“Parenting in the Negative,” an essay by Will Stockton.
“David said that he hated school, which meant teachers and other students: ‘They get me in trouble.’ Home-schooling would allow him to spend more time with us, he said.”
Three years ago, my husband and I adopted a fourteen-year-old boy, David, whom the State of Texas deemed “smart.” I did not think much of the descriptor then. I use the adjective often. My academic colleagues are smart. My students distinguish themselves with smart arguments. My husband, Howard, outsmarts me with dad jokes and puns, and our marriage works in large part because it’s a marriage of minds.
From what I recall of conversations with David’s social worker, an overworked woman who told me she lay awake at night contemplating the almost assuredly dismal futures of her charges, evidence of my son’s smarts included an ability to maintain a conversation and intentionally disrupt a foster placement. “He knows how to get out of anywhere if he wants to,” she said. Later: “He does his math real well if you sit with him and don’t let him get distracted.”
Before David came to live with us, I imagined sitting with him at the kitchen table, the evening light streaming in from over the chicken coop and scattering over the wood grain. I would be teaching him to multiply binomials. First, outer, inner, last, like my algebra teacher taught me.
Three years later, David is about to graduate from the South Carolina public school system with an Occupational Certificate rather than a diploma. He has earned exactly one high school credit, in physical education. He failed all other ninth-grade classes and was remanded to a self-contained classroom where a rotating cast of teachers and their aides could focus on what has, for these past three years, been our near constant concern: his behavior. His ceaseless conversation. His intentional disruption of class. His impulsive threats and, occasionally, acts of violence: punching walls, doors, and other people.
I realized we had problem a few days after David moved in, on a November night when we tried to plot coordinates on a graph. “The x-axis is horizontal,” I explained, “with the positive numbers on the right and the negative numbers on the left. The y-axis is vertical . . .” I sipped chamomile tea. This, my parental fantasy.
David put his head down on the table and screamed: “What the fuck is a negative number!?!”
David is not dumb. His IQ measures slightly below average: not “smart,” insofar as that adjective captures people on the right side of the bell curve, but certainly smart enough to work through almost any public high school curriculum. David’s problem, his teachers say, is one of gaps.
During his nine years in foster care, my son suffered numerous school changes that impeded the sequential construction of concepts. That is to say, David can name the planets in our solar system, but not the order of Earth’s seasons. That is to say, David can add fractions, but not time. That is to say, education is not a priority for children in the foster care system, and the development of mathematical skills, reading skills, and general knowledge of the world and its workings falls a distant second to placing children in homes that can cope with, if not simply tolerate, an array of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. Of what concern is my son’s failure to formulate topic sentences when he interrupts Language Arts class by announcing that he has to take a shit?
The day Howard and I told David he was coming to live with us, he begged us to homeschool him. David said that he hated school, which meant teachers and other students: “They get me in trouble.” Homeschooling him would allow him to spend more time with us, he said. He laid it on thick.
The idea of homeschooling David held some sway with me: a libertarian by nature, prone to think of schools in un-nuanced terms as obedience-training camps and indoctrination centers.
I incline toward the position that school has nothing to do with education — that the former is a social institution for the assembly-line production of workers, the latter a marvelously unpredictable, personally transformative encounter with philosophical ideas, scientific processes, and mathematical concepts. Holding forth on this distinction in front of my own captive college students, I can sound like John Holt, founder of the American “unschooling” movement: “We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall . . . in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”
Leaning into my disdain for carrot-and-stick pedagogy, fantasizing about a natural love of learning reawakened through discussions of the Shakespeare plays David would pick up from my shelf or the questions of law and order he would ask my husband, I reasoned that homeschooling David would be good for him — my new son’s hatred of school entirely justified by all the rewards he had not “earned” there. A smart idea.
But Howard would hear none of it. His concerns were multiple, and justified. First, neither he nor I had experience teaching a child whose Individualized Education Plan (IEP) indicated multiple learning disabilities and accommodation needs. Second, as a tenured college professor, I may well have had the time to play educational catch-up with our son, but Howard, a self-employed attorney, did not. Third, the homeschool community in upstate South Carolina is almost entirely religious; and because we had no interest in protecting David from knowledge of evolutionary biology or human sexuality, homeschooling him would be something undertaken without local support.
Finally, Howard argued, David needed socialization around “normal” teens. I bristled at the implication that our son wasn’t already normal, and should be normal, and that school was an indispensable tool for normalization. But at age fourteen, after nine years cycled through foster homes, group homes, and residential treatment centers, David truly did need exposure to peers who were not wards of the state. Howard was right: David needed to see how people who grew up in stable homes tend to behave.
