“Hello, Auntie!” another curious student stared and greeted as I waved from my chair outside my son’s classroom. It felt like I was punished by my primary school teacher for forgetting my exercise book. At times, I felt unjustified, because when I visited schools or universities, I used to turn up as the guest-of-honor or the invited speaker. Yet today, I feel ‘punished’ for being the mother to a child whose behavior is not acceptable.
But I refused to let it drag me down. I held up my head and put up a brave smile and addressed each child from the two GEP classes by name. I was asked to sit in to watch my son’s unacceptable behavior in school by the HOD and the principal. For some reason, the teacher felt it unnecessary, so she politely took my chair, placed it outside the classroom and closed the door. Maybe she felt threatened by my presence even though I have never paid attention to what she said in class, choosing to focus on my son instead.
They then told me my son behaved differently (and well) in my presence anyway so there was nothing to watch. After many inhospitable stares from other teachers and pupils, I decided to move myself to the canteen, and then out of the school completely. I could catch no strange behavior, taped nothing unusual, and felt really out of place. My requests to send in a psychologist to watch him in action was also rejected, so to this day, I can only guess what really happened in those classrooms which led the educators to conclude he needed to be sent to a special school instead.
Baby-Sitting in the University
Little did I expect that three years later, I will be asked to do this again. Just days after my son was enrolled in this university, the administrator called for a meeting between the two assistant deans and the welfare folks in the Faculty. Since he was the youngest ever enrolled, the university was really kind to make provisions so that he could attend alongside late teenagers at least six years his senior. One of the requests was for me to sit in EVERY lecture, tutorial, and practical – basically I have to tail him everywhere in the campus, except for the loo, until he turns fifteen. The rationale was that University staff do not hold ‘Blue cards’ and are not certified to handle children and minors, so I have be around. I gladly agreed.
Modeling the Desired Social Behavior
What do I do for those twenty hours a week in the undergraduate classes? Like everyone else, I take notes, listen carefully and try to do the assignments as well, just that I do not submit them. I do not participate or ask questions. I could have whipped up my computer or iPad and surf instead, but I won’t because I know what I am there for: I am there not just to be a guardian, but also to model the right class behavior for my son.
When I see a student opening the door for the rest, I will point that out to my son. When he sneezed and his classmate hand over a tissue, I reminded him that he should carry his own and to pay it forward. I wanted to show him how he should behave in the lecture theatre when the lecturer is teaching. I wanted to show him when to keep quiet and when to speak, and when to look interested even though he really wants to fall asleep.
Though right there in the same classroom, my son will interact with his teachers and classmates with me watching from my seat but I will listen intently – not to catch his academic inadequacies, but to listen out for his tone, his facial expression etc. If I felt that he could speak in nicer ways, I would tell him.
At times, I left it to his classmates to tell him off, so that he learn and remember social rules better. These are skills that I know come easily to many other children, but my son has to be taught and reminded. I saw sitting in his classes a unique opportunity to observe and teach him the right behavior, social skills and classroom etiquette he lacks.
Taming the Tiger Mum
Initially, many of his classmates thought I went to class to “Tiger Mum” him to maintain his historically excellent academic results, but academic is so secondary. I would rather work on his executive functioning skills : planning, scheduling, and keeping track of his own progress and facing the consequence of all his actions. Over the years of sitting in his university classes, I’ve had the privilege of teaching him these, step by step. An opportunity I know not many parents have.
I have to give up a lot of things to ensure I can support him this way, it basically means I have no free time for anything to myself, as I have to look after another four children, cook six to seven meals a day, drive the kids to all their activities and then do all the housework chores. Hm.. plus handle my full-time job, and write this book. But I am always optimistic and I have never failed to find strength to do this day after day, I have never grumbled or wished otherwise. Which mother would have this opportunity and privilege to teach her child the right classroom behavior?
He will likely earn his bachelor degree ahead of his peers, and I know that I will definitely be proud of him, less for his outstanding academic performance, and more for his ability to mitigate his weaknesses and work outside his comfort zone to become an organized, socially able person. Those months and years of time invested will be so worth the while. I look forward to that day, and know that I will get to see a confident teenager with good skills, as long as I fail to give up.
The years of giving up my freedom, time and pride just to help him overcome his weaknesses will seem so insignificant.
*After ‘following’ him for a semester, the university decided I need not sit with him in class anymore, and now I am ‘upgraded’ to sit outside doing my work, research or write my books. Many universities’ by-laws do not allow teenagers into their premises without supervision, and we made this into a precious learning opportunity.