Monday, August 11, 2008


Molly and I celebrated our 28th anniversary this past weekend. It wasn’t so high on the scale of romance as some of our recent anniversaries have been, but it was rich in an entirely different dimension. . .


Four years ago, my mother (technically, I suppose she’s my step-mother; but since she married my dad when I was 10, I’ve only ever called her ‘Mom’) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. We live a couple states away, so we didn’t see many of the early signs, but Dad and my sisters, who saw her every day, started seeing enough little ‘lapses’ to take her in for an evaluation. Even so, we’ve never seen the ‘hollowed-out shell’ that people seem to always talk about when they talk about Alzheimer’s. Mom seemed bright and cheerful, maybe even more than she’d been before (although a lot of that was chemically-induced), albeit increasingly prone to occasionally bizarre lapses of memory.

Until recently. Over the last few months, my sisters (and my brother’s wife, who actually sees more of Mom and Dad than anyone else) have become more and more upset and alarmed about Mom’s condition, and its effects on Dad. Dad is 86, and he’s 13 years older than Mom. I’m sure the ‘plan’, such as it was, was always for Mom to take care of Dad as he got old. And now, those tables have been turned, in a way that almost seems cruel. Dad is still very clear-headed, but he’s old and tired, and trying to look after Mom has stressed him horribly. My whole life, my dad has always been one of those omni-competent 'Greatest Generation' guys, and it's been disconcerting to see him so completely overwhelmed

Finally, a couple weeks ago, Dad announced that he and Mom were moving into an assisted-living facility, and within a week, they moved. Apparently, he’d been laying the groundwork for the move for a year or so; it was a great situation for them – Mom would have access to the care she needs, but they could still live together, at least for now. But Dad hadn’t told anyone what he was up to, so it came straight out of left field for all us kids.

So, last week, in talking with my sister-in-law, Molly and I came to the conclusion that we needed to go down to help with the situation. First, Mom and Dad’s house needed to be prepared for sale (in the midst of the worst housing market in a generation; *sigh*). Thirty-five years’ worth of *stuff* needed to be disposed of (and Dad is a packrat of more than modest proportions). And Mom needed to be ‘looked after’ so everyone else could work on the house, and Dad could get a bit of stress-relief.

So Molly and I drove down and stayed with my brother and his wife, who live about five blocks from Mom and Dad. I helped my brothers and sisters and their spouses clean the house, which was sort of décor-frozen in the 70s. I took down maybe ten of those wall-mounted track-shelf units. And my dad had to have been the ceiling-hook king of the Universe. I must have taken down something on the order of 100 ceiling hooks. I am not kidding. Swag lamps (remember those?), hanging planters, and every other imaginable thing you ever heard of that could be hung from a ceiling, and probably a few that haven’t occurred to you, besides. My sisters/SILs went through the house, organizing things into boxes for a garage sale.

And we had the inevitable ‘Distribution of the Heirlooms’, in which my siblings and I identified the items which were too precious to put into the garage sale, and decided who would get them. I dreaded this distribution; I have seen several families nearly unravel, quarreling over who would get which precious heirloom from Mom and Dad, or Grandma, and I really didn’t want that to happen to us. And, with our ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ family, there are a few additional landmines to be dodged in the course of distributing the *stuff*.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The tone of the discussion was much more one of, ‘such-and-such is a precious item, and we can’t let it leave the family – why don’t YOU take it?’ ‘Oh, I think YOU could make much better use of it than I could – why don’t YOU take it?’ And so on. Even some really nice items, there just wasn’t any quarreling, and in the end, everyone was genuinely happy that certain of the siblings would take certain precious heirlooms. It was really quite cool.

And Molly spent the weekend looking after Mom. Every day, I took her up to Mom and Dad’s apartment. Dad and I would have breakfast together, and Molly tended to Mom all day. I won’t go into any detail about what-all that entailed, but by the end of the day, Molly was pretty well wrung-out. But at least Dad got some respite from having to tend to Mom for one weekend. They have a caretaker five days a week, which is nice, but the weekends end up being pretty stressful, so my sisters and SILs are setting up a rotation for the weekends. And Molly and I will be taking our turn whenever we can.

So, in several ways, the weekend was bittersweet. It was sad, emptying out the house that I’d been ‘coming home to’ for 35 years, even though I’d hardly ever ‘lived’ there. It was sad, seeing my Mom in such a ‘hollowed-out’ state (and realizing that, four years in, it still has lots of time to get worse).

