Busybodies . . . part three of What to Do When DCFS Comes Knocking
The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding. -Louis D. Brandeis, a defender of the right to privacy
“What three famous people would you like to spend a week with?” During the stretching time, the students asked and answered a question of the week. There were only three students in my daughters’ class, my two daughters and another girl who was only a few months older than my older daughter. To this question, my oldest daughter didn’t have an answer and my younger daughter said, “Nefertiti, Cleopatra, and Robert Louis Stevenson.” My daughters learn history chronologically and my second daughter had been studying Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel. Nefertiti and Cleopatra were Egyptian queens and Robert Louis Stevenson was a poet that I have read to my children from the time they were babies. Each of my children have a poem memorized from A Child’s Garden of Verses. Her poem was “The Swing” and I would recite it when pushing her on the swing, “up in the air I go flying again, up in the air and down.” Usually the parents were not asked to answer the question but this time, the instructor turned to us. The other parent said Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and someone else. I gave it a quick thought, “What famous person would I want to spend a week with?” “A week”? Winston Churchill? My inlaws are members of the Churchill Society and have a corner of their dining room dedicated to books about him. Churchill once said, “My wife and I tried several times in the last forty years to have breakfast together, but it was so disagreeable that we had to stop.” A week with Winston Churchill may be interesting in theory but I wasn’t willing to commit to it, even verbally. As Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals reveals, the personal lives of the famous are sometimes surprisingly dissimilar to the ideals they publicly espouse. I may enjoy reading The Old Man and the Sea but I’m not sure I’d want to spend a week with Ernest Hemingway. My daughter’s answer seemed most interesting: a famous person in an ancient world. I concluded that the only person with whom I’d care to spend a week would be my husband. We hadn’t spent a week alone since we went to Scotland before my younger two children were born. Another week like that would be lovely.
My husband and I had been trying to find something we could do together that was streamlined into what we were already doing with our children. My daughters’ classes were back-to-back on a Tuesday night. After my daughters’ classes, the studio had started a free adult class for those who have students at the studio. My husband works with dancers in his practice so he wanted to gain some insight into how dancers move. This was perfect, very streamlined. When I walked onto the floor, the instructor asked, “What are you doing here?” Not knowing how to understand her question, I said that I was there to take the class. My husband came later and we enjoyed the class together.
It was the following day, a Wednesday, that family services were faxed the accusations and two days later we received the initial visit from the social worker. I didn’t get the specific list of accusations until the following Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before dance class. Once I knew the accusations, especially the line that said, “they moved a year ago,” I knew that it was someone who thought we were only in the area for one year, when in reality, we had lived in the area for three years. The only place that we had been attending for one year was the dance studio.
My husband had spent seven years in the military and we had moved our home four times in those seven years. We were finally in a place that we had hoped to live for the rest of our lives. After renting for two years, we bought a house and I had been organizing new flooring, painting, appliances, yard work and had finally finished most of the renovations. Then, this report came in and the place we had been learning to consider home now felt like an interrogation room, a place where we were being scrutinized against our will. It was an unfortunate irony that we served seven years in the military to preserve our freedom, only to settle down into civilian life and have our life choices questioned by an anonymous person to such a degree that we were now under government investigation. America no longer felt like a swimming pool to me, where the laws were clearly seen and I could walk freely knowing that I wouldn’t be breaking some arbitrary law put in place by some dictator. It was now a lake, the dictator was an anonymous fellow citizen, and I didn’t know what other parental choices would warrant a government investigation in her eyes.
The accusations were exaggerated, vague, and/or had no context. For instance, “play unattended near the lake” as opposed to “last Saturday, I saw the children playing at the edge of a lake with no supervision.” The problem with this is that it is a wide open door for the social worker. He could ask anything. To focus his questions, it would be helpful to have a context for the accusations before the interview. So, before the social worker came Wednesday night, I called the mother who drove my girls home the night before the accusations were made. I had met this mother two years prior when our daughters took an ice skating class together. So, I did not think that she submitted the accusations, I just wanted to know if my children appeared this bad in dance class. I read her the accusations. She said she didn’t think that of my children and that had she, she wouldn’t let her daughter spend time with my children (our children attended each other’s birthday parties a few months prior). I thought we had ended our conversation pleasantly and that evening our family had our meeting with the social worker.
The next day, as I was resting on the couch, relieved that the interview was over and would soon be expecting a letter stating that the accusations were unsubstantiated, I received a call from this mother. She quickly stated that she had hoped that the interview went well and I told her that it had. Then, she let me know how offended she was that I would think that she would report us to family services. Surprised that this is what she thought I meant and struck by the resentment in her voice, I realized that I wasn’t going to convince her otherwise even though I briefly tried. I tried to acknowledge her feelings, apologized, even offered to have their family over so we could better understand one another, and at the same time, tried not to be any more vulnerable with her than I had already been. At this point, I just wanted to hang up, gather my husband and children, go to an island where we could be free from all of these busybodies! From this point on, this mother was not friendly to me during class.
