Ellie darted through the raindrops and slid into the car next to me.
I have learned not to ask, "How was your day?" It's a question kids hate to hear, and they seldom have an answer prepared. I waited for her to get settled as I pulled out into traffic.
She sighed and smiled. "That cafeteria just outdid themselves today at lunch," she said.
Inside I leapt for joy. A painful, exhilarating, worrying and necessary change was beginning to work itself out before my eyes.
The back story: a year ago, Ellie began to unravel. She got stressed out. She couldn't sleep. Her grades dipped slightly into the B range (with one insulting C). She began to seek confrontation with me, and she would go into emotional outbursts when we did cross words on things like why she had to do her homework and silly stuff like that. Shortly after the school year ended, a severe outburst at Camp Meeting time led us to seek outside help.
The counseling found that underneath the surface, she had had a tough time at school. She didn't feel respected by her 4th-grade teacher, and she had struggled to do well in her class. At least one family pulled its child out of Highland Elementary because of this poor first-year teacher. I kept Ellie there because I hoped that her experienced 5th-grade teacher would be better.
Before 4th grade, I felt that Ellie was "teacher proof." She has a strong desire to please authority figures, and she had used her blazing intelligence and perceptive personality to win over every teacher she had had since she was 4. In 4th grade she ran into a wall.
The problem continued this year. There weren't confrontations with me anymore, because we had worked that out over the summer. But Ellie hated school. She loved her friends, but she made it clear that she had learned to "tune out" the teacher and pastor when they lectured her and her friends. Over Spring Break all she could talk about was starting 6th grade at the public middle school just down the street from where I teach.
The day after Spring Break, Jenny called me at school. Ellie had refused to return to Highland, claiming she was sick. She had spent the day at the clinic with Jenny. On my way out the door, I picked up an Out-of-Zone Form. On the way home, I was given the following impression: take the morning off work; register Ellie at a new school. It was March 10, the worst time of year to switch schools.
The next morning we registered Ellie at Jack Anderson Elementary, about 10 minutes' drive from my house. On Wednesday she went to school for the first time--a huge school with over 800 students, yet one of the best elementary schools in my district.
It wasn't easy for her. "I hate it there," she would say in the early days. "All of the kids are snobs." On her third day, she experienced catastrophe. She had brought a sack lunch to school, and she sat down at a table at lunch. When the other kids got through the cafeteria line, the all sat somewhere else. Your typical 5th-grader would rather sit on an electric chair than sit alone at lunch.
This week it got better. She made a friend, Andrea, the girl who was the "newbie" before Ellie arrived. She also started to figure out the whole lunch thing. With Andrea sitting with her, she had an ally with whom social conquest was possible. Which boys can you laugh at? Which girls should you just ignore?
Ellie always talked about the cafeteria--always. The food was rotten. The pizza had sausage. Yuck. Ick. The usual. I realized--this is how she tells me about her day!
As Ellie described her quest in detail, it was pretty clear she was making the right moves. She knew not to act needy; she didn't overreact to some of the girls' tricks. She brought home her papers. They had solid, A-B grades.
Then on Thursday, she complimented the cafeteria food--the potato wedges, the grapes, the biscuits. "They outdid themselves," she said.
I'm sure you did, I thought to myself. I'm sure you did.