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They Won't Let My Kid Rock the Bells!
Welcome to an advice column by me, Sara Benincasa, a person with many opinions. This column will not diagnose or “cure” anything. Hopefully, reading it will entertain and perhaps comfort you. Think of it as a gentle, consensual hug from a very large, friendly bear. Send questions to email@example.com. If I use your question, I’ll keep you anonymous.
Last year, my child participated in the school holiday musical. The music teacher assigned her to ring bells. She practiced so hard ringing them day and night. It was hard on all of us, even the cat.
Just before she went on stage, she realized her bells had no clappers. They were silent! When she asked why, the teacher told her she was “rhythm-challenged!”
My daughter was mortified! All these months later, she still won’t listen to any music or watch Disney movies. What can I do to build up her self-esteem? Also, can I sue the school? — Parent Who Reads Wonkette And Thus Is A Genius
When I first got your question, I got so angry that I knew I couldn’t answer right away. This is because, as previously established, I can’t fucking stand bullies.
Now, I know the teacher was likely not “attempting” to bully your child. In fact, this wasn’t a case of bullying at all, but of careless speech and insensitivity. Rationally, we know adults get to have these moments, and hopefully they are willing to make repair.
Still, a grown-up has a lot more power than a kid, and she/he/they made your kid feel like shit. Also, what the FUCK?
Please ask yourself what the best possible outcome would look like for your family. “Firing that music teacher into the sun” is not an option. Write about it in a journal if you need to. Get clear on that before moving forward. This will help inform your plans so that you can be strategic and effective. It may also save you some headaches.
I’m going to assume you’d like the teacher to apologize and for your child to fall in love with music again. And now we get to the part where I pretend I am a part of your family and we have come up with a plan together.
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Clearly, your child is having a very intense reaction. Even the best parent can use a helping hand in assisting a child in healing. Regardless of whatever the fuck happens with that school, I want your kid to enjoy music! I don’t want her to be cut off from one of the most fundamental ways humans express themselves!
That’s why, before we do anything else, we are looking for a good children’s therapist (I know this is tough and sometimes pricey) who works with kids on anxiety, and fear. Maybe this theoretical therapist even uses music and other forms of art.
HOT TIP: If there’s a university or community college near you with therapy/social work programs, they may offer lower-cost or free sessions with very good students who need hours to acquire licensure. Even if you don’t see that listed on the website, you can email or call a contact person at the education department, as they may have some leads for you. Look for the name of whoever directs the elementary education, early childhood development, social work, or child psychology programs. You never know who has a friend who has a friend who has a cousin who has exactly the right kind of skills to help your kid.
ANOTHER HOT TIP: Therapy involving sound and music can be done remotely as well as in-person. I know some folks whose kids have received different kinds of arts therapies and interventions over Zoom and who’ve benefited enormously.
YET ANOTHER HOT TIP: My nephew is autistic [quick terminology note: His parents and a few grown-up autistic friends of mine say “he is autistic” or “I’m autistic” and not “he has autism,” which is why I use this language — some folks choose otherwise, and if my nephew ever asks me to use other phrasing, I will!] Little dude works with a music teacher who specifically designs lessons for kids on the autism spectrum. They come into her office with a variety of interests and ways of learning. It is awesome.
I’m not making any assumptions around your kid with regard to neurodiversity. My point is just that there are music teachers out there who choose to specialize in working with kids who have specific needs. Maybe you could look for a music teacher who particularly works with kids who are anxious, or music-averse, or worried about not being good enough, etc. If your child is open to trying lessons out, knowing she won’t ever have to do some big performance in front of a crowd (unless she wants to!) she could have a different experience with music education. It might open her whole world up.
Next, and maybe I should’ve done this up top, we are congratulating you for being a wonderful, loving parent who wants to advocate for her little one as best as possible. We are encouraging you to take care of yourself at this time. Maybe you have a shrink! Maybe you have a boxing trainer who helps you get your feelings out by punching a bag at the gym! This is healthy!
After that, if it feels appropriate, we are filing a complaint in writing with the teacher and the teacher’s direct supervisor.
We are coolly and calming explaining what our child reported, and the effects it has had on our child, and asking what restitution will be made, considering that our child is now suffering from great anxiety thanks to the problem this teacher has created. Perhaps we pointedly include a therapy bill and our Venmo, hmmmmm?
Yes, we are doing it in writing and keeping a record of absolutely every interaction with the school from here on out. Are we making an angry phone call? Not yet. Are we doing swears? No. We are using Icy Adult Professional Language. We are being formal and polite. We are saying something like, “Given the considerable emotional damage this incident has caused my child, I hope for and expect a swift response.”
Why? Because we are covering our own asses here. We are building a record. We are asking somebody whose salary we fund to make amends for something they did wrong.
Anyway, now we give the school a chance to respond.
Will the teacher issue a big apology, sincerely saying that they had no idea their words would hurt your kid and that they feel absolutely awful? Perhaps! We cannot say.
Maybe the teacher wants to make an apology. Excellent! But if anyone says they would like to speak with you on the phone, tell them that you would prefer to keep all communications in writing. Remember, we want to legally keep a record of everything.
What happens when we receive a response? What if it in fact is not satisfactory? Oh, we take deep breaths. We walk around the block. We consider our options — none of them nasty, violent, illegal, or retaliatory. We consult with our wise friends.
And why do we do this one step at a time instead of rolling in (with other Wonketteers in tow), screaming “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCK, YOU RUINED MOANA!!!” Why do we keep meticulous records?
Because patience and deliberate action are our friends. And because there may be a solution that not only helps your kid heal, but that also shows her that adults are capable of making mistakes and apologizing. Maybe the teacher gets the opportunity to grow and change and be better to other students in future, too (I don’t care about the teacher but that feels like it could be a nice bonus).
Finally, at any point in this journey, we may absolutely put in a phone call to an attorney. Who doesn’t love a chat with somebody who actually chose a lucrative career? Perhaps you discuss the weather. I don’t imagine you actually want to get litigious, but I felt like I should respond to that part of your question, even if you were being facetious. I understand the impulse!
Anyway, I hope your kid gets a wonderful, healing experience where she reconnects with music, learns to trust her own gut, feels loved and supported, and grows in self-confidence. Don’t try to force her to love music again or whatever, but know that with time and gentle coaching, she is likely to come back from this big setback.
I wish you the best.
One more thing: when you get super-mad, instead of firing off an email full of FUCK YOOOOOUs to that teacher, review the steps outlined above. Then play this 1985 LL Cool J classic very loud while maybe punching the aforementioned bag at the boxing gym. It is not actually about bells, but it is an excellent song. MUSIC IS HEALING!