Like Mother, Like Son
When my son hit the wall in a middle school in New England, it unleashed the painful memories of my own struggles at boarding school in Old England.
When our kids hit the same age when we struggled in school, watch out. My kids are 11 and 13. They go to a good public school in New England, which is a long way from the traditional English boarding school my parents sent me to.
My parents were living in Africa, and they wanted me to have a solid education as they moved around the world. The day I turned 10, I left the day school in Africa, and the parents I loved, and flew to England to attend boarding school at S. Michael’s Petworth in Sussex.
I loved music, but I found math incomprehensible. I loved acting, but physics and science were torture. We had to sit still and listen, and, no matter how hard I tried to absorb what was said, I thought about everything but the confusing numbers on the board and the long paragraph in the textbook in front of me.
I couldn’t figure out one end of a Bunsen burner from the other, and even though I knew I was supposed to hand in a work sheet at the end of chemistry lab, I couldn’t find the assignment anywhere. As it turned out, it was behind the sink tap in the bathroom, soaking wet and covered in toothpaste. That’s right. I’d figured out the answer to number 4b while I was brushing my teeth and talking to my friend Alice.
At the end of the school term, I’d fly to Africa or America, or wherever my naturally organized adoptive parents were living that year, holding my report card in my hand. My parents silently read the negative comments from the teachers: “Alison’s refusal to keep order is unimpressive and selfish.” “She loses her schoolwork regularly.” “When Alison does hand something in, it invariably has more crossings than the Waterloo line.”
The father I adored would pace up and down the room, shaking his head with worry and disapproval and tell me I must do better. I’d try – really, I’d try – but I couldn’t keep track of my possessions.
Despite my “chronic untidiness,” I made it to the college of my choice, and graduated at the top of the class with a B.A. degree, then did a post-grad. However, even though I’d had a play produced at the Edinburgh Festival by the time I was 19, set up a publishing company in Hong Kong when I was 21, and was a successful actress working in London by the time I was 24. I was also the only person I knew who could not clean a kitchen, find her pen, her train ticket, an uncrumpled shirt to wear, her hairbrush, and so on.
When I was 28, I found my birth parents in the U.S., moved to New York and became a stand-up comic. During that intense and complex time, I learned that being untidy was in my DNA – on both sides – as was lateral thinking, unbridled creativity, disorganization, and a very strong right brain. As was talent, lots of energy, and a restless creative spirit that led to creating books and plays and comedy that has turned ideas – my own and other people’s – into reality.
Fast forward too many years and here I am, the mother of two children, living in the Berkshires in New England. The English American, my first novel about a young woman who finds her birth parents in the U.S., became a bestseller and is being made into a movie. Because it’s impossible to concentrate on writing and be present for my children, I’ve begun a new career, which I love, as an audiobook narrator.
My super-tidy husband, who I married because of his organizational skills, among other things, works in New Jersey all week. My children are left with their less-than-organized working mother to help shepherd them through fifth and sixth grade.
My daughter, like her father, can find anything. She loves all kinds of learning. She is naturally organized, focused, and interested in the subjects at school. She’s already a brilliant writer and her handwriting is neater than mine ever was.
My son, like his mother, is somewhere else in school – most of the time. He loves art, chorus, French, music, and his friends, but math and social studies are hell for him, most of the time. Here’s a sampler of comments from his teachers: “He doesn’t concentrate.” “He falls asleep in class.” “He seems completely uninterested in his subject.” “I had to fail him this quarter because he didn’t hand his homework in.”
When I ask him why he hasn’t done his homework, he looks at me astonished. “I have, Mom.” We check his backpack, and there it is, wedged between a half-eaten sandwich and a blunt pencil. He’s been doing his homework. He forgets to hand it in.
When my son comes home from school, pale and withdrawn because one of his teachers was sarcastic in front of the class about his inability to stay organized, I’m back there again, in that English girls’ boarding school. I’m 12 years old, and I’ve spent two hours doing a the math paper, and Mrs. Rowland says, “Good God, Alison managed to complete her math today, girls! Oh, look, girls! She got more ink on her hands and school uniform than on the paper!” I remember the utter humiliation as if it were yesterday.
I also remember the abject boredom, and the disapproving faces of the people around me when I failed to tidy my desk, hold the paint pot without spilling the paint, and hand in my project on Beau Brummel without dripping tea on it at the last minute.
Years later, here I am in New England, a parent – really? – meeting my son’s sixth-grade teachers. I tell them he is very bright, talented, and, when engaged, he concentrates better than anyone. They tell me he isn’t paying attention in class. He doesn’t seem interested in math or social studies. He forgets to hand in his homework.
I take a deep breath, and I tell them, again, that my son is very bright. I tell them about what he can do that most kids can’t, about his charisma on stage, about his high IQ. I tell them about the movies he writes and directs at home, the book he’s writing. I tell them that I am sure he’s not deliberately ignoring them. He has the kind of brain that needs to hear the instructions several times. He needs patience. He’s capable of brilliance, but he needs organizational support.
Three of the teachers tell me they will do what they can to help him stay organized. The fourth looks angry, as if my son is a spoiled brat who is looking for excuses not to do the work, as if he just needs some discipline, if only teachers in America were allowed to deliver it.
The meeting helps a bit, but two weeks pass and my son starts to dread going to school again. “Think of it as an acting exercise,” I say. “Act as if you love it. Do the best you can.” The bright, cheerful kid who spent the weekend bouncing on a trampoline pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt and heads back into school, shoulders slumped, counting every minute until recess, and then to the end of the school day.
I’ve worked hard to keep him organized this week. I’ve sat with him while he does his homework and made sure it goes into the right file. I’ve tried to ignite his interest in his subjects by coming at them a different way.
When he came home yesterday and told me that the teacher told him he wasn’t supposed to get the answers to his homework on England by calling his English grandparents, he was supposed to read the long paragraph and copy it down, I pick up the phone, call the Montessori school, close my eyes, and pray.
POSTSCRIPT: Alison’s son did change schools. With the help of a teacher familiar with the challenges – and strengths – of imaginative, creative kids who have a low-boredom threshold, he is currently happy and fully engaged.