Day 13-ish in my novel-in-a-month effort

Chapter 13: Foreign Language Class

 The Secretary may collect decennially statistics relating … to the defective, dependent, and delinquent classes.

In addition to the decennial collections authorized by subsections (a) and (b) of this section, the Secretary may compile and publish annually statistics relating to crime and to the defective, dependent, and delinquent classes.

—Title 13, United States Code, Census, Collection and Publication of Statistics, Defective, dependent, and delinquent classes

Sarah Fujii had forgotten just how small these chairs could be. It was early in the morning, and she was already uncomfortable – for a few reasons.

Sure, her back and rear end ached from sitting in this flat bottomed, straight backed monstrosity clearly designed for interrogations or worse. She wasn’t sure who manufactured and marketed these things, but “de Sade” was probably their dba.

But the larger share of her discomfort arose from the occasion itself – a “parent – teacher – student conference,” here at Rainbow Children Montessori. Despite her love for her daughter Olive and her abiding interest in Olive’s life, this event ranked right up there with the least favorable elements in Sarah’s life.

Whenever a friend or relative detected her distaste for the conference, they expressed surprise, and Sarah had to spend considerable time explaining her feelings about gathering. She had had to engage in that dissertation many times, but she felt she was never able to convey well the strange admixture of fear and loathing that the meeting delivered. Because she was a few minutes early and the teacher was not yet ready for them, she took the time to think about her dislike all over again.

Was it the teacher herself?

Not really. She was a good enough human being, sensible and even funny at times. Most important, Olive appeared to thrive under her guidance. And that was all that mattered, wasn’t it, the most important thing – all until the day for the quarterly conference, when feelings of inadequacy would roll over Sarah like a bad math test.

Sarah was smart enough to know that she was conflating her generalized distaste for elements of the school with the parent – teacher – student conference, but that foreknowledge did little to quell her aversion.

Olive had been at Rainbow Kids Montessori for her entire education. As such, her social and emotional and intellectual world was largely bound up with this place. She tolerated very little her mom’s diatribes about the school over the dining room table, or even her eye rolls when reading school communications or listening to the founder / head of school deliver her annual “State of RKM.” So Sarah had learned to keep her disappointments largely to herself.

It had been easier, she thought, when she and Tom were married. Though he would later grow into a bastard (there, she said it), it was good to have a comrade at arms who agreed that the school had its quirks and blindnesses. They had laughed together – less and less, she admitted – about RKM, and that shared laughter had made the forced march of RKM easier to bear. With that camaraderie absent, and Olive not wanting to hear her mother denigrate her school, Sarah found herself keeping her dislike to herself. That silence, though, merely helped her abhorrence grow more vehement, more deeply felt, and probably less rational.

Montessori learning can manifest itself in various ways, but the methods and values had been set out and described by Doctor Maria Montessori a hundred years before. Sarah and Tom had found themselves attracted to those values, and she still was. But it was the disconnect between those values and certain school practices that rocked Sarah’s faith in the school leadership.

Take the school fundraisers, held annually, quarterly, semi annually, monthly, weekly and on the hour, she felt.

Sarah understood that it cost a lot to run a school. She was pleased that RKM was what was what Arizona called a “public charter,” which meant she did not have to pay tuition. But the school sought additional money from its captive audience of parents and their extended families on a rigorously enforced schedule.

And what surprised Sarah was not so much the asking for money – what organization didn’t do that? she thought – but the nature of the fund raisers. And that went back to the type of education her family had selected for Olive. Sarah and Tom – and hopefully Olive – all found attractive Montessori’s notions of education that was child led; that encouraged knowledge of the world beyond yourself; that fostered peace; that saw families, teachers and administrators as part of a transparent community; that respected the environment; and that recognized diversity as a strength.

Not everyone believed in those principles, Sarah knew. But that’s why families had choices – there were dozens if not hundreds of “back to basics” schools out there for families who chose differently.

That’s why the fund raiser dedicated to cutting down the forest behind the school surprised her. School leaders knew that the timber in one of the last central Phoenix green spaces would fetch a hefty price, so they had dedicated a weekend of chain saws and revelry to leveling the timber. McDonald’s had donated lunch. The view from the campus to the electric utility substation was now far more clear, and the school had seen a temporary financial windfall. But Sarah doubted it’s what MM, M.D., would have done.

And then there was the “Jesus wrapping paper” fund raiser. That one had really knocked Sarah back on her heels. The school received a few complaints, but leaders were enamored of the green and red sheets featuring a winking JC, arms spread, surrounded by the words “Happy Birthday to Me.” Sarah hoped they were being ironic, or kitschy, but she feared that their institutional love for the holiday was genuine, and committed entirely to one faith.

