The phone rang at 9:30 pm. I looked at the call display and didn’t recognize the name. After a long and crazy day at work as a school counsellor, I debated whether I should just let it ring, or pick it up. I picked it up. The voice of a woman flooded me with her story: she was frustrated with the school; she had attempted without success to work with the teacher; she had been told to get in touch with me. Tired, and I must confess, a bit irritated at what felt like an intrusion of my own space, I told the mom that I would be happy to meet with her and discuss her concerns. We arranged a time and place, and I hung up the phone. What was she thinking calling me so late at home?
The next day, I walked into the coffee shop and spotted her immediately. A petite woman, she was busy arranging chairs and multiple piles of papers that she had brought for me to see. She greeted me quickly, and then wondered where the best place would be for me to sit so that I could study her documents. She had brought a photo of her son which she placed in front of me, then looked at me with distress. I asked her to start at the beginning of her story.
Back in October, she had become worried about her son’s progress in math. She had asked the teacher to provide her with worksheets so she could help him in the evenings, but the teacher refused to give them to her, explaining that he wanted the boy to have time just to be a boy and not worry about math in the evenings. Mom was frantic, relating that he was falling behind and she wanted to help him. She knew her boy. She knew that he needed lots of practice every evening. She knew that she could help him. After multiple emails, the teacher offered ideas for math activities that would not involve worksheets. He suggested finding math in real life activities, like baking or gardening together. Mom remained focused on her desire to get the worksheets. The more the teacher refused to comply with her request, the more alarmed she became.
We chatted about possible reasons why the teacher might have chosen not to send the worksheets home. We talked about how her son learned best. We talked about meeting together with the teacher and the principal so we could move forward into the summer and next fall with a plan that would involve both school and home.
Just as we were getting ready to finish, mom summarized the meeting for me, then added what she labeled ‘one small’ item that we had not discussed but that she felt needed consideration. “I have cancer,” she said.
“The prognosis is not good. I am in treatments that make me exhausted. I sleep while the kids are in school so I can spend some time with them when they get home.” I could feel my heart beating slower as I listened to her words. She couldn’t cook or bake; she couldn’t garden. She couldn’t spend hours on the Internet finding resources to support her son. All she could do was ask for those worksheets so she could help him. Her alarm was about not being able to help as she watched him struggle. Her alarm was about the possible impact of her illness on her son. If she wasn’t going to be there, she wanted her son to remember his mama as the one who cared, the one who helped, the one who knew him.
Oh how quick we are to judge people when we don’t have the whole picture. How quick I was to get irritated by a mom who was frantically trying to hold on to her child. She didn’t know how much longer she had to hold on. In her world gone mad, there was only one thing she felt she had some control over. A worksheet. Predictable. Structured. Small. The school might not want to give worksheets, but we had to provide an opportunity for this mother to remain in the alpha position for her child.
As I drove home after our meeting, I contemplated how we could support her. We could create some materials for her so that she could work with her son at home; we could keep in touch with her to make sure she felt that we were there to help; we could find ways to honour her love for her son.