Two of my favorite knuckleheads were once sitting in an area of my classroom where I could keep a close eye on them. We'll call them Max and Danny.
Max and Danny were supposed to be researching when I noticed Danny leaning over and looking at Max's laptop. I shot my glare across the room that said, "Stop watching YouTube videos and get back to work."
Danny understood my look and replied, "It’s not like that Muir. I gotta keep Max from having to go to summer school."
Oh, they were actually working. My bad.
I thanked Danny for helping out, and asked what they were working on. Danny said, "Everything. Max already has to take summer school for last semester, and I don't want him to have to for this one too."
Max was sitting with his arms crossed, not open to the idea of me or Danny helping him out. I said, "Max, I know you know this stuff, man. If you even work a little bit harder, you can pass this class and not have to take summer school." Max mumbled something in reply, but I did not hear him the first time.
"Say that again Max."
"I want to take summer school, man."
I laughed because I thought he was joking. But he continued to cross his arms and made it clear he was not kidding with me.
I said, "Why would you want to take summer school Max, when you can just get the credit now?"
Max replied, "I always take summer school. If I don't I go crazy. My mom doesn’t let me leave my house all summer. Not even to go outside. It's the only way I get out."
I’d never heard that response for not working before, so I took a seat next to him and we talked a little more. I learned that Max was dead serious. He had actually failed all of his classes and gone to summer school
All because his mom does not let him leave his house in the summer.
"Well, do you think if I called your mom she might loosen up a little?” I asked, “Would she let you out in the summer if you were to go play basketball with me and Danny?"
Max shook his head, "No way. I'm not allowed to leave the house in the summer unless it's for summer school."
I was speechless.
Who is this mother? What is her problem? Doesn't she realize the impact her overprotectiveness is having on her son, who desperately needs to work harder in school, but also socialize and play in the summer months?
So I gave her a call, thinking I could persuade her to change the summer rule. And after saying some positive things about Max, I brought up the issue and asked her if she’d be willing to loosen up the reigns a bit for him as motivation to work harder in school. I thought it was a pretty reasonable request.
She replied, “Absolutely not.”
I was frustrated because clearly this mother does not realize what she’s doing. She has not read the research on the importance of play for students and why they need to be outside. Max’s mom must not know how vital socialization is, and how the hours in the summer I spent on my bike during childhood were some of the most formative of my life.
As I began to respectfully protest and make a case for Max’s summer freedom, she cut in and said, “I’m going to stop you right there, Mr. Muir. I’m not letting my boy end up on the streets like his brother. And no teacher is going to talk me into it.”
I was speechless.
And in this moment it all started making sense to me. Max’s mom loves her child more than her reputation. She is faced with a reality that if she gave Max the summer freedom that I had growing up in the suburbs, with the freedom and protection to roam the streets and catch fireflies at night, her son would almost certainly be scooped up by a gang or by people and things that are beyond her protection. There’s no doubt she realizes her son does not enjoy his school vacations sitting in the living room, but she'd rather have him bored and at home than lost and on the street or even worse.
I’m not letting my boy end up on the streets like his brother. And no teacher is going to talk me into it.”
In this moment, I was exposed to a new world and a very unfamiliar reality.
And at that time and even today, I don’t have a clear solution for this issue.
Because Max is smart, and compassionate, and funny, and dynamic, and capable of achieving great things in life- and he is not getting to experience the success he is capable of. And in the rare moments when he does, like that brilliant 90% he received on an essay a few weeks after that phone call, the A was bittersweet. His mom was overjoyed when I called home to let her know. She knows how smart that boy is, and was as thrilled as any parent to get that validation. Even Max cracked a rare and beautiful smile when he saw his grade for the first time.
But the smile faded quickly, as this A would keep him in the living room the following summer.