Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Seven months and fourteen days: taken under counsel

How well do you know your school counselor? When I was in high school, my school counselor was Connie Bridgeman. She was assigned to the honors kids -- all of the honors kids. I think I saw her three times in three years.

I remember sitting across the desk from Connie Bridgeman, who can't possibly still be alive. She was probably in her 50s then, and was carrying about 100 extra pounds. It made her wheeze. So my memories of my school counselor were of this tired, wheezing, overweight woman, telling me she wanted me to join the Academic Decathlon team.

That's what a "counselor" did at my high school. That was the extent of "couseling," in my experience. It seems to echo the experience of the counselors at Bishop Blanchet High School, where three women were responsible for about a thousand kids.

Maybe it was because I was looking at it from a different vantage point, but it seemed like Pam Palasz and her crew at Blanchet did much more "counseling" than Connie Bridgeman did back at El Modena High School in the early 1980s.

The only other experience I had with a school counselor came in 1976, shortly after my family moved to California. That particular counselor, whose name is lost to history, pretended to be from the same small town in Pennsylvania as me, which, looking back, makes it clear that I must have been one unhappy little child during the short time I attended Riverdale Elementary School in Anaheim, California.

I don't know whether to thank that counselor or abrade her. She got me out of Riverdale, at least.

Today I got to look at school counseling from another angle, that of the concerned parent. And I've got to say, seven months and fourteen days to Bar Mitzvah, that I'm fairly impressed with the quality of counseling at Brandeis Hillel Day School. I might be even more impressed if I could remember the name of the counselor. She sure seemed to know my kid, which is more important than me remembering her name.

I'm impressed, first, that she completely removed the "getting called in to see the counselor" stigma from the equation. At Brandeis Hillel Day School, the counselor (and there's only one, for 360 kids) is a visible, constant part of the school landscape. Kids go to see her for all kinds of things, not just because they're in trouble or generally troubled.

This is the third counselor we've had at BHDS since we started there, eight years ago. The first one had been there forever and knew the parents on all kinds of levels. We went to see her once, but whatever good feelings I had about her were wiped out a year later. I was at a 50th birthday party for another parent when I overheard her, after taking a job at a another school,tell someone how much better her new school was than ours. Thanks, I thought. Nice to know that you had one foot out the door the whole time you were telling us how to better prepare our kid for the future.

The second counselor started a bunch of middle school programs for girls. She altered them slightly for boys. So one day my Jawa comes home and tells me that they had a special class about body issues, eating disorders being a major epidemic among 12-year-old boys.

One time I caught her in the hall and said, "It's great that you're doing these programs for middle school girls. What about the boys?"

She lowered her eyebrows, then caught herself and asked if I'd been talking to the Head of School. "That's what he said," she murmured, before assuring me that there would be specific programs designed to address the unique experience of teenage boys. Like bulimia, stuff like that.

Today, as we sat in the counselor's office, the four of us (myself, Sandra Bullock, the counselor and the Jawa's beloved advisor, Ms. Pak) keenly deconstructing my child to reveal all of the genetic flaws passed onto him by his father, I was struck at how well both the counselor and Ms. Pak knew my son. They knew tendencies and habits I didn't know. They knew of things that had happened during school that I'd never heard of.

So I guess we should consider that part of what we will be paying $24,000 for during the 2010-2011 school year. That will be the culmination of a nine-year journey that began with us cautiously edging down the primary school hallway one day in late August, 2002.

We were almost at the kindergarten classroom that day when we were stopped by a fellow parent, unknown to us at the time, who was too eager to share with us the news that she was pregnant after having multiple miscarriages. "Welcome to Jewish school," I told my stunned wife.

We're about 90% of the way to the K-8 finish line, meeting with counselors to best prepare our Jawa for the twin challenges of adolescence and high school, hopefully giving him the tools to overcome the genetic material that his father has parlayed into an uneven career of unmet expectations.

After school, I took the Jawa and Shack, our corgi, to Fort Funston, an expanse of sand dunes at the city's outer edge. There, as the sun dipped slowly into the Pacific Ocean, we followed our dog across the beach. For an hour, no counselors, no meetings, no concerns about crumpled-up homework, erratic sleep patterns or binders overflowing with disorganized handouts; just a boy and his dog, trailed by his father.

What's the endgame with counseling, be it a meeting with the school counselor or the hard-core experience of long-term therapy? We left today's meeting with a plan in place, a suggested path we could follow to acheive a set of desired results. Our Jawa could be fine-tuned in time for the start of high school. He can hone his organizational skills and learn how to prepare for class. He can find strategies that will help him succeed.

There are plenty of ways to tap into a child's potential. In a perfect scenario, said child exceeds expectations without sacrificing that which prevents him from being a cardboard cutout of the perfect child. And if I knew how to do that, how, through the sheer will and parental devotion, I could always reach my child when he needed it and not focus on clothes left lying on the bedroom floor or music played too loud, well, then we wouldn't need school counselors, would we.

1 comment:

The Hammer said...

Counselor Loveland (can't remember her first name).