As the ballet classes went on, I learned more about the instructor. Tap dancing and barbie dolls “scared” her. She didn’t like math and the only grades she liked in school were kindergarten and college. She didn’t shop at Dick’s or Walmart because they sold guns and had little desire to watch war movies. She had more cats in her house than she could count (she may have been exaggerating) as well as a pet raccoon. When her husband and she went to a local restaurant and saw that they had a moose head prominently displayed in the waiting room, they left. I know she patronized other carnivorous restaurants because I saw her eating at Panera Bread even before we started at the studio. I had thought of introducing myself and my children but I didn’t want to interrupt her lunch. When asked what her favorite ballet was, she said she didn’t have one. When the question, “What are three of your favorite books?” was asked during stretching time, she said only one - Cider House Rules, a book about a kindly abortionist who runs an orphanage. After the brush with family services, I decided to have my daughters’ teachers complete evaluations if they didn’t already do them. In her evaluation, I learned that the term “obedience” made her cringe, but she was not bothered by “follow instructions.” She also said that my children need to be neater in appearance, something she had not told me or my children before this evaluation. I wanted so badly to ask . . . “What if we don’t obey . . . . errrr . . . follow instructions?” In the section on “practice habits,” she insisted that they not practice dance at home and wrote this in both evaluations. She had previously left a message on my voicemail to let me know that my daughters shouldn’t practice at home. In the evaluation, I learned that there were two instances in which she felt it was appropriate: when learning choreography and at an advanced dance level. I understood her desire to correct my daughters when they did not have proper form or technique, but the urgency for me to know not to have them practice at home was bizarre. So when my daughters want to practice at home, I’m supposed to say they can’t? And if they did, should I call that “disobedience” or “not following instructions”?
When it came to Walmart shoppers, the instructor seemed to have little regard for them. When the class did a difficult or contorted stretch, she would say, “Can you imagine someone in the Walmart parking lot doing this?” At the time, the comment surprised me, but I thought it was too subtle to be noticed by my daughters. Then I was reminded that children notice everything. When walking into Walmart one day, my daughter asked why the instructor says that of people who shop at Walmart. Since I didn’t know the exact reason, I told her that some people have different ideas about economics and there are those who think that the low prices at Walmart are more costly in other important ways. Whatever the reason, while it is often tempting to demean people with whom you disagree, if you need to be critical, and there are times in which you do, it is best done intelligently and not cheaply. I learned a lot about the instructor. I learned more about this instructor in one year than I have in three years with my piano instructor who comes to my house. I, on the other hand, rarely spoke in class so she knew very little about me. I was there so my daughters could learn ballet.
We had planned a family mid-winter getaway to a water park a short car trip away. We told the dance instructor that we wouldn’t be there the following week and she asked where we were going. I let her know that we were going to a water park. When they were stretching, she told the girls that the name of the water park was the name of a place in Africa. And then added condescendingly that she didn’t want them to think it was just a water park in America. If I were a different person, I may have led my daughters in the Africa song I taught them when they were younger:
Algeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Mali
Mauritania, Namibia, Nigeria, Burundi,
Somalia, South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe
These are the countries of Africa . . .
Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Congo,
I remember my mother-in-law telling me a story of a friend whose son had heard her say something rude. She hadn’t forgotten her son’s response, “Mom, that is not becoming of you.” This is what this instructor needed to be told. My role in the class, however, was to watch and enjoy, and seeing the instructor’s capacity for disdain, I preferred to avoid a confrontation.
As the weeks went by, I realized that the agendas on the wall were invading the dance floor. There were a few times I had to intervene so that the instructor’s scrutiny and solicitation of my children on subjects unrelated to ballet would stop. In one instance, the instructor presented the students in both classes a letter to a judge thanking the judge for a ruling she had made in a horse abuse case. My youngest daughter, then four years old and not able to read, signed the letter. I later told her to cross her name out because we only sign letters when we can read them, we know what they mean, and we believe what they say. Another mother, who allowed her daughter to sign the letter, heard me tell my daughter to cross her name out. This mother, justifying why she let her five-year-old sign, said that she, the mother, had read the letter. I wondered to myself why she had her daughter sign it and not sign it herself. At the end of my older daughters’ class, the instructor held the letter up to my 10-year-old daughter to sign and as she was about to sign, I shook my head from across the room. I told them later that we only sign letters when you know and believe what it says and they couldn’t know what they thought about that issue because they didn’t have enough information. We discovered that it was a Board member who wanted this letter to be signed and sent on behalf of the students at the studio. Also, another student’s mother said that the instructor made it clear that it was voluntary. The voluntary nature of signing the letter was never in question. Of course, it was voluntary. Most things are technically voluntary. The problem was that the solicitation was made to children too young to know what they were signing. My children were not at dance class to be solicited for their signatures so that a Board member, the instructor, and other mothers could have an inflated view of their commitment to a cause. Soliciting the signatures of children on this issue during what I thought was a dance class was hollow and inappropriate.
