Exit Stage Left Part Eight
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
The Shape of Evil
When I was a child, I was taught about evil. The nuns who instructed me were fixated on the topic. As an adult, I embraced a more secular philosophy, and I ceased to believe in evil as an absolute concept any longer. I preferred to consider evil as people who are ignorant and as a result of their ignorance, their actions do harm. The months of dealing with the ballet school have again made me consider the nature of evil; and I again believe in the more abstract, nebulous concept of evil. I have met it; embodied by many of the staff at the ballet school: a man who repeatedly humiliates and child in front of his peers; a woman who is hysterical and victorious during a meeting with a child in which a more nurturing and sombre tone is essential; a man who excuses all the behaviour of his staff because either his intelligence or sense of morality has been muted by a misguided sense of righteousness.
The evil that I meet repeatedly during my miserable dealings with the ballet school involves an inability to recognise the objective truth, take responsibility for mistakes and repair the damage done. They persist in presenting a front; of flawlessness; incapable of admitting that their organisation is flawed and needs urgently to reconsider its core values. Like the Catholic Church, or the Anglican Church, or the BBC, or football clubs, the need to protect the institution’s reputation eclipses recognition of the harm that is being done. This is certainly one manifestation of evil. I do not believe that the terrible abuses suffered at those other organisations are comparable to what my son experienced. The breadth and depth of damage done by priests, or Radio DJs, or football coaches exceeds by far the current dangers at the ballet school. But the ballet school is inhabiting a similar territory. The landscape is the same, even if the events are different. I truly believe that the need to conceal and hide their mistakes results in evil. I truly believe that the ballet school is desperately scared of a scandal waiting to break, and I predict that unless it seeks to change the way it behaves, far worse occurrences than those endured by our child are going to happen. I really believe we will be reading about the ballet school in our newspapers soon. This is my motivation for writing this particular series of blogs. This is why I made the complaint about the way the girl in my son’s class was spoken to, when it didn't actually involve our son. I believe the protection of all children is the responsibility of all of us, and the measures to protect them may not be compromised.
In dealing with the school, I have made two mistakes. These are the understandable I suppose, considering everything that we were dealing with:
We have waited weeks to hear the official written response from the school, and during this time we have been providing for our son’s education and, with the help of our newly discovered teachers, his ballet training. In the meantime I speak to an expert in dealing with trauma - a wise psychologist and academic who purely coincidentally has years of experience of dealing with students at various ballet schools. After listening to my story, she explains to me that it is essential that our son is given a chance to deal with the trauma himself without any intervention. In our case, the best people to help him at the moment are those around him. She tells us that sympathetic and patient parenting are his best chances of making a swift recovery.. We are only to get an expert involved if he shows no signs of improving in three or four months. The events are still too close for any expert in trauma to get involved, in her view. I am appreciative to be talking to someone so reasonable and full of sense; but I am seriously doubtful that I am able to be in anyway effective in this role. At work, I am a brilliant listener; at home my skills of listening and empathising need a great deal of development.
We are seriously worried about him. He is subdued and depressed. During this time he has two episodes when he refuses to leave the house for about three days each time. On one occasion he leaves for class, only to return thirty minutes later. One of his ballet teachers even phones me to ask what she can do to help. She gives me a message to give him - a statement resonating with tough love:
‘Your not coming to class is no good; you are ridiculously talented!’
The following day, I escort him to her class; and almost literally push him into the studio and wait outside.
His mother has encourage him to construct and paint tiny plastic models that she has bought for him. This shows a considerable insight on her part, and soon becomes an important part of his recovery. As his world is falling apart, he is able at least to have some control over the tiny model in his hands. He is keeping himself together by assembling and painting miniature figures.
Eventually the written response arrives from the school. I am on a train when they ping into my mailbox. I quickly open all the documents and scan through them. If it weren’t a matter of child safe-guarding in which we are seeking action, their responses would have been comic: imagine a response as written by Chris Morris, or Ricky Gervais, or Armando Iannucci.. They write three times in the various documents that the problems have arisen because I am not intelligent enough to understand the school’s procedural documents; this resulted in the staff being too perplexed by my idiotic questions. I'd like it made known that during the entire three months of dealing with the school, I haven't made a single comment about anyone’s intelligence. It's rude to do so, and anyway, their actions speak for themselves.
