25 August 2012

How Do You Know You Don't Like It?

When I was a little girl, my parents had one hard and fast rule at the dinner table. We weren't allowed to say that we didn't like it if we hadn't even tried it. And because our taste buds change over time, we had to give our least favorite foods a try every now and again, just in case. Because we were encouraged required to keep an open mind and to try new things, I discovered a love for many foods I otherwise wouldn't have tried, based on the look/smell/texture alone. (FYI: It took me 23 years to learn to like cantaloupe, and I hate shrimp every time I try it, but even though I'm no longer living with my parents, I still make myself try it at least every 18 months, just in case my taste buds have changed.)

Over the years, I've learned that my parents' dinner time rule applies to much more than exotic new foods. Any time we make up our minds about someone or something without "trying it" first, we run the risk of missing out on something wonderful.

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class who had been terribly burned when she was very small. She had disfiguring scars across her face, and most of my classmates avoided her because she looked strange. But if they had taken time to get to know her, they would have discovered what I already knew: Tammy was amazing! She was sweet and kind, and she had a way of always seeing the best in people. She had a way of looking past the superficial and seeing the good inside a person's soul. My life wouldn't have been the same without her influence.

A few years ago, when we moved to Maryland, I spent quite a bit of time researching the schools in the area and chose my home in part based on where my children would attend school.  I prayed about it and felt certain that this would be the best environment for my family. And so I bought a house, secure in the conviction that my children would receive the best education possible.

But then several of my new friends and acquaintances questioned my decision to send my children to the middle school for which we were districted. One of my best friends moved to a neighboring town mainly to avoid the very school I'd picked. And many people urged me to do the same. Apparently, the middle school I'd researched so thoroughly had a reputation. Everyone in town knew that it simply wasn't a good school. The academics were substandard (no matter what the standardized test results said), the extracurriculars were laughable and the environment was downright scary. I couldn't afford to move, and we arrived in Maryland too late in the year to apply for one of the available magnet schools. We were stuck with the undesirable middle school, and I sent my oldest child off to his first day of 6th grade with a healthy dose of trepidation.

Our first few months were rocky, to say the least. I spent much of my time looking for confirmation that the school's reputation was deserved. And I found it. The teachers were uncommunicative, my son's grades were slipping... he was floundering and they didn't seem to care... we were miserable.

But then, something happened. A major miscommunication between me and my son's teachers - one that confirmed in my mind every single negative thing I'd ever heard about this school. And I decided I had no choice but to home school my children. I walked into the principal's office and demanded to speak to her. I laid out all of the issues, all of the problems, every reason I felt justified in pulling my son out of her horrible school. And she listened to my concerns without lashing back at me. Then she called a meeting with my son's entire team of teachers to discuss the issues. And we talked.

Almost overnight, this "horrible" school became the best thing that ever could have happened to my son. He was excited about learning again. He couldn't wait to get to school in the morning. And his grades steadily improved, until he was back on the honor roll. By the time my daughter started 6th grade, we were thrilled with this absolutely amazing middle school!

No, I didn't single-handedly fix a troubled school. As it turns out, the school was already pretty amazing. I simply didn't see the great things because I was so determined to believe the negative. I had decided I didn't like it without really trying it. Just like when I was a child, determined to abhor the suspicious-looking casserole Mom served for dinner, and I would choke down tiny bites of food, careful not to let the tiniest morsel touch my tongue. Once I stopped the drama and really took a taste, I discovered that it was actually delicious.

As you know, we've recently moved again. And again, our new house puts us smack dab in the middle of the school zone for the middle school and high school in the scary part of town. For about 3 months prior to our move, we heard about how terrible these schools are. When we arrived and checked in on base, we were presented with the name and number of the military advocate who could help us get permission to transfer to other schools. Everyone told us we were crazy for even considering enrolling our children there. I wondered. I wavered. I vacillated. I started researching the other options.

But then, my children reminded me of our experience in Maryland. "Let's just try it, mom. If we don't like it, we can think about trying to transfer later. But it might be better than everyone says."

We just finished our first week of school. And I'm so glad I "took a taste!" Because my kids were blessed with such great teachers in Maryland, they are more advanced academically than many of their classmates, which has necessitated some extra work in setting up their schedules. As a result, I've spent an hour or two each day at both the middle school and the high school. I've met the administrators and counselors, and I've had the opportunity to watch the students as they move from class to class and interact with their teachers. These "scary schools" are the cleanest middle school and high school I've ever seen. I didn't see any litter on the ground or graffiti on the walls. The students are courteous and considerate, and as a whole, they seem to be very respectful. I didn't hear the f-bomb (or really any profanity) ringing through the halls. And everyone - students, teachers, administrators - seems driven to help each other succeed! (Disclaimer: Of course the kids at these schools aren't perfect. It's not like they're automatons or something. I did witness one incident at the high school where a student was trying to get a teacher to take care of some paperwork for him, but the teacher was in the middle of rushing to the assembly he was conducting and couldn't do it right away. There was a slight argument and semi-raised voices on both sides of the disagreement, but I was impressed to note that neither the student nor the teacher lost their tempers, and after less than a minute of discussion, the matter was resolved - the student would return in about 15-20 minutes, and the teacher could help him at that time.)

Yes, I'm sure there are problems that crop up from time to time at these "problem schools." Is there a high school or middle school anywhere that doesn't have its share of fights in the hallways or students who feel like they're being picked on? I'm sure these schools aren't the exception. They aren't perfect. But I wonder how many of those who warn me about these schools have actually visited the campuses? How many of them are relying on the rumors they've heard? How do they know they won't like it if they haven't even tried it?

I'm grateful for the lesson my parents taught me at the dinner table so long ago. And I'm glad my children had the wisdom to remind me of this universal truth this week. You'll never know how good something might be if you don't even give it a chance. (FYI: brussels sprouts are delicious!)

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