My phone is ringing and I step into a quieter space to take the call. I am at work and I expect it to be a customer but it is your school. The secretary is not speaking fast enough for me. I want to know that you are OK but then she tells me you are in trouble. You didn’t hurt anyone, but what you did was serious enough that the school has expelled you. This is the first time in your six years of schooling that you are in real trouble. The secretary tells me I need to come and pick you up and that tomorrow we are all going to meet to discuss this in the principal’s office.
I leave work and drive to the school. Through the glass of the front doors I can see you leaning against the wall of the main office with your backpack on. I go into the office and sign you out. We don’t have much of a conversation when we get into the car. I’m doing all the talking and question asking and you are just mumbling. I want to know what happened and clearly, you don’t want to talk about it. When we get home, I don’t have to send you to your room. You go willingly upstairs just to be away from my questions.
This is really hard for me. I am the “good girl” and I have no experience with principal offices or expulsion. My imagination conjures up the worst case scenario for your future: black marks on your school file that follow you through school, continued expulsions because you head down a darker path in life, and a bleak future as an adult because of your poor choices when you were young. I realize that thinking isn’t helping and I try to calm myself down, but I don’t know what to expect in this situation. It is all new to me. I wonder if I have done something wrong as a parent. I should have scheduled you into more after-school activities. I should have said no to you more as a toddler or I should have been stricter with your bedtime or television watching.
I give you the afternoon alone in your room. It is partially time for you to think about what you did and it is partially for me to get myself sorted out. When Dad comes home he seems far less affected by this situation. He has seen the inside of the principal’s office and chalks this up to the growing pains of childhood. I am less relaxed about it and I am determined that this will never happen again.
He calls you down for supper and I wait through the silence while we all eat before I ask you for your explanation. You have all sorts of reasons and excuses at first but then you quickly lose your enthusiasm for your rationalizations of why you did what you did. You know you were wrong but I want to be sure that you fully understand the gravity of the situation. I decide to help you see what an impact you had on everyone involved and so I pull out some paper and a pencil. I ask you to write down all the people who were affected by the situation and how your actions impacted them. You struggle with this at first, so I have you think about me having to leave work to get you from school, and that tomorrow I will also have to go to the principal’s office and miss even more work. This helps and you start to list the other children involved, the principal, and the parents of the other children. You write how they were affected and we put the paper into your binder to bring to the principal tomorrow.
Walking into the principal’s office the next day I stutter my hello. I have that tingling feeling up my back and the buzzing in my ears that I only get when I’m ashamed. I feel as though I am the one on trial here and I can’t relax. The principal welcomes us all in and I sit down stiffly and unzip my coat to let in a little air. You slump into a chair next to me with your head down but I can also see you steal quick glances at the principal. Your eyes hold a touch of fear and apprehension.
The principal asks you what happened and you reluctantly tell the story over again. I can see the principal is surprised that you are in trouble. You have never done anything like this before and you have even won citizenship awards for your behaviour. You finish up the story and I ask you to give the principal the paper we worked on. You pull out the impact activity from the binder you brought and hand it to the principal. His eyebrows raise as he looks it over and I can see him relax. He turns to me, smiles, and says he has nothing more to add to this. He can see from the impact exercise that you understand the situation and he thanks me for taking the time to build empathy and responsibility in you. I wish that was enough to make me feel better but I still feel like I failed. You have been expelled from school and I worry about how the other parents will judge me.
As we drive home again I think back to my own childhood and mistakes that I made. I never got expelled from school but I certainly disappointed my parents numerous times. I remember that in those moments of deep disappointment that I hated they got so worked up about it. It wasn’t about them; they were my mistakes to make and the consequences were mine. They didn’t own them—I did.
There, in that moment of remembering, you were pulled apart from me. We separated from mother-child to mother and child. I didn’t realize how closely tied we were and that now a space had formed between us. I was still here, as your parent, to guide you, protect you, and hold you accountable, but I also could see that you had a part to play in that too. I was no longer solely responsible for your mistakes. You were separate from me as your own self-directed person. Your future opens up before me and I see you making decisions and exerting your independence and having success but also having failure. I realize that it isn’t my job as your parent to take on the burden of everything you do. Instead, I will help you wrestle with the burden of your own decisions but you will carry them. In this less than perfect parent/child moment, I see you as the person you are: separate from me and imperfectly perfect.