That worry was redoubled when the school announced with self satisfied pleasure that it was removing “religious books” from its meager library to satisfy state laws governing public schools. But the only books removed were those that covered non-Christian religions and cultures. The large collection of “Nativity” books remained, as they were deemed “history books.”

So much for public schools and the separation of church and state.

It hadn’t always been that way. In years past, when there were missteps – a “support war in all its guises” day that had quickly been cancelled – the school leaders stepped in swiftly to realign practices with values.

But, more often these days, missteps were not corrected, and questions from parents were treated like interlopers to be repelled rather than guests to be welcomed. She felt more and more like a stranger in a school that had deserted her values. Montessori had become Monte-something.

Which took her to the parent – teacher – student conference, and its focus on keeping learning unfocused – except where it was entirely focused on the self.

Sarah wasn’t sure why she was so surprised. After all, the school’s motto – “No Education, Only Learning” – had always seemed odd to her, but she chalked it up to the child centered element. Over time, though, she began to suspect it was a way to avoid accountability and clear results.

To her dismay, every subject in the middle school curriculum appeared to center on what the child thought of it, or how it affected the child. All of the material covered was good, and solid. But teachers returned it immediately to the child and her own limited life experience.

Flooding of the Delhi River that left hundreds of towns under water – How did that make Olive feel?

Design and manufacture of a lander that could reach Mars and transmit images and data – What would Olive say to a Martian if she encountered one?

A civil war fought over the insistence on states to maintain a slave trade – What would Olive tell Robert E. Lee if she had the chance?

Maybe Sarah was the crazy one, she admitted to herself, as she sat trapped in a classroom chair. Maybe self focus helped these teens understand material far better than would other approaches.

But she drew the line at the “Heroine’s Progress.”

That was a program the middle school instituted years ago. In it, each child would develop a personal challenge that would test their mettle in a long term project. The school leaders felt that the young adults needed to focus more inward, rather than outward on their world.

Some children had selected challenges like swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco – a real effort. Others had decided to learn to cook a meal, or mow the lawn, or inhale oxygen while viewing the television.

Sarah couldn’t shake the feeling that time might – might – be better spent on, I don’t know, education. And in her own limited experience, teenagers did not need any additional incentive to spend time thinking about themselves. But here we had a school project born of the concern that they spent too little effort focused on their own needs.

“Good morning, Ms. Fujii,” said the teacher, finally sitting down with Sarah and Olive. “I’m Miss Shelli.”

Sarah’s anxiety reared up.

First of all, she and the teacher had met probably eight times this year, either in formal meetings or at school get togethers. And the teacher spoke every time as if they had never met.

Second, where did she get this “Miss” stuff? Could Sarah call her Shelli? Or did she have to say “Miss Shelli”? Sarah could never quite get into “plantation-speak,” so she opted for Shelli.

“Good morning, Shelli. It’s good to see you again.”

Just for a moment, the teacher also looked perturbed. Sarah smiled inwardly as she recalled how Shelli had mistaken her before for the one other Asian American mother in the school community. Nancy Hong was twenty years younger than Sarah, larger framed, and taller by at least a foot. But “Miss Shelli” had sent updates on Olive’s school work about half a dozen times to Nancy, and even asked her twice where Olive was planning to go to high school. Nancy had corrected her, every time. But learning was slow to come.

“You too,” the teacher responded uncertainly. “I am pleased to tell you that Becky is doing very well this year.”

Becky was Nancy Hong’s older daughter. Sarah sighed, and decided not to say anything.

“Her science project was quite good,” said Shelli, “but I’m concerned about whether she’s ready for the Baby Think It Over program.”

By this time, Olive was shooting her mother angry glances. She was communicating her disappointment – not, of course, in her teacher who continued to mistake Asian American mothers, and now even the daughters – but in Sarah, who had not yet interceded to stop the teacher from embarrassing herself. Sarah got the message.

“Actually, Shelli, we’re here about Olive,” she said. “You must be swamped these days,” she added, smiling, throwing the teacher a life preserver.

Shelli looked confused, but the overworked teacher quickly recovered. Her glance at Sarah revealed her gratitude in the subtle redirection of the conversation, and she plunged on.

“Of course, where is my head?” she said, laughing uneasily.

She continued.

“Olive is doing wonderfully. I am confident she’ll excel when she creates her science project this fall. But I had some concerns about her performance in Baby Think It Over.”

“Really,” asked Sarah. “What are they?”

“Why doesn’t Olive tell us about it,” directed Shelli.

