play by the rules smacks of bullying to me. If students can't really drop and add, why even suggest this is an option?

"Mr. J has apologized to me for his remarks about guitarists being a dime a dozen and for any negative impact that may have had on Henry. I have offered Mr. J free backstage passes to one of Henry's future sold out rock gigs. All I want now is for him to sign the paper so that Henry can understand that he did follow the procedure correctly and, as a result, will get the anticipated results."

A week later, I happened to be in the building after school when I heard the principal’s voice beckoning the orchestra teacher to his office. The next day, without mentioning this meeting, the teacher informed my son quite casually, as if he’d simply had a change of heart of his own accord, that the paperwork had been signed. But my son knew the truth, and it was another lesson learned.
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About the author:
Spike Gillespie is the author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy: A Memoir, the dotnovel thebelljar.net, and a collection of essays entitled, Surrender (but don't give yourself away): Old Cars, Found Hope and Other Cheap Tricks. Gillespie is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and her work has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Playboy and Elle, and online at Salon, Nerve, Oxygen, Underwire and AustinMama. She is a reformed circus poodle, a retired stripper (Crazy Lady, 1978-81) and mother to three spawn-of-satan mutts and one freakin' hilarious and very tall boy ("But remember, son, I'll always be wider than you...").  She is currently working on a novel about how utterly fucked up love can be (How novel indeed...). 

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