Walking into the office of my daughter’s elementary school recently, I found myself crossing paths with her principal. With a quick nod of his head, he averted his eyes and muttered, “Ms. Strong,” in a tone that conveyed his disdain for my presence, and his annoyance that he had to acknowledge it at all.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how it’s been for the last two and a half years.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. No, back in the day — when my daughter was in first grade — the principal of her school was rather unaware of my existence. He may or may not have known my daughter, but he surely didn’t know me.
He didn’t know me until I ended up in his office one day, and he threatened to call the police.
It all started with a detention slip she got when she was just 6 years old and in the first grade. Being a single mother, I was working two jobs at the time, one of which kept me up until 3 AM on a daily basis. After only four hours of sleep, I would regularly sleep through my alarm clock and then have to rush my daughter off to school. We were never more than five minutes late, but after the fourth time in three months, she got a detention.
I will never forget her walking out of the building, holding her pink detention slip, and crying because she had gotten in trouble. I will also never forget my feelings of failure, because I knew I was the one who had caused this issue, not her.
After tossing and turning all night, I woke up early and sat down to write the teacher a note.
To Whom It May Concern,
I’m respectfully refusing to send my daughter to detention on Thursday. I work a job that requires a great deal of overnight hours in addition to my daytime job, and because of it I have had a difficult time managing my schedule. The reason that she has been late has nothing to do with her and everything to do with me. I was wrong, unintentionally disrespectful, and I truly apologize for the disruption that she caused the class by coming in late.
Although I would never advocate for a blatant disregard of the rules, I teach my daughter to take responsibility for her actions. If she did something wrong and a friend was punished because of it, I would expect her to step up and make it right. Therefore, I would like to serve detention in her place and allow her to learn the real lessons in this situation. I was wrong and I would like not only the opportunity to make it right, but to be able to set a better example for my daughter than I have been doing.
Initially the teacher and her direct boss were on board with the plan, but then on the morning of, the principal asked me to come into his office, where he said that unless my daughter herself served the detention, he would make sure that she was banned from recess for the foreseeable future.
Not at all in agreement with his plan, we found ourselves at an impasse — me unwilling to make my daughter serve a punishment meant for me, and him unwilling to allow me to teach her the bigger lesson. Feeling backed against a wall, I stood up and said “if this is what you plan to teach the students here, then this is not the right school for us. I want to teach my daughter to take responsibility for her actions, and I want to parent her in a way that allows her the opportunity to follow by example. I am just asking that if there is a punishment to be served, that you allow the right person to be punished.”
“If you take your daughter out of this school,” he told me firmly, “I will report you for truancy.”
Stunned, and completely shaken up, I took my daughter, got in the car, and began to panic over what had just happened.
Was the lesson that I wanted to teach her worth all the trouble that I was creating, or was I just making things worse for her than I already had?
Knowing that I could never afford a private school and homeschooling was definitely out of the question, I did the only thing that I could think to do: I drove straight over to our district’s administration building and pled my case to the district superintendent, who thankfully had mercy on my soul.
The next day, on my 31st birthday — and much to the dismay of her principal — I served my first detention ever.
If you’re wondering what exactly a 31-year-old looks like serving detention at an elementary school, it looks a little something like this: While all the other kids sat at a boardroom table down the hall, they had me sit in chair across from the desk of the vice principal. Due to childcare issues, my daughter actually did end up coming with me, and while I spent my time in detention making sure she understood why I was there, the vice principal spent her time offering my daughter a board game or a book, before turning to me and laughing a little bit.
“You really shouldn’t even be here, this whole situation is,” she said. “Well let’s just say that I wouldn’t have handled it this way.”
It’s been two-and-a-half years since that day, and my daughter still happily attends that school. The principal though, seems hell bent on hating me for the wrist slap he got from the superintendent, after it was determined that he was attempting to enforce a rule, that never actually existed (according to the district handbook).
As for my daughter and I? Let’s just say “the day Mommy served detention” isn’t something she’ll likely forget anytime soon. But what I do find to be amazing is that the lesson I set out to teach her ended up being the smallest one of all. Sure, she got to see what it looks like to take responsibility, admit when you’re wrong, stand up for what’s right, and all that; but I think the biggest lesson really lies in what she’s quietly come to understand over the last two-and-a-half years.
And that’s this: Every time her principal gives me that cold nod of existence, she leans over and says to me, “Mommy, not everyone is going to like you when you try do the right thing, but that’s OK as long as you know you are doing the right thing. The people who know that will be proud of you.”
Honestly, that right there makes all the awkward encounters with her principal more than worth it. And even if he couldn’t see where I was coming from, I’m at least glad my daughter does now. Math, science, and reading are all important to my child’s growth, but none of that matters if our kids aren’t also learning how to be decent human beings, too. And while much of that starts at home, it shouldn’t end when they step off the school bus and into the classroom.
Our kids are watching us every second of every day. They’re learning from how we act and how we treat each other, and they’re learning much more than what we intentionally set out to teach them.
Sometimes, the unintentional stuff matters more.