Their conduct has also been erratic. One of the reasons why we have been waiting so long, is because the safe-guarding officer at the school has been waiting for written confirmation from the Local Area Designated Officer (LADO) to say that no agency involvement is required regarding the ballet teacher’s comments in class (I love you etc.) - involvement from the police or social services is not required in the LADO's view. I phone the LADO myself, and ask what the delay is in supplying the written confirmation. The LADO is bemused. She has made is perfectly clear to the safe-guarding officer that if no agency intervention is required, no written confirmation will be sent. Speaking to the LADO, I realise that she has not been told of the whole story. She has only been given a selection of details. Oddly, she also knows nothing about the other incidents: the twerking or the calling a young woman sexy. She asks for me to put this in writing. I send an email.
Among their excuses and clear grasping at straws, the response documents also contain the following nuggets:
Still, today, I wonder if, as they are writing this, they are aware of how ridiculous their reasoning is. Are they really oblivious to the paradoxes contained in their all too transparent excuses? Can they see how ridiculous they appear? These are the questions that I would love to ask them, even today; if I was still in contact with anyone at the school that is. I still wonder which lawyer - if any - gave them clearance to send me such a preposterous document.
Basically, they didn’t yield or concede on a single issue of my complaint. That afternoon, the safe-guarding officer sent me an email demanding to know - now they had responded to my complaint - whether my son will be returning to school. It seems, then, that on some matters they can really take their time, but on other matters, immediate action is required. She threatened to report me to the education and welfare officer. Fortunately I had been having long conversations with the education and welfare officer about everything, so I knew how to reply. If I hadn't had the necessary information, this bullying approach from the safe-guarding officer would have freaked me out. I am still resentful of this attempt to bully me. I replied to the safe-guarding officer that she was welcome to report us to education and welfare, but, as I am already in contact with the local authority, she will be wasting her time, because as long as a complaint is ongoing, I am under no obligation to return my son to school or make any immediate decisions. She doesn't carry out her threat. Standing up to bullies is one of the only ways to thwart their evil.
I then write a letter of complaint to the governors asking for their help and intervention in accordance with the school’s complaint procedure.
Next time: More threats from the school, and the meeting the governors.
Exit Stage Left Part Seven
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
One More Meeting and Trying to Heal
On the same afternoon that I had taken him home, the safe-guarding officer wanted me drive him back to school so she could speak to him, about the ballet teacher’s conduct in class. I pointed out that another senior member of staff had already interviewed him last week, but she insisted that she also had the opportunity to do so.
This interview with our son was a travesty - have no other word for it, and for me it marks a major turning point in the story. The safe-guarding officer is waiting for us, so is his ballet teacher, and the member of staff who gave him his second tutorial. One greets us in reception, one is waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and the other is waiting at the top of the stairs. Our son has to walk past two of his persecutors on the way to the meeting. The safe-guarding officer has prepared ten questions. I am given these questions but no time to read them. The nature of the questions to a child are irresponsible, often putting him in the position of second-guessing what was in the mind of the adult: for example, ‘What do you think the teacher meant when he said I love you?’
I am completely ignored in the meeting, and any questions about why our son was being put through this again we dismissed with the wave of a hand, and an abrupt: ‘I am here to talk to him, not you.’
There was a member of the pastoral team taking a record, and whenever our son said anything that might be of use to the school, the safe-guarding officer shrieked at the woman writing: 'Write that down, write that down!' Despite all this, our son remained calm, and answered the often loaded questions as well as he can. He leaves with his integrity intact.
We are rushed out of the office as quickly as we were rushed in. Afterwards I felt dizzy with anxiety and anger. We are in and out of the school in ten minutes including the time it takes to parade past his persecutors. During the drive home, I know that something has changed inside me - a new calculating cold anger has hatched. I also know that it was very unlikely that he would be returning to the school. I have just witnessed behaviour I can only describe as abusive. I feel like screaming something guttural and primal. All trust between us and the school are now broken. In this moment in time there is no-one on earth I hate more than the school’s safe-guarding officer. Her behaviour disgusts me.
