Aug. 16th, 2014

Abusive Palo Alto Unified School District Teacher Causes Lifelong Trauma

This is rather a confession, you see, because for years now I’ve held these memories in and told no one. Recent attention about abusive teachers reminds me of when I was in 2nd grade at Palo Alto’s Greendell Elementary School in 1968, and about how much things have changed since then. All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, and minor details have been fudged for the sake of brevity. We don’t want to think that something like this could happen in a Palo Alto school, but it did.
Our teacher was “Mr. Griffin”. Whenever boys got too obnoxious, he grabbed them over his lap and spanked them.
The spankings were bad, but the worst incident by far happened one morning when Mr. Griffin was playing the piano. A short, skinny boy made disruptive noises. Mr. Griffin jumped up off the piano bench, strode over to the boy, hoisted him up under his armpits and shook him back and forth so hard and fast I’m surprised his neck didn’t snap. Mr. Griffin stopped and yelled something so loud I couldn’t understand his words, followed by, “DO YOU?!” Getting no response from the terrified boy, he shook him again. That shake/yell sequence went on for a minute until the boy managed to sob a response. It must have been the response Mr. Griffin wanted, for he dropped the boy back in his seat, strode back to the piano, muttering, “Excuse me” and finished playing his song. I stared in shocked silence.
Mr. Griffin never got physical with the girls; for me he had different methods. I have an eye condition called strabismus divergent, otherwise known as “lazy eye”. Unless I consciously forced my eyes to focus, my vision went double. After focusing for extended periods of time, however, a dull ache set in, followed by a headache so that doing schoolwork became difficult. Being the girl with the eye patch, everyone knew I had a lazy eye, but no one knew how it impacted me. I also had learning disabilities caused by Tourette syndrome, but no one knew I had that either. Wondering why I struggled in school, my parents had me assessed. For days, I met in a room off the office with a psychologist who put me through a battery of tests.
They discovered that I had a high I.Q., way higher than expected for such a mediocre student. As a result, Mr. Griffin got extra tough with me. One day when I had difficulty reading aloud, he scolded me in front of the other kids.
In fourth grade, I started out with an easy teacher. Life was good, and I rode home from school one day feeling a sense of well-being. When I got home, however, my mother broke the news:
She’d switched me to Mr. Griffins’ class.
“Please, not Mr. Griffin—” I cried and pleaded, but she wouldn’t budge.
I lagged behind all the other kids in math. I hated math. Who wouldn’t when the numbers seemed to move on the page from one place to another? Giving up on assigning me the same work as the other kids, Mr. Griffin tore off a stack of addition, subtraction and multiplication problems, stapled them together and handed them to me. I had to do them ALL as quickly as I could, he said, and hand them in when they were done. For days afterward, that horrid stack of math problems ruled my life. When I finished them and handed them in, thinking I was finally free, I almost cried when he handed me another stack. More followed.
One day, he ordered me to stand in front of his desk, with all the other kids gathered around behind me. For what seemed like forever, he balled me out. “Even the third graders are doing fractions,” he said, referring to the younger kids in our combined third and fourth grade class, “but you’re still only doing multiplication.” In his mind, he thought he was motivating me. He knew I was smart, and he assumed that if I only tried harder I’d be the Einstein that they expected me to be.
But that never happened. A friend I sat next to, who was actually a “frenemy” never let me forget it. “You’re half retarded, you know”, she said. “You know that? You really are half retarded.” At that moment, I believed her.
Other kids became Mr. Griffin’s victims. One day in fifth grade a girl in Mr. Griffins’ class sat on the bench during recess, crying. “Why is she crying?” Some of us asked each other as we played on the grass.
“Oh,” a classmate of hers said, “ Mr. Griffin gave us a spelling test, and he recited the words so fast that no one could keep up.” I remembered how upset I’d been the year before when he’d done that. In big letters, I’d scribbled in my yellow children’s diary, the kind that locked with a small gold key, “I hate Mr. Griffin!!!”
Another Griffin victim was a friend named “Ted”. The bane of his existence, Mr. Griffin gave Ted an especially hard time one day in ways I knew only so well. Sitting on the grass during recess, he’d put his glasses on the grass in front of him as tears poured down his face. Several kids stood nearby, picking on him. He didn’t relate to kids his own age, he’d told me, and preferred the company of adults. But he and I got along, and I liked him. His social inadequacy made him an easy target for Mr. Griffin.
Apparently, anyone who was someone wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Ted. One day the phone rang. I answered, and that same “frenemy” said, “There’s something for you on the telephone pole in front of your house,” and hung up. Going outside, I found a note. It said: “Ted and Liz, TRUE LOVE”, with a big heart drawn around the words. Although I didn’t think of Ted that way, it didn’t deter me from being his friend.
Ted confided to me how he’d dreamt he’d built a robot that had one purpose: chasing Mr. Griffin. No doubt, many of Griffin’s students also wished they’d had such a device, but the image, seared into my brain of him shaking that terrified, defenseless boy like a rag doll haunts me to this day.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and can be reached at liz@funghi.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.
Etiquette for Planning Kid’s Birthday Parties

