A whimper from across the terminal makes me look up. A 12-year-old boy and I make eye-contact before he buries his face in his book and pleads to the woman on his right again, “Stop! Please!”
The heavy-set woman folds her arms and says flatly, “You just made it 400. Wanna try for five?”
The boy puts his book down and turns to look at the woman, his mother. “Stop!” He pleads again.
“Five hundred, it is. Let’s go for six.” She bristles up straighter in her chair as her son scoots lower and lower. “Six it is. You wanna stop crying now?”
The boy looks at me again, his face growing red and his pre-pubescent hands squeezing the pages of a Captain Underpants book. The book flops onto his lap and he whispers, “Stop… please.”
“Seven hundred sentences,” Mom stares down her son, a hint of pride in her voice, which is loud enough for us to hear in the row facing them. “You need to stop being oppositional. There; you just made it eight.” She is determined to win.
The book covers his face again. “I’m not gonna write them,” he sobs into the pages.
“What’s that?” His mom holds a hand to her ear, a hint of sarcasm tints her voice. “Do I hear 900?”
“I’m not gonna write them!” He’s insisting now, trying to convince his mom or convince himself, I can’t tell.
“One. Thousand. Sentences.” Her head bobs with each word.
John growls in my ear. “I can’t sit here for this shit.” He angrily zips his bag and storms to the other end of Gate 29 at Ontario Airport.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a novice teacher wrestle with the will of an adolescent. It’s not even the first time I’ve seen someone use writing as corporal punishment and be confident that it’s the right move.
But it’s the first time in recent memory that I’ve been powerless to do anything about it.
I join John a few feet away and we growl together in time to see the two of them walk past.
Mom is holding son’s wrist with two fingers, insisting “I’m hardly touching you.” but clearly, she is further compounding his embarrassment. A boy on the verge of manhood, asserting his will against a his mother–the opposing force–but met with humiliation.
She raises her voice, as if to announce to the observers that she’s being reasonable. “Once you stop being so oppositional, then it’ll get better.” She sounds confident, but I know better. “You’re twelve years old. Stop crying!”
John leans in and says, “You know… a younger John would’ve said something to her. Like, ‘Hey, you’re training your son to hate school if you use sentences as punishment, so knock it off!’ A younger John would’ve let her have it.”
“Yeah.” I agree, “Getting older isn’t as fun when you’re supposed to tolerate bad management of teenagers. But you know telling her off won’t help her improve.”
“You know what I shoulda done?” John is so angry, he hardly hears me. “I shoulda said, ‘Lady, we can go talk in private or I can tell you what I’m thinking in front of your son.'” John’s eyes are alight and his jaw is clenched. Not a violent or angry man by nature, his blood boils when he sees children maligned.
He probably would’ve made the poor woman shit her pants.
We line up to board and I ask the attendant, “How full are we today?”
He shrugs, “Only, like … 38 out of 140.” He waves us on.
Perfect. A ratio problem to distract us. I grin and ask John, “Well, 35 is five sevens and 140 is twenty sevens, so the plane is about 25 or 30% full, yeah?” We round the jetway corner and see the woman seated in a row by herself. A dozen rows further up, a small head of curly black hair looks out the window.
I’m pleased to see that he’s asserting some independence. At the very least, it’s good to recognize when your emotions are weakening your verbal filter.
We settle into our seats across the aisle from the woman. I selfishly take the aisle seat, just in case the opportunity arises to talk about parenting with a woman 10 years my senior. I see her murmuring something to the flight attendant, and realize this is the moment when my wife would pull my sleeve and say, “Let it go. She’s not going to change based on a conversation with some guy on a plane.”
So I pull out my book and–as I’m prone to do–I have an imaginary conversation in my head. It goes like this:
Vaudrey: Excuse me, ma’am. May I speak with you?
V: I’m a teacher and I couldn’t help but overhear your scuffle with the boy. Was that your son?
V: He seemed upset about your punishment. What were the sentences?
M: When he’s oppositional, he has to write “I will follow directions” out on paper and give it to me.
V: Why did you choose that punishment?
M: Who the fuck are you? Why do you care?
V: My name is Matt Vaudrey, and I’m a math teacher. I’ve spent the last eight years finding ways to deal with unruly students. Sons and daughters of gang members and drug dealers, students far more unruly than your son who brings a book to the airport and bursts into tears instead of yelling or punching. He began to cry while you were speaking. Was that your intent?
M: …well… no.
V: What was your intent?
M: Well, I want him to be less oppositional!
V: Why is that?
M: You’re a teacher! You know he’s gotta follow the rules. He can’t speak to me like that.
V: Okay, you say he has to follow the rules, but you also mentioned disrespect.
M: Yeah! He can’t disrespect me!
V: I agree. Here’s why I wanted to speak to you: I tried using sentences as punishment early in my career, and it only served to alienate my students and foster in them a distaste for school. It didn’t remotely earn me the respect that I wanted. However, when I switched to a relationship and asked for my students’ respect, I found that I didn’t need to discipline them very much at all. Further, they were nicer to me, not just compliant. When we disagreed, we did so respectfully, because they knew that they had my respect, as well.
Does that sound like a relationship that you’d like with your son?
M: *scoffs* You look about 16, what the hell do you know about parenting a teenager?
V: You’re definitely the expert on your son, who I don’t know at all. But I’ve taught roughly 900 students, most of which were harder than your son.
Also, do you think that writing sentences as a punishment creates a positive connection with writing or a negative one?
M: (eyes welling up with transformative tears) Well… a negative one, obviously.
V: I agree. Would you like a better way to disagree with him? Head back to his seat and apologize for embarrassing him in the airport. Then ask how he would like you to respond if he’s being oppositional. Let him explain a solution that would work for him. Sentences clearly aren’t doing it.
Then you’re teammates instead of adversaries, with mutual respect as the goal.
M: (bursts into tears) Yes! Thank you, Mr. Vaudrey! That’s what I want for my son! Waaaaahahahahaaaa!”
My wife says my imaginary conversations start out reasonable and get stupid toward the end.
“Welcome to Ontario Airport. Local time is 10:35 PM.” John and I unbuckle our seatbelts and pull down our bags.
On my way out, the boy looks at me. I resist the urge to say, “Hang in there, dude. It’ll get better.”
Because I’m not sure it will.
~Matt “Guardian Angel of Parenting” Vaudrey
P.S. John wrote about the experience, too.