What follows now is a big space. The school need time to write their responses, and even though they keep saying that they want to get our son back to school as soon as possible, they are taking weeks to respond to our complaints. They are clearly consulting with their lawyers. We knew that we had to get him dancing again, especially as it looked like his formal schooling and training was now on an involuntary hiatus. His mother did some research. This is one of her many strengths. When given a project, she commits to it single-mindedly; and this project was simple: find the best ballet teachers available. One name kept coming up again and again. So his mum took him to one of her classes. I have many examples of this teacher’s almost psychic intuition, her heightened awareness and kindness, and on her first encounter with our son - a terrified creature shaking at the barre who has just spilled his bottle of water all over the floor - she takes him by the hand and leads him to a place where he can't hide at the back and where she is close to him. She is still one of his main ballet teachers. I will write more about their relationship on another occasion because theirs has become a beautiful story. The debt of gratitude I feel I owe this kind, wise and highly skilled teacher is immense.
However, just before this void of waiting and uncertainty began, our son told us two more things he wanted us to know about the school; events that had happened very recently. The first involved his ballet teacher, and a girl in his class. The teacher entered the class one day when he was teaching both boys and girls, looked at one of the girls and said, Oh [name of pupil], you're looking sexy today. This story spread throughout the year like a proverbial rash, and this child had the comment repeated to her by teenage boys on several occasions over the next few days. Our son understands the implications of this event, and the seriousness of the accusation; he is not making this up. Much later, another parent from the year repeats the story to me, exactly as our son has told it.
The second incident involves a different teacher. The students were asked to ‘twerk’ during one class. Some students found this to be excruciatingly painful. Our son was probably not alone in experiencing a double hit of pain: the first was from being asked to ‘shake his booty’ with the other children, and the second was his empathy for those who found it even more distressing than him. Apparently, the member of staff encouraged the twerking by joining in himself. This incident really did happen. I know it to be a fact, because in some written documentation, which I will describe at length in the next blog, they admit that it happened. In fact, they admit that the twerking occurred regularly with all year groups.
It is time to make a self-aware declaration. If you hadn't realised, we are a liberal, left-leaning family of almost comic proportions. The way we fulfil our expectations of the guardian-reading, left-voting, anti-patriarchal egalitarian stereotype is often amusing even to us: politics, gender issues, cultural appropriation are often debated at meal-times with force. The use of ‘black face’ in The Nutcracker makes me wince; the trend is now to tone it down - but the representation of the Chinese 'tea' dance by mainly white dancers presents a real issue to me. Some people find my view extreme. However, I cannot imagine in whose universe it is okay for a middle aged man to describe a fourteen year old girl as ‘sexy’, or for another middle aged man to ‘get down with the kids’ by joining them for a twerk. Do I think that these offences warrant the perpetrators losing their jobs? Yes. I do.
It takes me only twenty-four hours to make the decision: I write another letter of complaint.
In pulp fiction Harvey Keitel plays a character called The Wolf. He has repeated this role in an advert for car insurance. Basically when something terrible has happened, The Wolf come to the rescue and clean it up. In the ballet world there are teachers who fulfil the same function. I mentioned to someone the difficulties we are experiencing and he presses a scrap of paper into my hand with a name and number written on it. He simply tells me to ‘call her’, so I do. This teacher makes repairing broken ballet children her speciality. She is the Harvey Keitel of the ballet world - a Wolf of classical ballet, and she is kept extremely busy. She serves pupils of many ballet schools, and she is highly effective at what she does: sensible, pragmatic, experienced and generous. I have since met 'wolves' in other parts of the country. It seems that for every ballet school, there is at least one Wolf waiting to clear up the bloody mess.
It is a struggle, but get our son dancing again. He goes to class every day. We have found him two teachers whom he is responding to well, despite the fact that he comes across as a bit broken broken and very lost. This is unsurprising. He has been wrenched from his normal life, and severed from his friends; but at the same time he doesn't want to return to such a cruel environment. Anyway, there is the small matter of the ballet teacher’s counter-allegation which needs to be cleared up.
