A Visit with the Principal

Recently I received a phone call from our school saying the principal, here known as the Head Teacher, wanted to have a short meeting with me. It had been a long time since Z had sent a schoolmate howling to his mother because of enthusiastic rough housing. So I had to assume the only other logical reason: Our attendance record.


It seems as though the government in the U.K. is constantly tweaking the school curriculum and educational requirements. It's to the point now that long-time teachers are resigning and telling their stories to the newspapers about micromanagement and counterproductive expectations , all without paying them nearly as much as a similarly educated professional. One of the more recent policy changes has been regarding attendance.  The policy is intended to limit truancy and make parents financially responsible for their kids' attendance by levying a fine of 60 pounds ($100) a day. Fortunately, the head teachers are allowed to enforce this law at their discretion. Since our school does not have a concerning history of truancy, I was told we wouldn't be fined unless absences exceeded 24 sessions, a session being half a day. 


During Z's first year in Reception, we had 17 absences. Not as many as several of my actually conscientious friends, so I didn't give it another thought. But within the first month of Year 1, we had taken three days off on jaunts I deemed necessary, and so was asked for a face-to-face. 


At the end of last year our school got a new head teacher after the abrupt and forever unexplained resignation of the dynamic head teacher who C had liked so much he had put St. Peter's at the top of our desired school list. I loved her too; she was young, dynamic, had a lot of good ideas and looked hot in her thick black pumps. But that's a completely different story, one I will never be able to tell because we've been told over and over again that we need not know. 


Our new head teacher is perfectly lovely and occasionally wears black stockings and leather boots.  She is also very diplomatic, articulate about policy and curious to know if I'm a deadbeat parent. Try as I might, I was not able to remove my defensive armor as I walked into her office and sat down. She flipped through a few pages of Z's record and began with our absences last year. I immediately struck back by saying, "Let's just forget last year since, by law, we weren't even required to attend."  Ok, she conceded, and put away last year's record. But I felt like an idiot. 


This was one of those moments when I have to laugh at my younger day notions that I could have been some sort of government diplomat. I am simply incapable of delivering a disagreement without sounding shrill or passive aggressive. I felt I needed to defend the educational merits of Z's exposure to a different language or counting Euros instead of Pounds as the reason we had to take time away from the school week. I straightened up and said that since we were Americans, with a limited time in this country and, since our son could almost keep from transposing his letters, that I didn't think his absences were having an impact on his education. 


There is also a maddening tradition in this country of raising, scratch that, jacking up the price of travel during the school term holidays. We left early on our trip to Mallorca because to have flown on a Saturday or Sunday would have cost us nearly $600 more. Our upcoming trip to Austria, if taken without missing a school day, would have been $1500 more for our flights than the tickets I found leaving on Friday morning. Given the cost savings, even if the school does start fining us, you think my behavior is going to change?


At one point the head teacher let her perfect diplomacy slip and said that most other parents managed to take their holidays within term time. That was all I needed to hear: My 16 year-old non-conformist, non-diplomatic self reared her hot head again and replied, "Just because it's the policy doesn't make it sensible." We came to a truce. 


Every time I experience something bordering on absurdity, I think back to the early days of my dabbling in philosophy. I felt I'd been handed an epiphany when I came across a passage that essentially said the laws we make for ourselves are simply a reflection of our society and what it will and will not tolerate.  To me, that means as long as what I do doesn't have a negative impact on anyone else, and the consequences of breaking such law isn't steep, then I will do what feels right for me and my family.  This is a debatable attitude and one I struggle with when I'm standing at a cross walk with my son without a car in sight but a little red hand staring back at me from across the street.  Do I break the law and spend 15 minutes talking with Z about the subtleties of conscientious objecting?  Or do I just stand there compliant and decide I need to uphold all the rules and he can come to his own conclusions later without me tipping him toward non-compliance?


At this point Z has no idea that our taking school days off for an early start to our holiday is committing an infraction.  Given how black and white kids see things at this age, I'm not inclined to discuss it with him.  But I truly feel that all the things we're doing with him at this tender age are making him the well-rounded kid he should be. It's getting him out of a stuffy classroom and into the world of history. And really, some laws were just made to be broken.