Saturday, February 18, 2012


I have meant for a long time, years almost, to write a post about Ilya and school.   It has been a non-stop battle/tragedy/trial.  

When we went to Ivanovo for his "visit" trip, I met his school teacher, and she was in awe of his abilities.  In his official file were certificates of merit as a top scholar in his grade regionally.  This, at age 13, after not being able to attend school until he was 10.  Ilya is remarkably smart and remarkably hard-working.  And, the instability of his early years manifest themselves in his desire to master situations, and be in control.

Well....I see in hindsight, that school the United States was a tragedy just waitng to happen.  After the age of 11, the brain changes, making it much more difficult to learn a new language.  So, unlike our other children, Ilya arriving so late in life, had a huge disadvantage - and, of all the multiple intelligences that he has, it is quite clear that "Language" is not one of them.  

Lest this be a post of monumental proportions, I need to keep the history out of this.  Suffice to say that we've had three abortive school years so far, but nevertheless went (once again!) wholeheartedly into this one.  For the first time, Ilya was going to public school. Bad choice, I think, but there really wasn't another.  As has been the pattern, he started out OK, but soon dissolved into a place of over-stress where he just shut down.  He wanted to make a go of it - but just didn't have the willpower.  It was so frustrating and heartbreaking to see him get up, get dressed, eat breakfast.....many mornings he'd go to far as to put on his coat and throw the backpack over his shoulder.....only to then be unable to make himself get into the car. 

This is a very nice school district, though, and they advised me that with a doctor's note they could excuse his multiple absences.  So we got that, and at the same time, our very compassionate and understanding Russian pediatrician put Ilya on an anti-depressant. That was in November, and we could SEE it kick in! Over Christmas break Ilya underwent a transformation!  When school started up again in January, he was enthusiastic and determined to go to school.

Now, his attitude was energetically pro-school, but he'd also changed in some odd ways.  He had clearly done a lot of thinking.....thoughts I really can't quite discern even now.  But, a change came over him.  He asked me to buy him some new clothes. (He'd never before cared about clothes, and barely had any because he wouldn't go shopping to try any on.)  He asked Maxim to go with him, and he picked some nice things.  A very Russian look - all black, jacket with enough leather on it to give a "leather jacket" look.  He is terribly handsome.  He began to attend regularly, but rather than get overwhelmed by the work which was too hard (a lot of it), he'd do what he could do, and ignore the rest.  He would occasionally ask my help, but every time within moments of starting to work with me, he'd back down.....the stress was clearly overwhelming.  Ilya is a perfetionist,and when he sees things he cannot accomplish well, he can't stand it.  I thought letting it go was actually a good coping strategy - for now.  At least it gave us something to work on!  He was going to school!!

But some girl in his ESL class was upsetting him.  I gather this Indian girl had a bit of a crush on him, and wouldn't leave him alone.  She decided to show this by "helping" him with his work and alerting him to errors. We heard about this over a week or two, and he was clearly becoming annoyed.  I think that on one hand he felt put down by her "help" and annoyed by it, and all this was exacerbatd by a "different" smell she had.  On many levels he was recoiling from her but he didn't know how to handle it.  Not taking his hints,she continued to be persistent until the day when he cracked and told her (loudly, I gather) to "keep her nose out of his business".  I got a note from the ESL teacher that he was rude and a meeting was called with the assistant principal to address his behavior.

Frustrated and upset, he was talking about this with his Chinese friend in the hall and he used an unacceptable word to describe the girl.  Another boy, passing by, overheard it and got on his high-horse and reprimanded Ilya for his language, which I gather inspired more of it - directed to the boy.  In his new "persona" Ilya was determined not to be afraid, not to back down, and he told the boy to mind his own business.  This is all approximate, of course; I've gotten all sorts of versions from Ilya himself, and from Sergei.  But, basically, there was now some bad blood between Ilya and the boy who criticized his language. 

One day Ilya mentioned that he might have to get into a fight with someone.  At that time I didn't know any of the story.   I wish that instead of just telling Ilya that fighting was not acceptable in US schools, I had chosen to delve and do more to really listen to him.  But, somehow the way he said it that day, there was no feeling behind the almost sounded like a joke,or something said to get me to react.