I then decide that in this long and vicious limbo that I am going to become his teacher for academic subjects. We read together - Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. It is exactly what is needed to transport him to another place, to think about other problems that people have to face: the struggles of immigration, the extremes of wealth and poverty, and surviving when the odds are stacked against you. We do a project on road movies - Little Miss Sunshine is his favourite; and we read Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck.. He continues to work his way through his maths book. At the moment this feels fine, although it is not sustainable. But I want him to return to school - whichever school - with an ability to think and write clearly, having not fallen behind on his maths, and with a appreciation of failure as an opportunity to learn. The exploration of Growth Mindset prompts much discussion between us, and he tells stories of what has been said to the children during ballet at his school. A growth mindset seems the opposite of what he has encountered in ballet class where failure is something to be feared and avoided at all costs - as if dancers are born fully formed and perfect. He still seems somewhat broken; heavy, reluctant and hesitant. It is like our child is made of Lego. We are putting him back together brick by brick.
But I still feel lucky: I am hoping and praying that we have got him out in time.
Next Time: We receive the documents we have been waiting for.
Exit Stage Left Part Six
If you have not read part five, please click here:
And if you need to start from the beginning, please click here:
We had no intention of letting our son know that there had been a counter-allegation against him. But the member of staff mentioned it to him in the meeting, and he found out. This put us all in a difficult situation. The allegation was so illogical and so clearly fabricated that there was, in my view, no point in worrying him about it. But someone from the school had revealed it to him, and the cat was out of the bag. The damage was done.
By the end of the week his cold had cleared and it was clear that he would be able to return to school. Or, at least, his health was no longer keeping him from attending. But none of us wanted him there until the ballet teacher’s counter-allegation had been either explained or retracted. Our son could not remember the occasion in which he had treated the ballet teacher as a confidante; nor could he ever remember confessing to him that he had lied to us, and as I wrote in the last blog - he wanted us to go the parent teacher consultation anyway, so any lie to deter us would be completely illogical. Besides, we couldn't locate the ‘lie’ or its content; and for that matter, neither could the school.
It's worth noting at this stage that over the course of our discussions with the school - a period of over three months - I ask for this allegation to be explained or retracted about fifteen times. My request is made in writing, in meetings and in phone conversations. The school have never to this day offered an explanation, retraction, or apology.
Then he told us something chilling about the teacher - something that had not come out over Christmas - in front of all the children he had his back and shoulders painfully held and manipulated, while the teacher recited the names of the back muscles. This recitation was something that the teacher also proudly did during the meeting with his mum. It seems an odd type of party trick - is this something that all ballet teachers do?
The situation is having a terrible impact on all of us. I feel terrible. In fact I am beside myself; only just keeping it together. I email the safe-guarding officer at the school and explain that I no longer feel that the school offers a safe environment for my son. After a wait, she eventually replies with several suggestions:
Late on Sunday night, I am still desperate about what to do. So, in a terrible state, I phone social services and ask for advice. I appreciate the absurdity of this. The phone-line that usually receives calls about serious and horrific incidents is now getting a call about whether a ballet class might be a safe environment or not. Here is a recap - this is what I explained to the social worker.
I'm in the bathroom when the phone rings. It's the woman from social services again. She has been thinking about our case. She is suddenly sympathetic and has two pieces of advice to offer:
Neither of theses points would have occurred to me. Her advice is to prove invaluable; it is as if she can see into the future.
On Monday morning, I simply do not know what to do. With a heavy heart, I drive to the school with our son, and ask to speak to the safe-guarding officer. She is not in the building, and won't be coming until much later that day. I ask to speak to others from the safe-guarding team. A message is sent to them, but they refuse to speak with me. In fact one of them goes in and out of the building several times while we are waiting - all eye contact is purposefully avoided.
Eventually, they manage to get the safe-guarding officer on the phone. We are escorted to a room where we can speak in private. In short, our conversation reveals that nothing has been done in order to assist getting our son back to school. This is beyond my belief. The other adult that they had assured would be in the room during ballet was the pianist - who had not been told that they would be taking on the additional responsibility of watching out for potential abuse; the named pastoral staff members had also not been alerted to the situation, but she repeated the reassurance that no staff member would ever mention what had happened - in public or in private. Bearing in mind how indiscreet the ballet teacher has already been, I think that this is a case of the horse bolting several weeks after the stable door being shut.
Back in the reception area, our looks at me and says, ‘Just don't leave me here, Daddy’. I arrange for another phone call to be made to the safe-guarding officer, and ask our son to explain his reasons for coming home himself. He is logical, and articulate and displays a wisdom exceeding his thirteen years. He calmly says to her that all the measures she is suggesting potentially punish him. He has done nothing wrong, but he is being made to carry all responsibility. He is innocent, and it is the teacher who is in the wrong - he is sensible, spontaneous and clear-thinking in an incredibly difficult situation. I have never been more proud of him or impressed with his maturity.
