Why I Let My Kid Skip School (to come to My Defense)

The school-skipping offender – and his pup

I let my son skip the first day of his high school junior year this week.

I’m pretty sure it was a more difficult decision for me than for him.

Like most parents who care about their kids’ success, I didn’t want my son to miss out on any key information – like his new locker combination.

I didn’t want him to get behind before the school year had even started – especially behind some cute little gal who’d swing her hair all over his desk during the school year because he missed getting a seat up front, near the teacher. (Surely, that’s where he always tries to sit.)

I didn’t want him to miss out on the excitement of those first few magical moments of a new school year – the high-fashion runway reunions that are only surpassed by the final few hours of summer bum hang-out plans that will now have to wait until about 300 days into the future.

But my son wasn’t having it any other way. He wasn’t going to take ‘No’ for an answer.

Do you think that makes me a weak-minded parent?

If so –

Let me take you back 5 years, to the beginning of his first day in middle school.

That’s when we began our new journeys together. He was transitioning into a new school, where he didn’t know anyone…and so was his mom. (Different school, different anyones.)

He was entering a world where the development of personal organizational skills would be just as imperative as grasping the meaning of girls’ eyes being batted at him with curves trickier than hard hit baseballs – to which he was only otherwise accustomed.

I was entering a world where my batting average of organizational skills would be the only means by which I was going to stay in the game of academia. No sooner had I dropped my son off for that first week of school and gotten my work day in, than I was sitting in a classroom of new colleagues myself. My class was on its way to forming robust doctoral candidates – and sturdy support systems for one another.

I’m happy to report that both my son and I made immediate and long-lasting friends during our week of firsts…and we’ve both honed our organizational and study skills over these past 5 years (while he’s apparently honed his girl-reading skills during that time too). Much of that (not the girl-stuff) came from many study sessions and hours of commiserating – not always solely with our peers, but quite often with one another.

I can think back to one evening at the table when my 7th grade son discovered that, with his new-found algebraic skills, he could easily perform my graduate statistics textbook equations. From there, he double-checked my homework answers for me, assuring me I should get a 100% on my assignment.

I can think back to an 8th grade science project where my son tapped into the collegiate research process to develop his research poster methodology, which he then had to explain in detail to his science teacher to receive a grade. (The more popular ‘swiping water faucets for germs experiment’ doesn’t generally require mixed methods of study.)

And I think back on my past few years of ‘bleacher classes’ – all of those evenings when my textbooks, articles, and my own research work were strewn across seasons of both indoor and outdoor bleachers – just so I could attend all of my son’s sporting events to cheer on his stellar athletic feats. (Yes, I’m a mom. Of course they were all stellar. No, I don’t ordinarily work the word ‘strewn’ into my everyday conversations.)

From the beginning, my son understood that my goal was to beat him – meaning that I hoped to graduate before he did. We might have even gotten a little competitive about it on occasion. There were times when I wasn’t sure I would make that goal. But as of this week, my day finally came. After a huge push of collecting the final data in my longitudinal study, carefully analyzing the information, and working to best communicate the results during this past year…

My Day of Defense Arrived!

Unfortunately, my dissertation defense was scheduled later than I had anticipated, what with research never quite going as planned, the scheduling of my own students’ graduation, and then some of my committee members out of town (or even out of the country).

I was extremely disappointed when I learned that my defense wouldn’t take place until the morning of my son’s first day of school. I had wanted him to be there to experience my defense – to see the final product of the past several years of our educational journey together…but not at the cost of him missing his first day of school. I come from a long line of teachers, you see, so this was pretty much a commandment growing up: “Thou shalt not miss school.” That rule was so ingrained in me that I even stayed at my desk at the age of 10, doubled over with a fever – at least until my appendix eventually gave way and exploded.

Despite me pulling out the engraved commandment stone (albeit cracked from misuse at some point during my mid-teen years), my son wasn’t going to have it any other way. He argued that he would only be missing 2 or 3 morning classes. He argued that he wouldn’t be missing any information that he couldn’t gather the next day. He argued that even his teachers would agree it was important for him to see a doctoral defense – that it would inspire him in his own post-high school education. And then, when all else failed, he pulled out the big guns and aimed. He argued that we had started this journey together, and he wanted to see it to completion. Didn’t I, after all, plan on being there for him when his school years concluded?

On the morning of my defense, there he sat – along with other family members who surprised me by changing their work schedules drastically (meaning they were supposed to be in other cities and states) to be there in a showing of support for me. As I took my first breath to begin my defense, I knew immediately that all was well. Had I stumbled over my words or my feet, had I bumbled the entire presentation and been at a complete loss for words, I realized that none of that truly mattered. This day was complete. I was supported greatly in love.