Here is a math problem my son cannot solve: According to the National Foster Youth Institute, only one out of thirty children who age out of foster care will earn a college degree at some point in their lives. What percentage of children who age out of foster care will not earn a college degree?
Proponents of unschooling claim that children possess an innate love of learning, a curiosity about the world and its workings, which schools typically succeed in squashing. “Children don’t need to be taught how to learn,” writes Wendy Priesnitz, “they are born learners. They come out of the womb interacting with and exploring their surroundings. . . . And if they are given a safe, supportive environment, they will continue to learn hungrily and naturally — in the manner and at the speed that suits them best.”
Put another way, children are naturally smart, and if left alone to exercise their smarts at their own pace and in their own direction, they will not only be fine, they will flourish.
To believe this claim, as I do, I must contend with the fact that my own private Christian school education nurtured, rather than obliterated, my love of learning. (Ironically, it even nurtured my adult atheism.) Furthermore, I must contend with my husband’s ability to separate his voracious autodidactic pursuits in foreign languages from the public-school education he deems “easy and boring” in hindsight. I must separate our flourishing from the fact that we are both products of school systems that purported to teach us, through elementary school and high school, through college and graduate school, how to learn.
Perhaps Howard and I are just smart: smart despite school, or smart enough to find ways to make school work for us. Much more likely, our potential for a successful adulthood mitigated school’s narcotization of our natural curiosity and enabled our self-serving navigation of the institution: our willingness to withstand the dull for the occasional interesting class, our tolerance of the tedious for the obvious necessity, in this economy, of having a college diploma.
Howard and I were privileged people in terms both financial and familial. Products of stable, two-parent homes, we never numbered among those whom statistics almost assuredly cast into dead-end and low-wage jobs, the streets, prisons: adults who, disproportionately, grew up in the foster care system.
Equations David intuits, although he cannot articulate them: If x represents adults who once spent time in foster care , and y represents our nation’s homeless population, then x = 0 .5y. (“That’ll be me one day,” David says matter-of-factly as we watch a woman push a cart loaded with trash bags across the grocery store parking lot.)
If xrepresents former foster children with five or more placements, and yrepresents adults with a criminal record, then y= 0.9x. (“Oh, I’d be fine in juvie,” David brags after the principal calls to report that our son pushed a teacher’s aide. “I’ve been in worse.”)
Bonus question: If David suffered in excess of twelve foster placements, all disrupted due to unmanageable behaviors, write an equation representing the potential increase of y.
Diagnostic variables whose presence increases the potential that x = y: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Mood Dysregulation, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Learning Processing Disorder, and Dyscalculia.
Accommodations that seek and fail to control for these variables: self-contained classrooms; extended time on assignments; instructions read aloud and repeated; multiple choice answers reduced from four to two; positive reinforcement in the form of gold stars, computer time, and “behavior bucks.”
The problem is not that David has never found an optimal educational setting, much less a functional set of accommodations for his learning and emotional disabilities. The problem is not David’s intelligence or lack thereof; his request to be homeschooled was itself a smart attempt to outsmart us. (So, too, the kitchen table outburst. When he screamed, “What the fuck is a negative number!?!” he did not want an answer. He wanted to play Grand Theft Auto.)
The problem is that David is now, and perhaps irreparably, uninterested in learning. And one of our parental deficiencies is that Howard and I cannot empathize with this lack of interest. Incurious about the world around him, almost never asking how things work or what things mean, David is someone we do not understand, however much we want to.
Three years later, Howard and I know we should not have allowed David to graduate from middle school. When he entered the ninth grade, David’s test scores would have placed him instead in the third, with one anomalous splinter strength: eleventh-grade-level word recognition.
My husband and I again reasoned that advancing to high school would help with David’s deficient social skills: his class clowning, poor hygiene, and compulsive lying. We reasoned that David would learn his multiplication tables when he found knowing them made algebra easier. In this fantasia, we would make requisite the recommended summer reading list and discuss the stories and novels over dinner. “So what was the most dangerous game, son?” I would ask as I chopped carrots for our fresh dinner salad. “And how does Richard Connell foreshadow the answer to this question?” David would make friends with his lab partner, who would drop by to study for their chemistry exam.
As parenting a teenager who had already spent the majority of his life in foster care meant making up for a deficit in familial love and all its benefits — emotional security, self-confidence, a more promising future — Howard and I would help make up David’s educational deficits at the same time.
A math question Howard and I were not smart enough to ask, much less answer: If x equals the amount of time it would take for a child who has spent sixty-four percent of his life in foster care to make up six years of schooling in one; and one year is but two semesters, four quarters, and one variable summer; and that summer is spent locked in a bathroom to escape tutoring and ripping stories to shred to avoid reading them, solve for x.