Their failure to guarantee a safe environment for a child is astonishing.
We get in the car. I phone his mum, and I tell her that I am bringing him home.
Exit Stage Left Part Five
If you have not read the other posts in this series from the beginning, please go back to this post first::
Talked At and Talked Over
During the Christmas Holiday we learned so much more of what had been happening to our son. We knew about the tutorials and how utterly demoralised he had felt on returning to ballet after the illness, but at the time we did not know about the ballet teacher revealing to the entire class the details of the telephone conversation he had listened to, nor did we know about the line, ‘why are you scared of me? I love you. I love you’. We also found out that it was the second tutorial which had provided the worst moment and the most destructive experience for our a thirteen year old - an age when children are crucially still trying to make sense of the world. In his view, the teacher in this second tutorial was cruel and abusive. She is indeed one of those adults who wears her authority with the same relish as she wears her plastic red finger nails. In meetings, I have found myself handling her with care; and I am an adult rather than a teenager in the unhappy predicament of living away from home, so therefore requiring the adults in his life to be more compassionate and reliable rather malicious and harmful. So, over an unhappy and uncertain Christmas break, we begin to understand just how our son had been made to suffer.
The meeting with the director of the school approached. There was an almost comical exchange of emails between me and one of his assistants when I learned that they intended for one of the members of staff who featured in the complaint to be present in the role of scribe. At length, I pointed out that while I had no objection to her attendance, it would be extremely uncomfortable for her. Even after I had pointed out that they had a duty of care to one one of their employees, to not put her through unnecessarily duress, I was assured that all was fine, and that she would indeed attend.
The day of the meeting arrived. Before the meeting we were greeted by another member of the senior management team who introduced herself to us as the scribe. They had, for some reason, decided to spare the other person the awful experience of being directly complained about. No mention of the switch in staff was made, and I didn't want to draw any one’s attention to it. I wanted to get this matter settled once and for all. I only mention it now because it is typical of how the ballet school conduct themselves. There is no sense of a more professional way to behave: meetings are cancelled at the last moment, or people you expect to be there are not, or your conversations are listened in to, or confidential information is publicly disclosed.. It is as if the gene in their organisation which regulates propriety has mutated into pompous self-regard.
The meeting went badly. My written complaint against the school was clean and clinical. I used the language of their own policy documents to point out everything in their own assessment process that was not adhered to. But, the director used his own language to explain the events. There was no mention of ‘formative’ or ‘summative’ assessment; he talked instead about ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ tutorials. No one discussed our son’s glandular fever or his recovery. He said it was normal practice for a member of staff to be allowed to overhear a phone conversation as it saved time in the long run communicating what had been said; my need for privacy (as declared in the school's own policy documents) did not seem to concern him. I was talked at, interrupted and talked over. At several points in the director’s monologue I found a brief space to mention that what he was saying didn't actually make any sense. At these points the other staff member - who had introduced herself as the note taker and who has nothing to do with the ballet side of the school - took it upon herself to try and explain. I guess that she was not such an impartial note-taker after all.
Incidentally, this is the first time that they had conceded that someone else was in the room during my initial phone conversation. Up until this point, it had been denied, but the teacher’s public revelations of the content of the conversation meant that it was blatantly obvious that he heard everything. I decided that it was expedient at this point to not remind them that I had been lied to up until now. Although it would have been really satisfying, I decided to have more restraint than to rub their proverbial noses in it.
At one point the director’s tone changed. He seemed almost cheerful. He actually made eye-contact with us for a brief moment. There was something he wanted to say about our son’s behaviour. He seemed almost cheerful as prepared to deliver his bombshell: Our son had made a confession to the ballet teacher. He had taken the teacher into his confidence and told him that he had been lying to us.
We asked about the content of these lies.
Well, they didn't know the specifics.
We asked to what end he would have lied to us.
Well, he didn't want us to come to the teacher parent meetings - so he lied to us.
But he did want us to come to the meetings. That was why he sent us all those emails in block capitals telling us that we HAD to be there. This vague counter-allegation made no sense.