This incident led to my husband calling her to remind her that her purpose in our family’s life was to teach ballet. We didn’t hire her for any other reason. She said that she didn’t intend to change how she taught her class. Her curt reply demonstrated to my husband that she did not respect our concerns. Knowing that, he decided that we should not return and asked for our money back. She said that there was a no-refund policy and we would need to appeal to the Board if we would like a refund. When he came home to tell me, my response was that we paid for those classes and we should return. I wanted my daughters to continue dancing and we did not have an unlimited budget for extracurricular activities. I knew that it would be difficult to explain the dance instructor’s behavior during class and that the Board was more likely to trust her than us. Moreover, because I signed a contract stating that we understood there were no refunds, they would probably not refund our money solely on that basis. I wanted to return. Then, I thought about the book, The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. If someone is treating you like a friend when they are really a stranger, heed your fear. Applied in this situation, if someone solicits support for an issue not related to the context of your relationship knowing that you, or your children in this case, do not fully understand what you are supporting, heed your fear. Fear is a gift. So I agreed with my husband, we would not return.
Should we appeal to the Board for a refund? At the time, we didn’t know who was on the Board. The program description said that the Studio was overseen by a Board of Directors and an Advisory Board. We knew it was probable that they wouldn’t refund our money, but by appealing to the Board, we would learn who was providing this oversight and what kind of oversight there really was. As a result of our refund request, we learned that there were four Board members, and one of whom was new to the studio. The three who have been there for an extended time had or have had daughters in the Sunday class that was by special invitation only. The new Board member had a daughter in my youngest daughter’s class. The Board refused a meeting as well as a refund. After meeting with our attorney who said they had the stronger case but that we had a legitimate concern, we decided to file the small claim to get more information about the studio, know who would come to the instructor’s defense, and hear how she would explain herself to a neutral third party. Our family likes hands-on education and for $100 to the court, we had one.
I don’t mind if someone disagrees with my parenting. Studying psychology and philosophy helped me realize that for every decision I make, I’ll have three intellectuals who would tell me I was wrong. When you are mindful of the plethora of perspectives in the world, you realize how paralyzing it would be to attempt to please everyone. Unfortunately, in thinking this way, and not feeling the need to fawn for her approval, I displeased a useful busybody. During the tyranny of communism in Soviet Russia and fascism in Germany and Italy, there were intellectuals who vociferously endorsed these regimes, remaining willfully ignorant of the brutal means by which these regimes used to accomplish their utopian ends. These intellectuals were referred to as useful idiots. The reporter is a useful busybody in that she used her power as an anonymous free citizen to compel a potentially coercive power to intrude into another citizen’s life. She remained free from this scrutinizing power, because she faxed, rather than called in her accusations. Had she respected my freedom to live differently than her or understood that her knowledge of our family was legitimately limited, she would have come to me with her concerns first. Instead, she took her “not clean in any way”-“home educated”-“knows nothing of significance unless it is in the Bible” objections directly to the government, a body with the power to coerce behavior . . . make us “follow instructions” (she doesn’t like obedience . . . suuuure).
Had the social worker held prejudices against homeschooling and/or religion, had the laws not protected me from such prejudices, had I not known my rights and insisted on them, or had I used words that implied guilt in the mind of the social worker, he could have used his power to mandate private interviews, parenting classes, occasional visits, or the most extreme, removal of my children from our home. Thankfully, none of this happened and even if it had, at least my options were not instant death or death by hard labor as it was in Russia and Germany. As an American in the 21st century, I am still free to parent as I had been parenting before. But I now know that this freedom hinges on the opinion of one fellow citizen who is willing to initiate a government investigation which then hinges on the opinions of a few other fellow citizens in the Department of Children and Family Services.
To be continued . . .
I can make these mugs in travel mugs or tumblers as well. They come in handy for busybody religious or political activists. Like when a woman who tells you that your children shouldn’t practice ballet at home, that she doesn’t like the word “obedience” but prefers “follow instructions”. (The real issue here is that this woman is actually very controlling in spite of her softening the words she uses. She is not allowing the person to feel her control or have the words that describe what they are experiencing; she gives them different words that make her control less apparent.)