In other words, how much more likely would it be that David’s poisonous combination of boredom and frustration would exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, his tendency to disrupt his ninth-grade classes with outbursts of profanity, to skip class, to test the patience of his teachers whose exclamation-mark-flecked emails themselves confuse “they’re” and “their,” “it’s” and “its”?
As my son’s adolescent development sputters and stalls, I suffer the childish jealousies of an academic parent. “I worry my daughter studies too much,” a colleague confesses. “She was up until three making note cards for a test on Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Or: “My son’s not running track this year so he can focus on his AP classes.” Or: “My four-year-old is obsessed with the taxonomy of venomous snakes.” (I have met said four-year old. Loquacious and rambunctious, he slithered around on the floor, asking me to guess whether his venom was hemotoxic or neurotoxic.)
Before adopting David, I had read enough foster-child parenting literature to disabuse myself of the belief that Howard and I would ever be the parents of an academic overachiever. But I hoped we would have our own success story: a more American one of overcoming difficulty through personal determination and strong family support. The State of Texas offers free college tuition to its former foster children, provided they gain admission. (And there’s the rub: most don’t go to college, so the offer looks great, fills prospective parents with hope, while it costs the state almost nothing.) I imagined David flying back home for the holidays from Texas A&M or UT Austin, learning to manage himself in the world as a quasi-independent young adult, requiring an array of tutors but nonetheless confident in his ability to surmount his learning disabilities — themselves the byproduct of genetics, parental abandonment, and state incompetence — and graduate with a college diploma in whatever subject most naturally interested him: not math, no, but maybe history or classics.
“David insists he’s the son of Zeus,” I tell my department chair when he asks why, of all the foster children in the country, Howard and I chose David in particular. David told us he read all the books in the Percy Jackson series at age twelve. His social worker reported that when David’s therapist asked him a routine question about self-improvement, he told her he would make a sacrifice to Artemis in hopes of getting better. At the time, I found the answer funny, not evasive. But I now suspect that, like bad students everywhere, my son watched the movies rather than read the books. “I’m not like you,” he snaps, for once like a normal adolescent, when I suggest he alleviate his boredom by pulling something off the bookshelves that line our finished basement.
The Occupational Certificate is a deficit diploma. When David graduates from Pendleton High School in May, he will read, write, and calculate at a fifth-grade level.
Off the diploma track, David has been able to skip a year, combining his sophomore and junior years into one. With learning expectations limited to what he already knows, David speeds his way through single-digit multiplication problems and orally summarizes YouTube clips for language arts credit. David never has homework, and he spends half his school days playing computer games: rewards for working quietly in ten-minute increments. David meets any effort to make him accomplish more with an outburst: an obscenity-laced tirade, a walk-out, sometimes just a head down quietly, Bartleby-like, on the desk. He goes to school because he’s required to — at age seventeen now, by me and Howard, not the state — but school has nothing to do anyhow with his intellectual development, and everything to do with ensuring minimal compliance.
Angela Davis predicted our predicament: “When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security rather than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.”
David should assist at a local job site three times a week as part of his occupational curriculum, but his behaviors — telling the florist that her flowers smell like pussy, stealing a phone from the car he is detailing — sometimes bar him from doing so. If school prepares students to enter the workforce, Pendleton High School has failed my son in this regard as much as he has failed it. Note: failure to assist at a job site carries no adverse consequence on progress toward the Occupational Certificate.
To receive an Occupational Certificate from the State of South Carolina, David will never have to plot points on a graph or multiply binomials or list five causes of World War II. He will never have to read To Kill a Mockingbird or make a PowerPoint presentation on the geography of South Asia. He will never have to memorize the present-tense endings of Spanish -ar verbs. He must simply complete a series of computer lessons he’s too smart for, and show up.
Human factors affecting David’s socialization at Pendleton High School: Ryan, expelled from school for carrying a knife, barred from our home for having sex with his girlfriend in our bathroom; Tim, who says that Howard and I should spend more time fucking each other in the ass than telling our teenage son how to live his life; Nickie, who broke up with Ryan after he stole her weed, causing her to retaliate by fucking up his car. These are people who, I worry, will one day be my husband’s clients: meth dealers, sex offenders, casual thieves. They could be wards of the state. But for now, they are simply our son’s friends.
In a moment of casual cruelty, I confuse the GED with the GRE and I tell David that any occupation worth having requires the latter. If he catches my mistake, he does not register it. After three years of watching him run deeper into intellectual deficit, I have become confident that he will never take either test.
One afternoon this past October, when I asked him how school went, he told me that he and the in-school suspension teacher got into a fight.
“About what?” I ask. I know that David and Coach Miller provide each other with frequent company, and they are quite friendly. If said fight had risen above an appropriate decibel level, I would have already heard about it.
