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  • Jan Flynn

Judge Not

When I mention to acquaintances that I work at a middle school handling student behavior and discipline, I usually hear some version of three responses:

“Wow, that’s gotta be challenging.”

“Really? That’s such a tough age. Do you, um, like it?”

“I’m sure the kids are lucky to have you.”

I never know quite how to interpret the last one. It sounds a bit patronizing, or maybe the other person is just surprised that I’m not a fire-breathing dragon.

But my favorite so far is, “God, that sounds awful.”

It’s true that eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are at a tumultuous stage in their lives, but no, my job is not awful. I like it quite a lot. The students are endlessly fascinating, and I’m grateful to be surrounded by colleagues who “get” kids this age.

As a staff, we work on cultivating a positive a culture at school, but even in our idyllic little town life can be harsh. Beyond the usual lost backpacks and confiscated cell phones, some of the situations our kids face are seriously tough. We have students who come to school shouldering burdens that would bring an adult to their knees.

Even when their lives are otherwise okay, kids this age are

capable of making drastically poor choices, ones that threaten their futures. The toxicity of popular culture is no help, and neither is the relentless onslaught of 24/7 social media. In the face of all this, we want students to solve multiple-step equations and explain the importance of the Magna Carta.

My coworkers do our best to get through  each day with as little drama as possible. It takes a yin-yang balance of compassion and detachment, respect and healthy skepticism, plus a well-honed sense of humor. On the whole, I think we do a good job of maintaining our perspective with the students. Where we lose it, or at least where I lose it, is with their parents.

Don’t get me wrong: the vast majority of the parents at our school are supportive and wonderful. And yet.

I could tell you stories, believe me. The helicopter parents, the oblivious parents, the parents who refuse to believe that their little dumpling could ever be at fault. The parents who give their kids way too much and the parents who don’t seem to care if their kids have what they need, even when it’s not a matter of economic hardship. The parents who believe everything their kid tells them and therefore conclude the staff is lying. The parents who are simply rude. The parents who want the world to adapt to their child, rather than the other way around.

I’m not going to speak for my colleagues, but this is where I run up against the limits of my forbearance. This is when I transform into Judge Jan.

Compared to other aspects of my personality, Judge Jan is far from my favorite. But she

has a way of hijacking me as I’m recovering from an encounter with a parent who is shrill, accusatory, or otherwise unreasonable. The moment the coast is clear, Judge Jan comes boiling out of her chambers, robes flapping and eyes rolling. She’s eager to condemn. And wow, is she handy with the snarky remarks. The helicopter parents and the lawnmower parents and the screeching, whining, demanding parents would think twice if they only knew how Judge Jan’s wit will wither them once they leave the room.

Judge Jan feels entitled to her opinions. After all, hasn’t she raised her children to successful adulthood? If only these benighted people would raise their adolescents in the same way that she did, well, then they would . . .

. . . they would be raising their kids twenty years ago, before smart phones and Snapchat and classroom laptops. Before oxycontin and sexting and vaping. Before 9/11 and Isis and an endless war. Before the country was ready to split apart at its ideological seams.

They would be raising their young ones in the same culture their parents grew up in, with the same language. More often than not, there would be one main screen in the house upon which everyone, at least some of the time, watched the same thing. They would have built-in touch points, commonalities that would not be the luxury of those families with enough disposable income and time to create them.

Judge Jan doesn’t consider any of that. She has conveniently lost sight of just how

bewildering and terrifying it is to be a parent of a teen or a pre-teen today. It doesn’t occur to her that parents turn into helicopters or lawnmowers or even screamers not because they’re stupid and uncaring, but because they care so desperately, and are so daunted by the realities their vulnerable children have to face way too soon.

And when people are overwhelmed by things beyond their control, things that threaten what they most love, sometimes they express their angst in ways that aren’t so pretty. It’s a thing that can happen to human beings of any age. Even moms and dads.

Even, if she’s being honest, Judge Jan. She may have been given a lifetime appointment, but I think it’s time she take the hint and retire.

Is it just me, or do you harbor a self-righteous inner magistrate too? Please share: I won’t judge.

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