I approached Ms. Samson* at a nearby grocery store where I saw her shopping with her two daughters. I explained the nature of my assignment and asked if she would be interested in being interviewed. At first she seemed reluctant and distrustful, but after I reassured her she and her children would remain anonymous, she agreed to participate.
I met with Ms. Samson on Sunday, January 25th. During the visit all three of her children, Sean* age 13, Carla* age 11 and Sadie* age 9, were present, as well as Ms. Samson’s fiancé, Derrick*, who is the father of nine year old Sadie. Derrick is a black male. Sadie is biracial. The Samson family lives in a middle to low income neighborhood where the houses are valued between $50,000 - $120,000. It is a racially mixed area. Most of the homes in the neighborhood are in fair to good shape. A few homes, some empty, are in need of repair. The Samson’s house is one of the better kept homes in the neighborhood. There is a elementary school a few blocks from the Samson home where Carla and Sadie go to school. Sean* is bussed to a middle school approximately twelve miles away. There is a playground a few blocks away, where some of the neighborhood boys congregate. Ms. Samson said she has a hard time keeping Sean away from the boys at the playground who are a bad influence.
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Ms. Samson reported that she had married young, at the age of nineteen and gave birth to Sean the same year. She claims to have graduated from high school and had plans of attending a junior college before she got pregnant and had to marry. She said she wanted to become a registered nurse. Her husband was an auto mechanic who worked for Sears. Two years into the marriage she had her second child, a girl, Carla. With two small children and a husband to take care of, her dreams of becoming a registered nurse fell to the wayside. She said the marriage had broken up shortly after Carla’s birth because of her husband’s infidelities and abuse. She had filed for divorce and moved into her current neighborhood. A year later she met Derrick, who had just returned from military duty and was living with his parents a few blocks over. When she became pregnant with Sadie, Derrick moved in and began helping her take care of her children. Even though she and Derrick were not married, he clearly represented the father figure in this household.
I asked Ms. Samson about her own childhood and how her family felt about education. She indicated that she was the youngest of three children. Her father was an electrician who had his own business and worked out of his own shop. Her mother still worked as a registered nurse at a local hospital. Her two older sisters had finished junior college. One had become a registered nurse like their mother and the other worked as a paralegal at a law firm. Her brother, who was a couple of years older than her, worked as an electrician, like his father, for a private company. Their parents had put a lot of pressure on them to get their education and were disappointed when she had gotten pregnant instead of continuing her education.
Ms. Samson said she was not able to return to school until she met Derrick, who worked as a night shift supervisor at a local manufacturing company. She was currently studying at the junior college to become a registered nurse and would be graduating in June. She also worked part time as a sales clerk at Wal-Mart. Ms. Sampson said she had been disappointed in herself too, that she had not completed her education before she had her children. Even though her parents had helped her, she had gone through some pretty hard times until she met Derrick.
I asked Derrick about his family background. Derrick said he was from a military family. That his parents had met in the army and married. They both had received their college degrees while enlisted. His father was a church minister and his mother worked as a middle school teacher in a nearby county. He was one of two children. His sister had married right out of high school and lived with her husband on a military base in Nevada. They had two children, one in high school and the other in college. Derrick said, that like his parents, he had gotten his college degree, in business management, while in the army.
I asked Ms. Sampson how had the hard times affected her children and their performance in school. She said that Sean was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in first grade and they wanted him put on medication. But she had resisted it, because she didn’t like the way the medicine affected him. She said the medicine made Sean act like a zombie. Sean was in special education and having a hard time in school. She and Derrick had gone to the school often because of behavior problems. When they went there they felt as if the school administrators were blaming them for Sean problems This made them resentful and reluctant to go there unless they just had too. One counselor had suggested that her living arrangement with Derrick was at the root of Sean’s problem and asked why Sean’s real father was not participating in his life. This had resulted in Derrick no longer participating in Sean’s school visits. The irony of all of this is that Sean, even though in special education, was a very good math student because Derrick tutored him in math almost daily after school before he went to work. Because of this, Sean and Derrick had a good relationship and Sean often talked of joining the army like Derrick had when he turned eighteen. Sean’s real father had remarried and moved out of state with his new family and shown no interest in Sean’s upbringing. Ms. Samson believed some of the administrators own prejudices where interfering with how they treated Sean, who claimed “they” picked on him. Because she was busy with work and her classes, Ms. Samson rarely went to the school unless she was called in by the principal or counselor.
