Anthony Bourdain’s death has me thinking a lot. I get it. I get him. Along with Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I don’t know much about Kate Spade’s life but I’m sure I’d understand her as well. With that said, let me be clear that I have no intentions of killing myself. I have a lot to live for, in particular two very special girls. But, I also understand the feelings of saying my work here is done.
Great artists or creators, whether they’ve received wide-spread recognition or not, see the world in a different way. From the simplest question on a survey to walking through a building, they see and interpret things in a way no one, or few ever do. It can be lonely. They have an awareness that’s 10 times greater than what the average human is capable of taking in. They hear tone, where others don’t. They see the looks, where others don’t. They smell hostility, where others don’t. I debate on what’s more hurtful the people who dish out the nastiness or the people who have no idea what you’re talking about even when they were witness to the whole spectacle. “You’re overreacting” is one of my most hated phrases. I want to respond “You’re deaf, dumb and blind”…but I try to be nice.
So you take all those 1000 cuts throughout the day. The ones you’re “overreacting to” and you get through them but the wounds and scars remain. You do the things people say will make you happy: get married, have kids, get degrees, buy a home, take a trip, etc. The cuts still come and the wounds and the scars still linger. Artists are amazing because they take that pain and create. They make jokes that make others laugh hard and long. The joke came from a cut no one else felt, and yet, many can empathize with. They write stories that tell of lands and people both far and near in a way that makes you want to get to know those lands and people even if they are the opposite of you. It’s the kind of story telling that starts to reveal multiple layers until the common experience is revealed. They slip into the skin of another character so fully you believe they are real. They make you like or at the very least empathize with the dislikable characters because they have the ability to find the good in everyone. Every human has a grain of likability. These artists are amazing. Not only do they see what others don’t, they write/say/do in a way that gets the blind to see what they’ve been missing all along. The irony is that everyone is blind to their pain.
The recent suicides have hit me harder than all the ones before I think in part because I have two creative daughters, one who just finished 4th grade, the other kinder. I have no answers to easing the pain for adults but I have to think that I can create or support or lessen or direct the pain as a mother for my children. There will always be pain in life. I’m not trying to take away all the pain entirely. I am trying to first and foremost let them know that I am here for them. Always. And second, I am trying to let them face the pain in degrees to get tougher and overcome obstacles. Not to be overwhelmed by them, lose confidence and never be able to face really difficult challenges. You don’t walk into a gym and bench press 150lbs right off the bat. You get there gradually.
I constantly hear parents say things like “they’ll work it out”, “kids will be kids”, “I have no idea what my kid is up to in school but he/she seems fine”. I find that scary. How can they work it out if no one has taught them how? Kids will be kids? No…. kids, human beings in general will be whatever you set the expectation for them to be. You have no idea what your kid is up to? It’s more like you don’t want to listen to what your kid is up to. I have yet to meet a child that didn’t want to talk to an empathetic ear. Both of my daughters talk to me or to each other about everything. This is how I know the inner workings of my 4th grader’s class was not good. And this is why I did something unconventional about it. I was criticized for it and completely unsupported by principals and teachers but it wasn’t until Anthony’s Bourdain’s death that I felt full relief and gratitude for how I stepped in where our Catholic school did nothing.
The problems started in third grade. My daughter started coming home from school crying. She’d get in the car at pickup, I’d see the look on her face and I knew things were wrong. She cried at least three times a week. I talked to her teacher and the principal about it. They said it was normal. These social adjustments happen in third grade all the time. They said it was her lack of academic aptitude that led to kids making fun of her. I worked with her intensively to help her be on par with her class. But here is the funny thing. I have friends who graduated from Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard and Yale and each and every one of them always, without prompting, tell me how impressed they are with her intelligence. But at school she was…well, to put it bluntly, stupid in their eyes. She’s dyslexic. Not severely, in fact most teachers had trouble identifying it. The only trouble she had was with reading and spelling. The rest was going well. The environment at school got worse. An aide belittled her in front of her entire class and made her cry. I didn’t hear it from her, I heard it from other parents in our class. Their kids had witnessed what happened and were worried for her. But, like I said I didn’t hear it from her and she tells me everything so I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. Finally two weeks after the incident she woke up a little past midnight from a dead sleep. She sat up in bed and started crying uncontrollably in the middle of the night. She finally told me.
Nothing was done or nothing changed on the school’s behalf. Again, the girls were attending Catholic School. I was paying tuition at an institution that constantly talks about “being like Jesus” and “Walking like Jesus”. That’s their mantras. All the changes were done on my part. I worked harder with her. I helped her cope with the things her classmates were saying. I finally told the principal I was going to start taking her out of school more often because I could see the stress this was causing her. There were days when the look on her face told me she was on the brink of falling apart. I was criticized for coddling her. But school continued to do nothing. The aid continues to work there to this day despite several complaints. I finally demanded she not be allowed near my daughter since the principal did not alter or make rearrangements.
What changed in third grade? Crushes. Girls started having crushes on boys. P (my daughter) has always been more comfortable with boys. Her closest friends have been boys. The girls hated she was friends with the boys they had crushes on. They started ostracizing her from their group of 9 girls in a class of 30. P said it was impossible to even know what boys she should talk to since their crushes changed on a daily basis, sometimes even multiple times a day. Their teacher had no empathy for any of it and denied any problems in the class. She kept saying she was fine. She had friends. Everything was normal. The third grade teacher at this Catholic school is one of the worst educators I have ever come across. She took a class that was kind and bonded and destroyed it by creating a dynamic where every child degraded one another so they could shine.
