Family Tree Assignment

I’m feeling a little blue lately. The spring is a time of anniversary reactions among my traumatized children, some of whom coincidentally had their biggest traumas, including the first big trauma of birth and separation from their birth mothers, in the spring.

It’s also a time of anniversaries for me. My daughter Olivia went into crisis and physical breakdown between February and August one year, with her birthday falling in April. But her biggest crash, the one that we would later see heralded her entrance into hospice care, happened in March. I remember how beautiful the weather was the day I realized I could go crazy with anguish.

My son, Bram, also has anniversary reactions that last from the first hint of spring in the air until early June. He recovers after his birthday passes, but until it does he is a mess of unconscious reactions, self-hatred, longing and emotions. I can identify in some ways, as I have my own birth traumas I’m carrying in my body, somewhere. Add to this the assignment his history teacher gave the class last week, which was to do an entire book on his origins, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes I feel exhausted.

Family Tree Assignment

In this assignment, first, he was supposed to draw his family tree. He has a wry, sardonic sense of humor, so when he saw this first step he debated with himself about the merits of using his Korean birth certificate, which says simply that he has no mother and no father.

We discussed it at the dinner table, and I joked, “You’re a god, Bram! You have no beginning, and no end!”

He laughed, then demanded, “Bow down to me!” and was hit in the head with a dinner roll.

The school project only grew worse. He was supposed to write a story about the day of his birth. And then he was supposed to write a birth announcement for the newspaper. And then tell funny stories from his childhood.

“I wonder,” he mused, “what funny and amusing stories I can tell about the orphanage? Or maybe I should tell a joke about being restrained in the hospital bed.” Our humor turned dark at the dinner table that night, as we all offered ideas that would be sure to wow his teacher, Miss Smith.

Twice he approached her and told her he didn’t feel comfortable doing the assignment, and asked for an alternate.

“I’ve had another adopted child in my class before!” she snapped. “Just do the assignment, or take a zero. Use your adoptive parents and their family tree; they’re your real family, anyway.”

Since Bram had already appealed to his teacher twice, I decided that it was time to go up to the school and have a little visit with the teacher, being the real mom and all.

Privately, I told my husband I wanted to go kick her ass.

This felt so great to say that I repeated it that night at dinner, “Hey, guys, I’m going to go up to the school and have a nice little talk with Miss Smith, and after that, I’m going to kick her ass!”

How politically and parentally incorrect is that? How’s that for training one’s children to respect authority figures?

Of course, I didn’t kick her ass when I met with her. In fact, it was one of the most pleasant meetings I’ve had with a teacher with whom I could not see eye-to-eye initially. She turned out to be smart, compassionate, and open minded, the kind of teacher you want and pray that your children will have. By the time I left, I think she had the idea that not every adopted child was adopted as an infant, and (believe it or not, Miss Smith!), not every adopted child has gooey, happy, warm feelings about THE DAY OF HIS BIRTH!

/bangs head on school desk

Well. Anyway.

Only three more months of diffuse sad feelings and morosity (that must be a word, mustn’t it?) while the rest of the world is blooming, twittering, and rejoicing.

To be honest, I don’t feel that a resurrection is coming. I miss Olivia. I miss the boy that my son would have been, had he not suffered so much. I wish that people would just think sometimes, before they snapped at children or assumed that adoption is such a great thing. I wish that people could look at me and see what I see, which is that I’m damaged and weird from losing a child and always will be. I wish they could see that many people have griefs, secrets, and wounds—even kids as great as my son Bram.

Don’t You Know, Miss Smith?

When I think about all my son has gone through, it is all I can do to keep from breaking down and crying. I want to take all the Miss Smiths by the hands and plead with them, and say, “Oh, Miss Smith! Don’t you know that this young man survived years without a mom and dad to hold his hand when he was a little boy? Don’t you know that doctors cut his body open over and over again and it hurt him, and he didn’t know what was happening, and there was no mommy there? Don’t you know that he had multiple caregivers, and lived in a sterile, cold orphanage with other handicapped children, and nobody thought he was special, and he never had his own toy until I sent him one from America? And then his damn short-term foster mother, the one who kept him only for two months, kept the teddy bear that he loved?”

“Miss Smith, when you look at my son, can’t you see that his heart was frozen and hard as a tiny little pebble by the time he got a mother? Can’t you see that he had fallen in on himself? When my son makes his A’s in your class, can’t you see what that A cost?  And can’t you see, Miss Smith, that when you force this beautiful boy to look back at his horror, it takes all the strength he can muster to not break down and cry?”

“Miss Smith, maybe for you every adoption is a blessed event. Maybe for you this miracle happened because of adoption. But, Miss Smith, that’s not the way we see it. We think the miracle of recovery and healing happened not because of adoption, but because of grace? Certainly, adoption is one way a life may be changed or saved—but it’s not the only way.”

“Miss Smith, pardon me for saying so, but I want to just kick your ass for being such an insensitive twit over this. I feel so angry that you showed such disrespect for my son by telling him to do it your way or take a zero. Don’t you know that he already felt like a zero? That, to himself, he has been a zero his whole life? And it hasn’t helped that he’s been rejected again and again for one reason or another, and that he just kept rejecting himself after that, it became such a habit. And now you’re just helping him to feel different and alone, once again.”

“Miss Smith, that’s why I’m here. I’m here to tell you that my son is not alone in this. He has a family, and, yes, we are his real family. But his ideas about his birth, adoption, and life are his own. He has a right to not want to do this assignment. How hard would it have been for you, raised and tended by loving parents your whole life, to have had a little mercy on someone who started out with so much less than you, and to have asked him what he wanted to do? If your goal was to help the class get to know one another, is there some reason why you couldn’t give these kids options–especially the ones who never had any options, but just had life handed to them in the most difficult way?”

These are some of the things I wish I had communicated to Miss Smith that day. Instead, I met with her as a diplomat from his adoptive family, said my piece and supported my requests with research and statistics, and it worked. She gave everyone in the class additional options and was surprised when several children opted out of the family tree assignment.

Given the year, it seems to me that it may be time for educators themselves to opt out of assigning family tree work altogether.

Art by Ruth Palmer.
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