But, Saturday night, as we all flumped on the floor with our beer (even Molly and my sisters, who rarely drink beer) at the end of a long day, we had a wonderful time reminiscing about the life of our family, and our parents. We spoke more openly and affectionately with each other than we have in many years. Holidays are great family times, but the relating can be kind of ‘by the book’, so to speak. This was just us, talking honestly about our experience of our family; mostly recalling the good times, but some of the bad ones, too. Honestly, it was one of the best ‘family times’ we’ve had in many years, and it gave me a level of confidence that our family will survive the passing of our parents, which is something I’ve wondered about, from time to time.


Molly and I were pretty much whipped after all that, and too tired for any very strenuous anniversary observations. I imagine that, once we’ve had a chance to recuperate a little, we’ll manage some more suitable way to mark another year of marital bliss.

But honestly, getting together with my brothers and sisters to take care of our parents was a fitting enough way for us to spend our anniversary, don’t you think?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Zero Tolerance

Our third son, 5M, has always been a solid kid. He’s kind and good-hearted, and has often gone out of his way to befriend the ‘social-misfit-type’ kids at school. He has tended to get a little lost in the shuffle in our family, with all the drama going on among his older siblings, but just a very solid, very good kid.

When he was in 8th grade, 5M had a MySpace page. Which was news to us, since we didn’t even have an Internet connection on our home computer (I mean, we didn’t even have the connection; I had removed the modem from the box – the only sure way I could finally find to keep porn out of our house). But, you know, other families have computers with modems, and he’s not under our roof 24-7.

One time, I brought my laptop home from work. 4M and 5M were eager to borrow it so they could go online without having to run to a friend’s house, and that was my first look at 5M’s page. It featured a large photo of his august self, shirtless and sleeping. It could possibly have been construed as mildly ‘erotic’, in a 14-year-old-boy sort of way. I told him I thought a different photo would be a good idea, and he switched it.

5M played on the school’s 8th-grade basketball team and, as I recall, they had a very good season. But, at one practice in December, one of the boys on the team messed up in such a way as to cause the whole team to run extra laps at the end of practice. Which, as has been known to happen among middle-school boys, didn’t endear the boy to his teammates on that particular day. One teammate in particular, was extremely angry over it, and left a nasty, threatening comment on 5M’s MySpace page. 5M didn’t think much of it – he knew the kid who left the comment, and figured he was just venting some steam. He might have deleted the comment, but frankly, he didn’t know he could (just speaking as the boy’s father, there are all manner of bloggity things that y’all do that I have no idea how to do, so he at least comes by his ‘ignorance’ honestly).

A month or so later, on a Friday when 5M was home sick, his class had a discussion on school violence. In the course of the conversation, one of the girls said, “You should see what’s on 5M’s MySpace page!” So that day, after school, the teacher calls up 5M’s MySpace page, sees the nasty, threatening comment sitting there, having been there for over a month, and about jumped out of her clothes. The teacher showed it to the principal, who consulted the policy manual and determined that, holy shit, they had an honest-to-goodness violent situation on their hands, right here in Tiny-Catholic School! So they huddled together and consulted the policy manual for what to do. They even called the Diocesan Education Office downtown.

The following Monday, Molly and I got a call, requesting that we meet with the principal. When we got there, 5M was already sitting in his office. We sat down, and he described the situation to us. My first thought was to wonder why he needed us to come in for a meeting over that – what, exactly, had my son done wrong? It became clear that 5M’s offense was in leaving the comment up on his page. So I asked 5M why he hadn’t deleted the comment, and he said he hadn’t known that he could. And besides, his opportunities to even get at his page were fairly limited, since we didn’t have an Internet connection at home. And, he had gone in and deleted it that afternoon, when the principal showed him how. So no problem.

Well, no. NOT ‘no problem’. Not by a long shot.

The principal went on to explain that, according to the policy manual, this constituted an instance of violence against another student, which would not be tolerated. He even invoked Columbine. 5M was to be suspended for a week, removed from the basketball team, and be ineligible to participate in any extra-curricular activities for the rest of the school year. Which, since he was in 8th grade, meant for the rest of his time at the school. Including the ‘celebratory’ class trip at the end of the year.