On the other hand, Carla and Sadie were doing very well in school. Both were very bright and had good grades. Carla would come home from school and show Sadie what she had learned which Sadie absorbed like a sponge. Both girls competed openly for their parents attention. I was taken to the girls room, which was brightly decorated in Hello Kitty designs and colors. There was even a bookshelf in their room, filled with children stories. Both parents admitted to reading to the children when they were younger and now the girls were reading for themselves. They claimed Sadie was reading at a level two grades above her current age, which they attributed to Carla’s influence. Carla said she wanted to be a school teacher when she grew up and Sadie said she wanted to be a lawyer.
Sean’s room was that of a typical teenage boy, except for the Uncle Sam poster posted over his bed. The one with the finger pointing and saying, “Uncle Sam Wants You.” It looked vintage and I asked him where he had gotten it. He said his granddad, (Derrick’s father) had given it to him. Then I noticed the military green camouflage colors, everywhere. I couldn’t help but think GI Joe. There were several comic books lying about and I could envision Sean propped on his bed dreaming about being a soldier.
Sean was proud of his room and eagerly showed me stuff he had collected, particularly a coin collection Derrick had given him for Christmas a few years back. He seemed like a normal thirteen year old boy to me in every sense.
There was a computer in the living room on a desk where Ms. Samson did her school work. She had taught all of the children how to use it. Sean went over and showed me the games he played on the computer when his mother was at work or in class. He seemed to know a lot about the computer. I asked him if he had considered a career in computer programming, he said he had thought about it, maybe when he joined the army. I asked if he had computer training in school. He said the special education children were not given computer classes. He had learned about computers from his parents and his friends, who had computers in their homes.
I thought the Samson family was a very nice “normal” family and couldn’t understand why Sean wasn’t more successful in school. I didn’t see any tension between Sean and Derrick, and clearly both Carla and Sadie adored him. Derrick seemed to have brought a sense of stability to the family that everyone was thriving on. I felt a strong emphasis on education in this household that had been passed down from both Ms. Samson and Derrick’s parents. Both Ms. Samson and Derrick seemed to feel that the school was mishandling Sean’s education, but didn’t feel confident enough to confront the school administrators about it. I began to wonder too about Sean’s middle school environment and if his school problems stemmed from his treatment there.
I do know that the school Sean attends is located in a white middle-class neighborhood. I considered that he was bussed there, out of his own racially mixed neighborhood and wondered if the children being bussed in were looked down upon or treated differently from the children living there. I wondered if Sean being ADHD was the only reason he had been placed in special ed. I asked Ms. Sampson if Sean had been tested and what his test scores were. She didn’t know about any testing. She said Sean didn’t have any behavior problems until he started middle school. Then he started acting out and was suspended. When she went to reinstate him after the third time, his counselor suggested he be placed in special education classes which were smaller and where he could get more individual instruction. Otherwise, he would have to go to another school. If she changed schools for him, then she would have to transport him to school each day and she couldn’t because of her classes and job. Instead, she had signed papers allowing them to put him in special ed classes. There was no doubt in my mind that being labeled “special ed” was hurting Sean’s self esteem and hindering his interest in school.
As I was only interviewing the Samson family to get their “story,” I didn’t bother telling them about my suspicions, especially since I had only heard half the story. However, I did tell Ms. Samson and Derrick that they had a right to have Sean tested by the school to determine what his educational strengths and weaknesses were and if he really did belong in special education. I also suggested that they not be intimidated by the school administrators and to get more involved in directing Sean’s education so that he gets the education he deserves.
Dudley-Marling, C. 2000. A Family Affair: When school troubles come home. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Peter McDermott and Julia Rothenberg, Why Urban Parents Resist Involvement in their Children's Elementary Education The Qualitative Report, Volume 5, Numbers 3 ; 4, October, 2000 (http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR5-3/mcdermott.html)
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