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The Great Divide: School of Hard Knocks

By Tina Traster

October 26, 2010 -- Gym is a good subject for my eight-year-old daughter Julia. She's tough and athletic, with legs the size of a Russian wrestler. Nerves of steel. I've seen her take a nasty fall and get up without as much as a wince. There's a reason we call her Bam Bam.

She often talks admiringly about her gym teachers. I think they like her spunk and spirit. Ms. O, in particularly, celebrates my young daughter's healthy lifestyle. Julia tells me how Ms. O takes the lunchbox my daughter brings to school filled with healthy organic foods and lifts it up and down like a mock barbell. I believe Ms. O has more than once agreed to feel my daughter's impressive arm muscles.

Good role models are everything.

I was sad the other day when Julia told me how a different gym teacher insisted that she participate in a soccer drill where the children use their heads to deflect the ball. She told Mr. R that her parents don't permit her to use her head as if it were a racquet. She understands that her parents have read many articles on this subject and do not believe that a young, developing child's head is a logical shield for a soccer ball or any ball. Julia was quite certain about this prohibition, yet Mr. R. wasn't interested in her protest. He told her she had to complete the drill.

"I had no choice," she said, breaking into tears later that afternoon at home. She felt as though she'd done something wrong.

She hadn't. Mr. R had.

I told her it wasn't her fault. I said, "Next time you refuse, and if a teacher thinks you're being insubordinate [I didn't use that word], then he can take you to the principal's office. And when the principal calls me, I will tell her that you are following our wishes."

A light went on in my child's eyes; something this complex had truly not occurred to her. But I wanted her to know that it was important to be able to stand up for convictions held strongly by her parents.

The next morning, my husband and I let the gym department know how we felt. We were asked to put our wishes in writing and were assured that this would not happen again. But the incident left me wondering how many times children -- mine, others -- find themselves in the crosshairs of what parents demand and what educators dictate. I admired my daughter for speaking up in the first place, but this teacher insisted his judgment was sounder than ours.

More than being angered that my daughter had to use her head to bop the ball, I was distressed that she was put in the compromised position of not knowing whom to obey: her teacher or her parents. Why was the gym teacher unable to respect her articulate response when she said, "My parents don't let me do that!" I have no answer for this. Even if it had been my daughter's independent wishes to refrain from this activity, I don't believe they would have been respected.

A disclaimer: I'm all for structure and discipline. My husband and I always encourage our daughter to get along and be a team player. We have also bestowed great respect on teachers, particularly deserving ones who treat a child as an individual.

My daughter has also learned through this incident that teachers do not wield complete and unconditional authority over her. And we have taught her that when she (or we) feels strongly about something, she is empowered to speak up -- at any cost.

I don't think she'll be asked to use her head again to thwart a ball -- but she'll definitely need it to ward off tone-deaf authority figures who think it's their way or the highway.

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