At the end of the school year a few moms came up to me and admitted their kids weren’t the same. They said their boys became mean and had been reprimanded at school often, something that had never happened before. The class turned into a Lord of the Flies situation, every kid out for themselves. The moms wished they had pulled their kids from school more often, the way I did with P. She was home at least once, if not twice a week. I was paying full tuition for this. Not exactly a good value for my money.
We decided to give the school one more year because we heard the 4th grade teacher was amazing. Also, my youngest was going into Kinder and that teacher truly is amazing. P had her 4 years earlier. The 4th grade teacher was great but the girls in the class were all the same. By Christmas P was crying, begging me to put her in any school at long as she could be out of that one. I started researching schools however, I also mentioned to her that these problems would not go away. People were people and the mean girls are everywhere. However, I will say that I encountered so many problems in the last trimester that I felt as if my girls were going to a slum public school on the East Side of Los Angeles.
At lunch a boy took a hot dog and mimicked giving a blow job in her face. The principal said she took care of it. I have no idea how but all I know is the next time I saw the family of the boy, at a school function, they barely looked at me and didn’t say hello. We use to be friends. This could have been a lovely pivotal moment of change and education for the kids and instead there was obvious shame and guilt.
The music teacher targeted P as a child she didn’t like and constantly looked for ways to belittle her. I should mention, P was one of maybe three people in the entire school who played an instrument well. She’s been playing the violin for 5 years. Clearly she was a threat to this music teacher because true musicians embrace a child who “comes with a sound”. This teacher tried to muffle it. And not just her. The other kids who played instruments were also belittled in various ways according to their mothers.
For P, she was given Fs on various assignments like the one where she only confused the B and D notes. The music teacher was not aware of P’s dyslexia and she didn’t posses the aptitude to know that a child who’s had music for 5 years and gets all the notes right except for switching B and D every single time could be dyslexic. Instead an F was what she dished out. She accused P of forging my signature on a homework log. It wasn’t true and she didn’t believe P when she tried to explain. She gave her an F and then never proceeded to contact me at all. In fact she yelled at me for approaching her in the parking lot when I tried to discuss. Worse is the principal said she knew what the music teacher was doing was wrong but then never did anything about it. P got an F in music.
And then the worst incident of all. I accompanied P’s class on a field trip and watched my kid get bullied and excluded by the other 6 girls the entire day. I actually had to have words with one of the girls on the bus when she was aggressive with P while the bus was moving. It was appalling to watch this behavior done right in front of me, no effort at all to hide it, which meant it had been going on for a while it was so ingrained. As the classroom photographer I took pictures that day of everyone. When I sat down to edit the images I found the glaring looks of disgust beamed at P. I saw P sitting alone time and time again as the class moved from project to project. I found all the girls in groups, talking and laughing except for P. It was like getting punched in the stomach. And again, when I brought it up to the principal and teacher BOTH said she was fine and engaged with her peers. I was like WTF? Are you kidding me? My suspicions aren’t in my head! I have them caught on film! I’m not sure what was worse, the girls’ cruelty towards P or the various adults who have spent hours with my child over the years and see nothing.
The last two weeks of school I pulled P out on days when she had music due to the music teacher’s aggressive and demeaning attitude and behavior. I also pulled P the last week of school since it’s a BS week of social activities. We are not returning.
Back to Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Kirk Cobain, Kate Spade, Marilyn Monroe, etc etc. All of these artists were in fourth grade at one time. I’m sure all of them had problems in their classrooms, with their teachers, with their peers, parents and so on. Ultimately it’s not the problems that kill, it’s how we process and handle them. That is exactly what I’m teaching my girls, just not all at once. So, when a child is dealing with a boy gesturing a blow job with a hot dog in her face, a music teacher failing her and falsely accusing her of lying and every single girl in her class treating her as if she has leprosy and the principal does nothing that’s when I step in and say I will handle this. Nothing scares a school more than a parent who loves spending time with their child. Schools know they have something over a parent’s head when a kid is sent to school sick and over tired. They know that parent just wants them out of the house or out of their hair. That is not the situation in my home. I took my kid back.
I got criticism for keeping my child at home. The principal didn’t reach out to question or come up with a game plan. Other parent’s thought I was too indulgent. Maybe none of their kids are artists. Maybe all of these people are deaf, dumb and blind. I don’t know. What I do know is that I have artists for children. I am an artist. I know the the feeling of 1000 cuts. My children are too young to have deep scars but sadly after the past two years my 10 year old has them. But, she is learning how to handle herself around toxic people, how to find her happy places, how to disregard other people’s opinions and how to not place too much trust or validity on authority. What she is escaping are the feelings of being overwhelmed and not having options to make things better. It’s taken a lot of conversations and reading stories of other people’s struggles and how they overcame for her to carry on. My children are learning how to protect their sanity because I’m making protective choices for them. Definitely not because school, teachers or “friends” are advocating for them. Sanity, the joy of life, thriving and happiness are gifts. I don’t take them lightly and thanks to Anthony Bourdain I will never again question my decisions when protecting my children’s sanity no matter how against the grain they might be because to us artists most people are deaf, dumb and blind.