I was dumbfounded. Was any consideration given to the kind of person they knew 5M to be? He’d been at the school for eight-and-a-half years, and had never remotely been a trouble-maker (which could not have been said of at least one of his older brothers, and even one of his sisters). This seemed kind of a nuclear response to a first offense, that, when I looked at it, didn’t look like much of an offense at all. The only response I got was that this was what the policy manual said they should do in a case of violence against another student, and that Sister Scholastica downtown agreed.

I wrote a letter to the principal, asking him to reconsider, based on 5M’s complete lack of any disciplinary history. I wrote a letter to our pastor, and the parish Education Commission, asking if there was any way for them to intervene in the situation, but they declined. I wrote a letter to Sister Scholastica, too, but I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for that; with the others, I was at least talking to people with whom I had a relationship. As far as Sister was concerned, I was just Irate Parent. The suspension was gonna stick.

I would have a hard time describing the bind we were in. Our kids have been attending this school for 20 years; it’s our parish school. So, sending our kids there is virtually a matter of supporting the parish. Plus, in all other ways, we liked and respected this principal; this ‘zero-tolerance’ thing came completely out of left field, as far as we were concerned.

Molly and I agonized over what to do. It seemed a shame (and honestly, an act of ‘violence’ in its own right) to pull 5M out of the school just a couple months before his class was due to graduate – these kids (or at least most of them) had been together since kindergarten, and they were a close-knit group. And yet, 5M was effectively being held apart from them by virtue of the discipline. If we sent 5M to the public middle school, he’d only be there for a couple months, and he knew very few of the kids he’d be there with. Besides which, with a ‘violence’ action attached to his name, we weren’t even sure they would take him, anyway.

We finally told 5M that, if he could, we wanted him to finish the year with his class. If he found that it was too hard, or too strange, to keep going back to school with his ‘Scarlet-V’ status, we would pull him out and switch him to the public school, without a second thought. But, if he could do it, we wanted him to finish the year, hold his head up, and figuratively say to his ‘adversaries’ (however he perceived them to be), ‘I won’t be beaten down’.

And that’s what he did. I’ve rarely been prouder of any of my children than I was when 5M graduated with his class from 8th grade. He held his head up and didn’t get beaten down. He worked hard and kept his mouth shut. All of his teachers (except the one who had ‘turned him in’) more-or-less rallied to his side, making clear that they regarded this as unjust, also. In fact, he even got ‘reinstated’ to go on the class trip (which he was tempted to refuse, out of principle, but he ended up going).

As I said, I’ve rarely been prouder of any of my kids. 5M’s character really showed through, and he grew a lot stronger for living through an awful situation with his dignity intact. There were no ‘good’ solutions to the problem, and I just wanted to make sure that we all, in the Jones family, handled ourselves uprightly and with dignity. We had many words of support from fellow-parishioners, including a few who offered to make some trouble on our behalf. Which we declined to have them do.

Our parish is a relatively small urban parish, and the school is its life-blood. The school itself has struggled fiscally for several years, and a major brouhaha could easily result in the school’s closing. Which, in the long run (or maybe not so long), would lead to the parish closing. Not that I thought that the fate of the parish hung on what we did, but taking care for the good of the parish was certainly part of our consideration.

And looking back, I think the whole problem was the ‘zero tolerance’ policy that the school adopted. I understand, and am supportive of, the school’s concern to protect its students from violence. But, to punish a stupid comment left on a MySpace page (out of ignorance much more than malice) as if it were the next coming of Columbine was just out of all proportion, and an affront to common sense. But then, ‘zero-tolerance’ is all about not engaging common sense. If the manual says it’s ‘violence’, then off you go; nothing to think about, you just follow the manual.

And the galling thing is that, in a Catholic school, I would expect the students to be treated as persons with human dignity, made in the image of God, but ‘zero-tolerance’ ends up treating them as line-items in the policy manual. Even the remotest consideration of the person who is my son 5M would have told them that they weren’t dealing with a putative perpetrator of violence. But thought is hard, and reading a policy manual is easy.

As I said, in every other respect, I like and respect this principal. Our working relationship is mostly intact. But trust has been damaged some, and if such a situation arises again, I don’t know with certainty that I can trust that the right things will be done, and I wish that I could. I hope such a situation never arises again, and if it doesn’t, I will be gratified. We’ve only got eight more years to run of Joneses at that school (assuming it stays afloat that long), so we’ll see, I guess. . .