I glided along on the ice with my third-grade son, Dale before his skating lesson. There were many more kids in his grade at school than usual frolicking on the ice, along with their parents watching and socializing beside the rink. As I turned the corner near the picnic tables and saw why, it was like a blow to my gut. Another third grader, a girl we’d recently had at Dale’s birthday party was having a birthday herself and hadn’t invited him. The girl’s mother, who had seen us there before when our kids had been taking lessons stood to one side taking pictures. The fact that Dale had a hard time being accepted by his peers and was rarely invited to other kids’ parties made it even more painful.
On my next pass around the rink as I wondered how I would endure the next hour and forty-five minutes, I probably looking as horrified as I felt. I looked at the girl’s mother just as she turned and caught my eye. Embarrassed, I looked away and decided that no human should ever have to endure such social humiliation.
Dale was having better luck with the situation than I was. “Margie invited me to join her birthday party,” he said, smiling eagerly as he skated toward me. I felt even better when, a moment later a boy we knew who was an invitee also asked if we’d like to join them. Leave it to eight-year-olds to try to fix an awkward social situation, I thought.
Dale stepped off the ice and headed toward the festivities; I hung back, unsure of my welcome. “Come,” said Margie’s mom, waving me over as she walked toward me. “Please come join us. I’m so sorry that we forgot to invite Dale. We invited Margie’s whole class and a few other kids but Dale isn’t in her class this year and so somehow got overlooked...” She looked flustered. “We always try to reciprocate,” she finished. I wasn’t sure I believed her.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said with a smile. “Thank you for letting us join you.”
Another time we had one of Dale’s best friends, Stephan over for Dale’s birthday celebration. Two months later I happened to run into the boy’s father. “We sure had a crazy time at Stephan’s birthday party last week,” he said with a laugh. “All these kids running around wild . . .” He looked at me as if thinking that surely I could relate, while all I could do was wonder why he was telling me about it when they hadn’t invited Dale. Not wanting to embarrass him, however I kept my disappointment to myself.
On yet a third occasion my two-year-old daughter, Rowan was the uninvited one. I found out about the party when the birthday child’s mom e-mailed a list we were all on, mentioning her toddler’s party and how fun it had been. Then another mom in our social network told me about it as well. I felt the same hurt and rejection as the other times, especially since she was the person in our social group with whom I felt I had gotten to know the best. Are we the only people in the group she didn’t invite? I wondered.
When the birthday child’s mom later told me in person about her toddler’s party, I finally spoke up. “You might consider,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “not talking about your party with people you didn’t invite.”
“I know, it’s impolite—I didn’t invite you,” the woman said with a frown, looking away. “We know a lot of people-—we couldn’t invite everyone,” she said in her defense.
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” I said, even though I was, “but you might want to keep what I said in mind in the future to avoid hurting people’s feelings.”
That type of experience, especially occurring threefold brought home for me the importance of parents practicing proper birthday party etiquette. The following are tips to follow when planning your child’s next big bash.
* If you don’t plan to invite your child’s entire class, preschool section, playgroup, or other social crowd always mail the birthday invitations. Never hand them out in front of others or place them in kid’s cubbyholes where other children and parents will see them. My kid’s nursery and elementary schools both forbade it. The same goes, obviously for e-mail. Don’t mention your child’s party on an e-mail list unless you invite everyone else on that list. Be discreet.
* Invite any other kids who had your child at their party. If this means planning for a larger group than you originally had in mind, consider keeping it simple and less expensive. Instead of having the party at a public place like a bowling alley, ice rink or other location where they charge by the head and probably have a maximum number allowed, have it at your house, apartment or a nearby park. If you’re into keeping up with the Joneses hire a clown or magician or have a piñata. Once the kids have smashed it open with a baseball bat, pass out bags for the kid’s goodies.
* If your child doesn’t want to invite someone who’s party she or he attended because your child says they’re “weird”, don’t give in. Even though kids often play musical friends, take advantage of an opportunity to teach your child the importance of reciprocation and resolving conflicts with their peers. Many kid’s groups have one youngster who, because they are physically or learning challenged doesn’t learn social skills as well as the other kids. The easy thing to do, of coarse is ostracize them. The other kids and their parents probably do just that, but you don’t need that on your conscience. Be compassionate and include them. If you’re worried about a certain child’s behavior, enlist the help at the party of that child’s parents, if possible so the child can attend. If the child is shy or a target for teasing, never let the other kids name-call, bully or reject them from a group activity.
* Never, ever invite your child’s entire class or other social group except for one child because their family is in any way different. Their parents may have a different sexual orientation, religion, culture, be green space aliens or (gasp) {insert your least favorite political party here}, but don’t succumb to bigotry. Always include them.
* Never mention your child’s birthday party to children or parents whom you didn’t invite. You may not think you know each other well enough for them to be offended, but don’t risk hurting their feelings. The same goes for another child’s party that your child attended. Again, be discreet.
* To avoid other awkward situations, don’t plan a party in a public place where it is likely there will be other kids and parents present within your child’s social group(s) that you didn’t include.
In summary be discreet, reciprocate, help resolve peer conflicts and differences and be inclusive. With a little forethought and planning, you can create meaningful memories for your kids, their friends and their parents that last a lifetime. Have a fun party!

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and her articles have been published in both local and national publications. She lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat and can be reached at liz@funghi.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.

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