My youngest son wasted no time getting a ride back from my colleagues the minute my presentation was over – since I had to stay to meet with my dissertation committee for a final time. In his lack of words, I heard the message. My son was assuring me that his academics were important to him too.

I didn’t see him again until late that evening, when he finally came in from his football practice – hot, tired, and hungry. As he sat his backpack and gym bag down, he walked over to me, hugged me up and said, “Mom, you did a great job today. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”

I’m pretty sure it was his way of saying that he was glad I’d let him skip school – and maybe (just maybe) that I’d even beaten him to graduation.

Making the Difference…Some Day? This Day!

I stood proudly this week as another of my classes walked for graduation. It’s always amazing to me to look at how confidently this group of health care providers marches across the stage when thinking back to how uncertain they were on the first few days of their program orientation (where we inevitably lose at least one of them to uncertainty); to how inadequate they feel after the first few weeks of performing clinical duties (where we often lose at least another due to indecisiveness); to how exhausted they feel after just one semester (where we occasionally even lose at least another to lack of resilience).

I don’t apologize for the demands this intensive program places on our students – because I don’t want to ever feel apologetic to the patients with whom they’ll come in contact for the education and training they received while under my watch. Our students are dedicated, so they understand this. And that’s why they ultimately become such dedicated health CARE professionals.

Last year, I had a student who decided to use his iPad to journal his way through the program – and who often provided me with his raw, unedited thoughts that resonated with varying emotions. With his permission, I’d like to share a couple of those journal clips today. The first is from very early in his program experience; the second, from his final class days, where he was taking his final final exam (as he explains). Take time to note the difference in the hair growth too. By graduation day, his ears had been lowered again to their early program status!

Early Journal Entry (a student perspective after being accepted into & entering the program)

Final Journal Entry (a student perspective of coming out on the other side…)

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Teacher’s Pet

Michelle from WordPress pressed: Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

In a time when teachers have ridiculous outcome expectations flung upon them in the midst of conditions where it becomes nearly impossible for many of them to actually teach, I’m so glad you asked this question, Michelle. I am so long overdue in giving out some necessary thank yous…


“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.”
-B.F. Skinner


If I had a time machine, there are two classrooms I would surely enjoy going back to revisit now that I have a meta-cognitive awareness of why the teachers who conducted sessions within them were two among my very short list of favorites. Though these teachers taught me at extremely different times in my K-12 educational experience and though their subject matters were quite different, these ladies both possessed common factors in their instructional approaches. As a matter of fact, my admiration and respect has grown immensely more, if I thought that were even possible, in my realization that these women had a firm awareness of their learning theory preferences and went to great lengths to assure they actively engaged their learners in these philosophies and practices.

Faye Duke was my third grade teacher. In the 1970’s, this sweet, bubbly, petite blonde, who wore modern polyester mini-dresses well enough that all the boys in our class still have a crush on her to this day, looked as if she should not yet be out of high school herself. I suppose an active classroom of 8 to 9-year-olds could have made a late breakfast of her, but she kept us far too busy in activities from the time we walked in until the time we left each day for us to dream up any trouble (short of a couple of stolen cheek kisses at the bottom row of the back bookshelf).

How the 3rd grade boys saw Miss Duke when she walked into the classroom.Image Courtesy of CBC Player Web site

How the 3rd grade boys saw Miss Duke when she walked into the classroom.
Image Courtesy of CBC Player Web site

Miss Duke’s philosophy obviously included the importance of establishing and engaging learners as a community. Though our curriculum was rigorous, including learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive, we never seemed to have the sense that we were slaving away in school. Because she vibrantly and excitedly approached every new topic as an adventure, we believed her, enjoying every moment of what we accomplished together. We learned our telephone manners with desks facing one another, authentic telephones in hand. We learned to set extracurricular goals together, such as helping one another prepare for the upcoming spelling bee, putting together a mini-choir for our school’s talent show, and quizzing one another on newfound math skills. We created our own poetry and illustrated our own stories; and, in some aging teacher’s attic, there may yet be a copy of a story about Roxy the Rabbit, written and illustrated in an educator’s magazine by a 9-year-old elementary student named Jody Love. The pages of the magazine may be faded, but the social learning environment set up by Miss Duke has not. Though I left that elementary school the following year and it has now been many forgotten a few years since, I have reconnected with many of my prior third grade classmates, via Facebook; and we still vividly recall our experiences from that year, enthusiastically sharing them with one another.