“I told him that Columbus didn’t discover America, and he said prove it, and I said, bro, we can’t go back to the 1800s to figure out who was right.”
“What’s so funny?” David asked.
But I didn’t know how to tell my son that, like his friends, I was not laughing with him.
Like most children in the foster care system, David has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Testing from the ADHD specialist places him in the top one-percent of the deficient.
From the display table in the lobby of the doctor’s office, I purchase a book that may help: Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD, by Penny Williams. It’s parental inspiration porn, the story of a persevering mother’s efforts to secure an occupational therapist for her elementary-school son who struggles with his handwriting.
Here is the difference between Williams’s son “Ricochet” and mine: With an IQ of 130, Ricochet is smart. He excels at math and science. He is bold and creative, a risk taker, and an adventurer. He will learn to write legibly and be fine. My son, “Convulsive Seizure,” has an IQ somewhere between 88 and 90. He excels at memorizing trap lyrics and punching holes through drywall. He refuses to cut the grass “because snakes” or to walk outside after dark “because clowns.” He writes legibly, but he is not curious about the world around him. Statistics suggest that he will not be fine.
Here is one difference between Penny Williams and me: Penny Williams dislikes the idea of administering stimulants to her son. She terms the day she received Ricochet’s diagnosis as “the day that changed all others,” and seems to confuse her pediatrician’s words with those of an oncologist: “My mind became a jumbled mess. I couldn’t follow what the doctor said next — all I heard were muffled sounds I couldn’t make sense of.” I say that obviously my son has ADHD: that’s him poking your kid in the back of the head while shrieking with joy. I ask the doctor for more, higher doses of methylphenidate, and I’m delighted to learn that David can take stimulants at night without adverse effects on his sleep cycle. The only sounds I can’t make sense of, much less stop, no matter how much I plead, are the ones David makes when he’s not medicated: spastic squeals, canine growls, obscenity-strewn mumbles about guns and blowjobs and lean.
Stimulants help David manage his attention deficit. They help Howard and me manage our deficit of parental authority.
I read Boy Without Instructions in one sitting, which is not a compliment. Then I impulsively, literally, cast the book into the fireplace.
My department chair’s question echoes: “Why David?” Most people do not select their child from a state menu of the traumatized, neglected, and undereducated. What another colleague, in a moment of casual cruelty, called the deficient. Queer couples like myself and Howard, who can’t have children by accident, are often these children’s only hope. Or evangelical couples, for whom foster care adoption amounts to a divine mission, an exercise of Christ’s command to let the children — with a negative balance of food, shelter, love — come unto him.
Howard and I might well have been prepared to manage certain deficits, namely deficits in heterosexuality and normative gender performance. We might well have been prepared for a child asking for plural pronouns. We might well have been prepared for children asking about the existence of God, the reason for being, or the meaning of love. We might well have been prepared for a child asking.
My two nieces, Rachel and Courtney, ages twelve and seven, respectively, number among such children. Questions they ask when Howard and I visit them in Atlanta: Why don’t you believe in God? If God didn’t create the world, who did? Do you believe you’re going to hell? Did you marry each other because you couldn’t find wives?
These two girls: they want to know how two boys grew up to find one another, and how the earth spins on its axis if a deity didn’t set it in motion. And we answer these questions happily, for they are half-joking and genuinely curious. Smart.
In turn, we ask Rachel and Courtney about school. Courtney says a gross boy kissed her and she hates him; she adds that she tells me about this hatred because she knows I will understand. Rachel shows me an essay she wrote on the meaning of patriotism: it includes all the clichés about appreciating our freedoms and the people who’ve died for them in places like Iraq. I feel a shiver in my libertarian soul. But I am also happy for her because she is proud of her accomplishment.
Howard and I can answer all my nieces’ questions one by one, patiently, with a good sense of humor. Howard can then tell a terrible dad joke: “Why do you never see elephants hiding in trees? … Because they’re so good at it!” Yet Howard and I remain at a loss when it comes to explaining to David that a negative number is just a deficit. That when he was born to us, it may have been fourteen years too late.
— January 2019
Will Stockton’s latest books include a bilingual edition of Sergio Loo’s Operación al Cuerpo Enfermo/ Operation on a Malignant Body (The Operating System 2019) and, with D. Gilson, Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury 2018). His work as a translator and a creative writer has appeared in such journals as Asymptote, The Bennington Review, and Tupelo Quarterly.
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Chad Hunt’s photographs have appeared in Time, Popular Mechanics, and The New York Times. His Afghanistan photographs received a Military Reporters and Editors Award and are in the permanent collection of the George Eastman House Museum.