Tuesday, January 15

Second Thoughts, part 3

Sometimes, on a busy shift, when I’m torn over what to do next with a patient, it helps to picture the case as a test question: 70-year-old woman with a history of heart attacks and high blood pressure presents with vague malaise, shortness of breath, mid-upper back pain and decreased exercise tolerance for one day.  Do you A) Send home with decongestants B) Admit to the hospital for possible heart trouble C) ...

Due to patient preference or my own laziness, the temptation toward one course or the other can tend to overwhelm the facts. But because so much of our training is in the form of written tests, this re-casting method clarifies the situation in a way the patient’s full story--muddied as it always is by details like the daughter’s cold she might have caught and how she slept funny in the arm chair at the old folk’s home--doesn’t allow.  Another trick is to imagine the case as it might be presented in a deposition--this tends to throw certain aspects, details that you might otherwise be tempted to blow off, into relief.

As the elevator headed toward the first floor after the Princess’ announcement, I found myself performing a similar exercise with my life.  The temptation to take the Princess’ attitude was enormous: My own kids didn’t get hit, and chances are they never would, the odd glo-stick incident notwithstanding.  This was a non-issue.  The girls didn’t seem concerned; it was impossible to believe that there would be any significant physical injury to any of the children; both my parents were subject to corporal punishment and survived with few psychic scars and a couple funny stories (my dad, in particular, likes to recount the day he had a bottle of honey in his pocket when he misbehaved, a shield that spared him the pain of the ruler-wacking to which he was sentenced, only to substitute a sticky, glassy mess)..Doing something about this new information would require talking to other parents (shiver), facing the teachers (horrors), and re-writing an entire blog-post (unthinkable).  Inaction was the only sensible course.

Once seated in a taxi, though, I began trying to draft a sentence for this account, something witty that simultaneously acknowledged and made light of the teachers striking kids.  The sentence refused to be written.  Then I tried to imagine telling my sister, in an offhand way.  “Oh, yeah,” I would say, airily, “so now if the kids are bad at school they get hit with a ruler, just like Mom and Dad!  Hey, did you see the latest episode of HoneyBooBoo?”

And so, of course, I decided to do something.  Not having forgotten the Window Incident, I started with seeking simple confirmation.  I started with The Craggy Midwesterner, an American guy whose son is in the girls’ class.  I don’t know him that well, but I needed an American, or so I thought.  He listened to my story calmly, then told me that his wife--Chinese--was out of town, that she dealt with all the school stuff, and he’d have her get back to me when she got back into town on Saturday.  This was Wednesday.  I hung up, wondering if the Craggy Midwesterner, who looks closer to my parents’ age than mine, might have a few ruler-wacking stories of his own.

Then I dialed Lunch Lucy.  She, at least, displayed an appropriate level of concern, tempered, perhaps, by the fact that she has not forgotten my panicked calls about the Window Incident, either.  She told me she’d check it out.  Moments later she called back: Her son had corroborated the girls’ story, and he, unlike my kids, he himself had been hit.  

It was then that I realized how, underlying all the above angst, I’d basically been assuming that the Princess and the Rooster were mistaken.  Lunch Lucy’s call didn’t just confirm the hitting, it threw into question the entire past year and a half.  My gut feeling about Lotus Grove has always been that, language barriers, politics, and homework insanity aside, their core values are the same as mine--get the kids educated well, and keep them as happy and healthy as possible while doing it. Even as meetings had happened without me, and sudden bills arrived by text, I’d clung to this idea, and to the girls’ appearance of thriving, which seemed incontrovertible.  

I’d been convinced that I’d read the other parents well, too--I couldn’t imagine that the same parents who complained (only in spates, but still) about the volume of homework would really be OK with this.   But what if I had been wrong about everything?  

As dismayed as I was, I was reassured by Lunch Lucy’s reaction, which was, if not outrage at full Berkeley-mom level, at least a low-grade anxiety.  She would talk to the teacher the next day. As far as I was concerned, she could talk all she wanted, but this was it--I couldn’t keep my kids in a school where the issue of whether or not it was OK to hit kids was even on the table.

I struggled through a coffee-date with a colleague,  where I couldn’t even eat a pastry at the European bakery she’d selected, a state of affairs that, if you know me, is testimony to the depths of my distress. Then I went home, and caught the girls, just finishing homework two hours after I’d left them starting it.  They seemed tired but satisfied, and definitely not in fear for their physical well-being.  

I waded in.  “So, Princess, tell me again about this thing with the hitting?”

She and the Rooster rolled their eyes in that “we already TOLD you” way, and then started talking over each other in a manner that made transcribing their utterances--which I’d fully intended to do--impossible.  The upshot, though, appeared to be this: they are currently doing a lesson on “ancient times.”  This, in the view of a Chinese school-child, can mean anything from the Middle Ages to early twentieth century, but I didn’t press for clarification.  Apparently, as a way to make the lesson come alive to the kids, the Chinese teacher had told them that, for one day only, they would be subject to the kind of punishment in vogue at the time, and called all misbehavers up to the front to get their hands struck with a ruler.  

“Do you think it hurt the kids?” I asked the girls, who shrugged.  “Well, did it LOOK like it hurt them?” I pressed.  

“Not really.”

It was around then that my phone beeped, alerting me that I had a text.  It was from Lunch Lucy, who must have been doing her own interrogating.  The text said: “no worry any more, they did just play a game, today they had new lesson, its about how teacher punished students in past day, so teacher played game with them.”

As an apologia, it left some chinks.  But the irony that, by doing the kind of exercise I think should be part of grade school (and that has thus far been notably absent from the girls’ account of school) the Chinese teacher had nearly thrown me into what the girls have taken to calling a “conniption cow,” was not lost on me.  I got a lot of advice after the last couple of posts, much of it conflicting.  The best advice, though, was to ask the girls. I asked the Princess and the Rooster if they’d had a good day at school, to which they responded in the affirmative.  I asked them if they were looking forward to going to school tomorrow, and they said yes.   I searched their eyes for any sign of fear or caginess, and found only pure seven-year-old hope and excitement.  And I decided that, just like in the ER, you sometimes have to go with your gut.  We’re staying.