Sylvia Wade entered my life as I began my sophomore year of high school.  My new Spanish I instructor was tall and willowy in shape, with dark, wavy hair and cinnamony-brown skin. As a woman of Puerto Rican heritage teaching in a predominantly white southern middle-class school, no one would have ever thought to question her authority in her position anymore than her expertise in her subject matter. Differences were only beautiful comparisons to be esteemed in her classroom. She had a way of easily blending everyone into a like-minded community that could have the power to end all prejudice in the world if her magical formula could somehow be bottled and distributed. With immensely warm cheerfulness, she conducted her class sessions with a welcoming sense of humor that caused people to look forward to being in her presence. During my two years of Spanish with Ms. Wade, I learned to conjugate verbs and carry on conversations (well, sort of) without ever feeling as if the tasks were mundane or too far out of my ability’s grasp. As her students, we performed quite a bit of role play, eventually getting beyond the embarrassed giggling (okay, not always) to making pragmatic preparations for the day when we might take a future Senior Spanish trip with our beloved, bilingual teacher to Mexico. (Unfortunately, I left a year too soon and missed that trip – but I came to realize the educational journey was the most important trip I’d made.)

Ms. Wade’s missed runway calling (had she not answered a higher one to teach).Photo courtesy of: http://aloftyexistence.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/top-black-models-of-the-decade-2000-2010/

Ms. Wade’s missed runway calling (had she not answered a higher one to teach).
Photo courtesy of: http://aloftyexistence.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/top-black-models-of-the-decade-2000-2010/

Judgment was never attached to who could or couldn’t roll their r’s or how badly we might have interpreted during our extemporaneous exercises. Rather, we were praised for our attempts as we all laughed together, helping one another stumble through the transition of forming Spanish words from English thoughts, self-assessing our improvement as we went. I remember a surprise visit from our principal once, who entered a classroom full of laughter with a stern expression on his face. Ms. Wade approached him warmly, patted him on the back, and teasingly explained to her class that our principal thought all we did was play in there. We were suddenly proud to be able to showcase our learning so we might assure him otherwise. That was the only smile I ever saw from him during his tenure as my principal. He, too, seemed pleased with what was being accomplished there.

I’ve recently reflected on the brilliance of how these two women inspired me and others like me to believe we weren’t getting a traditional scholastic experience. They tricked us, if you will, into learning more than we realized in what appeared to be an informal, social setting. Furthermore, our retention was obviously greatly enhanced, as I cannot describe many other classrooms in which I have attended from those early years or remember many other teachers to the extent that I am able with these two, nor have I maintained many other peer relationships from those years in which we discuss other teachers to the extent that has been so with these two instructional matrons. In essence, these women have become ghost mentors to model in my own instructional career. It would be a natural extension of that admiration, then, for me to reflect upon and enact these associated theoretical beliefs and learning philosophies.

In revisiting my two ghost mentors, Miss Duke and Ms. Wade, I readily subscribe to the notion that learners are more greatly impacted by delivery related to context rather than content. It is within a carefully planned and engaging environment that a learner has the ability to combine cognitive, behavioral, affective and social learning domains to make a lasting connection with the content being introduced or reinforced. Attention to this procedural aspect of obtaining knowledge likely enhances the attaining of conceptual knowledge. Both of my ghost mentors actively engaged me with application in what I was learning. They gave me glimpses of how I would procedurally interact with such content in future contexts, aspiring me to achieve greater goals (such as being published or traveling to another country) than I might otherwise have thought possible for myself. These women were change agents, bringing innovation to the classroom that learners eagerly adopted because it was radically different from the boring means by which we had otherwise been forced to endure instruction as recipients of a sometimes mundane educational process. The only contextual meaning of social education we otherwise understood was being packed together into a classroom of crammed-into desks and told not to communicate with one another – else, we would be negatively disciplined. Such a structure of formal public education did not truly equate to social learning, the element that seems to be key in the motivation I experienced in my then-indiscernible apprenticeship with my ghost mentors.

These two teachers were also active facilitators within their settings, purposely leaving their own desk space to become actively engaged within their designed learning communities. Miss Duke surrounded us with her lively presence, even singing with our little choir on stage to support us. Ms. Wade immersed us into another culture, taking her classes with her to another land, whether she was helping us bumble through interpretations in our classroom with our southern accents or leading groups of seniors to Mexico (to roll r’s in mixed accents). Both of these ladies created the means for positive affective synaptic connections to learning, praising us when we were right or praising us for our attempts, so we would have the courage to tackle the problem set before us once again. They brought their learners into a Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky), teaching us to be facilitators of one another, operating as resource exchange agents in our problem solving development, providing motivation through stimulated emotional satisfaction. This, too, is the sort of community in which I want my own students to develop as they make choices to engage and reside within it.

How can you not like love a teacher who strives to help you like what you’ve accomplished in yourself?

In the words of Sylvia Wade, herself…Con mucho cariño. -j