Nine years ago, my youngest son, Everett, was in the middle of his kindergarten year. He did not like kindergarten, but we had told him he needed at least one year of formal education to become a jockey.
“If you get through kindergarten,” I told him, “then we’ll see about getting you into jockey school.”
Everett was at the time infatuated with the film “Seabiscuit,” and he spent many hours with our miniature horse Coco, who was big enough for him to ride but also small enough for him to handle alone.
On the last day of the school year, I picked him up and we drove to Foster’s Freeze for a celebratory ice cream. He sat in the back of the car, his kindergarten folder spilling out papers on the seat next to him, and said nothing for a few minutes. Finally, I asked him how the last day had been.
“OK,” he said. “Now can I start jockey school?”
Everett is now in the eighth grade, and in a few days his father and I will attend a conference with administrators at his school, where they will ask us to sign papers acknowledging that our son will possibly not receive a certificate of graduation in June. It will be a step, I fear, in the road that will lead to my son eventually dropping out of high school.
My husband and I are both teachers, and our son’s reluctance to embrace education has not been easy for us to accept, but it is a reality I have been cognizant of since that last day of kindergarten.
Everett has never liked school – period. He does not like the rules, the work or the notion of having to do what others ask of him. My son has many admirable qualities – he is fun company, quick-witted, athletic – but a strong work ethic is not among them.
We have used incentives and restrictions, cajoling and coddling. We have sought help from specialists. We have lectured and threatened. We have spent many afternoons, evenings and nights sitting next to him, using all of the methods we know to get him to do his homework.
By third grade, our battles over homework were epic, lasting into dinner and long afterward until, sometime around 9 in the evening, he would give in and complete his assignments in 20 minutes.
“See,” we said every time, “it only took 20 minutes, and you’ve been stalling for five hours. You could have been playing and watching TV since 4.”
But the next afternoon, the homework wars would resume, until finally, in the middle of his fourth-grade year, we simply gave up. We were tired of the grinding tension.
That was the year Everett turned 10 and my sister gave him a summer trip to the Calgary Stampede to celebrate his graduation into the double-digits. And so, I held out the Calgary trip as bait. In April, I told Everett that if he did not get at least a C in every class, he would not go to Calgary.
By June, he had brought his grades up to Cs. My threat had worked, but since then other incentives and punishments have not.
I almost did not write this column out of concern for my son’s privacy. But I know there are other parents who have found themselves in our situation, and I hope to provide for them a measure of comfort in our shared experience.
Like those parents, we fret about what we should have done differently, whether we’ve been too lenient or too strict, whether our expectations were too high or too low.
We’ve decided, however, to allow Everett to fail, and to hope he might learn from failure. Maybe one day a formal education will be his path to happiness, but I accept that such a day may never come.
In the end, I have decided that the best any of us can do, sometimes, is simply to love our children – not only despite their challenges, but maybe even because of them.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.