Well, I was wrong,  One Tuesday morning we get a call. Ilya has attacked this boy, were told.  Come and pick him up.  I happened to be working from home that morning, so I was able to get out to the school in twenty minutes or so.  I was shown into the principal's office.  From the way the principal told it, Ilya had gone up to the boy, unprvoked, and kneed him in the face, a fight ensued and the other boy clearly had a broken nose.  The principal made it sound as though the victim was a small and wimpy person.  We later heard through kids that he is a mma (mixed-martial arts) fighter.   The principal also led me to expect that Ilya would have been totally unscathed, but clearly the other boy had gotten some licks in.  Ilya's hand was scraped and he had quite a dramatic black eye.   By the time I got there Ilya had been taken to the local police station.  Fortunately this is a small town, and the police station and the staff, by the grace of God, was Mayberry-like.  And even more fortunate, Ilya knew enough to be polite to them.  So I was allowed to take him home. 

He said that the boy had been threatening to attack him for some time.  Why?  Because he didn't like Ilya's language and disrespect to women.  (I can't help but like the boy who is a defender of women and civility, frankly....and wonder if he ever really meant to "do" anything to Ilya.)  Ilya clearly thought he would, though, and apparently thought it was a good idea to do a preemptory attack.  I see now that all of this was part of Ilya's new approach to school:  look powerful, and don't do anything [including schoolwork] that might make you look stupid or inspire derision.  Of course, knowing that Ilya goes to school full of fear, it is easy for me to understand and want to defend him.  But, I can clearly see that from someoe else's point of view he looks like a dangerous, disrespectful, jerk.

His attitude was not at all what I expected, when I picked him up.  He was not hangdog, or chastened.  He seemed almost celebratory.  I can see now that what he felt was relief.  He really did not understand.  Basing his actions on the Russan reality that he knows best, he figured that now, at last, he had shown what he was made of and that he could go to school safe and confident that no one will look down on him.  He had no idea whatsoever, that he would not be allowed to go back!  That he would be expelled. 

Actually, he was suspended for ten days, then expelled when the situation got relayed up to the superintendent.  To my absolute amazement, he [yes; Ilya himself] wants a hearing with the superintendent to show cause why he should not be expelled.  I cannot fathom what he thinks he can or will say. (But then he does not begin to understand out litigeous society that makes it imperative the school not allow a "dangerous" student to be there.)  I just want to leave well enough alone.  They've promised not to put the expulsion (only the suspension) on his record if we just go back to homeschooling.  But Ilya told me yesterday, "I love that school." 

For four years I've wanted to hear those words.  Now, that is irony.

One day I looked at Ilya's eye and asked if he'd ever had a black eye before. He answered, "Yes; when I learned not to spit in someone's face."  And he laughed.   Apparently he spit in some boy's face at the orphanage and he easily interpreted  the black eye that resulted as part of a lesson he needed to learn.  That's the culture he understands.   As someone commented, "You can take the boy out of Russia, but you can't take Russia out of the boy."  


Hevel Cohen said...

Oy. That really is ugly. :( I really hope that Ilya will learn from this incident and that things will get better for him... and you.

:)De said...

Yikes! but I know the dance all too well as we did six schools in six years with my oldest child. He was the proverbial square peg trying to fit into the round hole of school. Wishing you all the best.

Essie the Accidental Mommy said...

Well that just IRKS me no end. Expelled???? Over ONE incident? Unbelievable.
I think in the Lord of the Flies atmosphere in school, he probably did the best thing to make other kids leave him alone and quit picking on him.

steph said...

I'm sorry. We have had to deal with some fighting and suspension with our youngest boy, but have had an amazingly forgiving principal and super to work with. Good times. Our older boy began to involve himself in a situation and vaguely mentioned to me that he would probably be getting into a fight. His consequences would be far more harsh than his brothers'. We have tried to take some steps to avoid/prevent this from happening, but we shall see. He, too, loves school.

kate said...

Oh, Ilya.

I am very glad that he wants to present his case to the superintendent. I agree that he should have been suspended but, like Essie, am surprised he was expelled after one incident.

Have you heard anything from the other boy's family?

MyGirlElena said...

I hope he does have his hearing with the superintendant. There are fights in high schools all over America everyday and no one gets expelled for a broken nose. Especially since Ilya does have a case. He was being threatened. In fact, the threats should have landed the other boy in the police station way before Ilya got there.
BTW, I agree with him about the "different smells." I would be annoyed to no end as well!

on our way today said...

oh my. I think i would let him have the talk with the superindent ppl and maybe he will change their minds.

Kim said...

Hi Anne -
I am new to your blog and very much appreciate your honesty. We are in the process to adopt a 14 year old from Russia. We have adopted three times before, from Russia and Kazakhstan, but not an older child. I have read ALL the books, talked to ALL the "experts" and people who have adopted teenagers before." We are at the point where I feel like we are as prepared as we can be without him actually being here...which we are most likely not all that prepared for. :-) Thank you for the "real life" shown here.

And if you have any advice or a resource you couldn't live without, please let me know. :)