That was one of the conference strategies that Sarah hated. She, the parent, had asked the teacher to explain her own thinking and judgment. But the teacher continually would seek way to avoid speaking directly to the parent. All conversation – even about what the teacher was thinking – had to be mediated through the teenager.

“Well,” said Olive, “maybe Miss Shelli is concerned that I wasn’t real good with the baby?”

“Yes – “ prodded the teacher.

“ – And that I didn’t always know how to calm Violet? Even when I tried everything I was told, she sometimes still cried.”

“Exactly,” said Shelli, satisfied that Olive had conveyed her thinking.

“Was that a problem?” asked Sarah.

“Well, yes, of course,” said Shelli. “She was supposed to spend a week acting as a parent to a baby.”

“And – ?”

“And she wasn’t able to calm her all the time. So I had to grade her down.”

“But why?” asked Sarah.

“Because she wasn’t able to calm her all the time,” repeated Shelli, more slowly this time.

Sarah took a deep breath, for calm.

“But parents aren’t able to soothe babies all the time. Even when we do everything we’re taught.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” said Shelli.

Shelli headed off the next question.

“No, I don’t have any children myself. But I’ve read quite a bit, and there seem to be a lot of, you know, strategies out there. I’m sure Olive could have used some of them.”

Ultimately, Sarah didn’t really care. She wasn’t sure of the value of the baby project anyway, and the grade wouldn’t affect Olive that much. But she had to press on, just for a bit.

“Shelli,” she asked. “What is the goal of Baby Think It Over”

Shelli looked uncomfortable. Answering a direct question posed by a parent, without having the response translated by a child, was a violation of Rainbow Montessori Kids policy. But it was early morning, no administrators were present, and she was as exhausted as Sarah, so she took the chance.

“It’s for impressionable teens to learn how difficult baby care is, to remove any mystique they may feel about having a baby, and to tell them they’re not ready to be a parent yet.”

“Exactly,” said Sarah. “ I agree.”

Shelli was relieved. She rarely had parents admit they agreed with her, even when they really did. The power struggle between parent and teacher still confused Shelli, because she knew that neither of them really had the power.

“So you understand why I had to deduct point.”

Sarah responded, “Not at all. I think Olive’s errors, if we can call them that, show that she learned all the lessons we expected her to learn. She should probably be graded higher.”

“But I can’t,” Shelli said. “Other kids had nearly a perfect record of calming their babies. They were almost naturals.”

“So what lessons do you think they learned?” asked Sarah. “Are they ready to have a baby of their own?”

Shelli was startled.

“Not at all. I’m sure they know it was only an exercise, and that their performance really shows very little about how they might do with a real baby.’

Sarah asked herself why she hadn’t simply urged Olive to sleep in late this morning. Instead, she ended the conversation with Shelli the only way she knew, in the way that countless parents over the years have moved on with their day after a puzzling parent – teacher – student conference.

“Exactly,” said Sarah. “ I agree.”

After collecting the voluminous pages of work that teachers feel compelled to pass on to parents, Sarah couldn’t hurry to the car quickly enough. After kissing Olive goodbye and congratulating her on how her year was progressing, she climbed behind the wheel. In a practiced motion, she turned on the radio and air conditioner and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. After her morning experience, even a day at Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine would have to be an improvement.

Sarah was about to put her car in gear when she heard an odd, twangy voice come ranging through her speakers. It was the Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, Alan Spinkter, announcing that he soon would be suing the Governor for a variety of “constee-tutional offenses.”

Spinkter droned on for a bit about the injuries suffered by the populace under the Governor’s brief leadership. When the reporter came back on to end the story, her mind wandered. Now, THAT would be a great case to work on.

Sarah was enjoying the complex litigation work she did at the firm. They were on important, big dollar issues for some of the largest companies in the West. But this – a case that would affect public policy for years to come – this would be a hoot and a half to be a part of.

Of course, Sarah laughed at the idea of representing Speaker Spinkter. She had never met the man, but he seemed to be a combination of publicity hound and nut job. Though her own politics aligned more closely with those of Spinkter than of the Governor, the lawyer in her found the merits of the case falling more favorably on the Executive’s side. Representing the Governor in such a matter would be historic.

Of course, Sarah knew that there were hundreds of competent lawyers in the state whom the Governor might call upon, including the Governor’s former partners at her old law firm. A girl could hope, though, she thought.

She put all that out of her head as she got back on the freeway for her short ride downtown. She had a full day of work ahead of her before taking an enforced merriment day, a “boating picnic” conceived by Tom Paine, in which the office would be closed, casual clothes would be donned, and the entire staff of the firm would recreate on Tempe Town Lake. Sarah ground her teeth at the prospect.


CHAPTERS 14 and 15 are next.