During the months ahead, this allegation is never substantiated, nor is it retracted. It is a lie. Neither the school nor I realise it at this point, but they have just provided me with the reason why our complaint can never be settled.
At the end of the meeting, I present them with another written complaint.. I make the comments made by the ballet teacher (I love you and Why are you scared of me.) part of the formal process. We are also told at the end of the meeting that our son is sick. He has a heavy cold and the nurse wants him to be sent home. It is a bit awkward because we hadn't actually told him that we were coming into school for the meeting. He has a brief meeting with the member of staff who had been the ‘scribe’ in order to discuss details of a teacher telling a student he loves him. I have to stop this meeting because she doesn't stick to questions covering the subjects we had agreed on before bringing him in. We then bring him home.
None of us realise at this point in time that he is never going to return to school as a pupil ever again. It is what happens next that makes it impossible to allow him to return.
Exit Stage Left Part Four
If you have not read the other posts in this series from the beginning, please go back to this post first::
(N.B. Before you begin to read this post, I would like to make the following clear: assessment under accommodating circumstances is a pretty common occurrence in education. Most exam boards, schools, colleges and universities have a clear procedure in place. I've never actually encountered an institution before which prefers to make it up as they go along. For many reasons, this is unwise.)
The Three Insults
Following the highly inappropriate and potentially abusive declaration of love from his ballet teacher in front of the entire class, our son is made to endure another tutorial - this time with the assistant ballet principal / timetable manager. He reports this tutorial to be especially vicious. She plays a dangerous game - she assures him that no decisions about his future have been made; but also reassures him that there is life after ballet. Just to remind you - he hasn't actually danced properly for ten weeks at this point. She also tells him about the telephone conversation, and she apologises to him for the way she has spoken to me on the phone. She says that she is sorry for shouting at me. This is bizarre behaviour by any standards. If the apology had been that sincere, she might have thought of calling me back and apologising in person rather than using a thirteen year old as a go-between. Why burden the child? No mention is made of him being sick for five weeks, and still not dancing a full ballet class.
Just for a moment, let's look at this from the perspective of our son:
He’s been sick. He has returned to school, but still not fully recovered. His official report says that no assessment is possible, but he has been given a full tutorial as if he were healthy in which he is told he is rubbish, and made to write down just how terrible his dancing is. His ballet teacher has gone into class and revealed details of an email written to me by our son, and told the child that he loves him. He then receives a second tutorial in which he is again made to feel woefully inadequate. Could they make the situation any more bewildering for a child recovering from glandular fever?
And this is just the beginning. The real damage done to the pupils at the school is about to become abundantly clear to us.
We know nothing of the comments in class or the second tutorial at this point in time. We are still struggling to understand what has happened with this assessment and tutorial: what are the protocols and procedures behind giving a sick child a full tutorial based on an assessment that either has or has not happened?
On the same afternoon as the phone call, I manage to contact the member of management whom I have been told will be able to answer my question about accommodated assessment. She can't. I am disarmed by how brazen she is about not knowing how a recovering child is assessed. However she assures me that a document exists which will answer my question. She just needs to find it. I make it clear to her that I have read all the process documents that I can find online, and there is no guidance to be found. I am told that she will investigate and send me the answer I am looking for.
I am unable to make the parent teacher conference a couple of days later. I have work commitments. But, as I have already reported, we have been ordered to go despite receiving a letter saying no assessment of our son is possible. His mum dutifully attends. She describes the encounter as ‘horrendous’. Unable to talk about our son’s dancing, the ballet teacher lectures her on the muscle groups required for ballet. He doesn't know what she does for a living, so his attempts to blind her with science result in him appearing somewhat foolish. There is no dancer in the world who is more accomplished because they can name muscle groups. He then talks about what a lovely smile our son has. (Our son hasn't told us about the ‘I love you’ incident at this stage). And he concludes the meeting by showing them pictures of his own child on his phone. Son and mother see unamused by this encounter and squirm with embarrassment at the teacher’s incompetence and inability to assess the situation or show any degree of professionalism. It would appear that in accordance with the letter we have received, no assessment of our son's ballet has been possible. The journey to the school and the meeting with the teacher has been in vain.
The following week at school, the teacher greets our son in front of the whole class with the words: ‘So, is your mother happy, now?’ - Another attempt at humiliation, and another incident of indiscretion from a man who, in my view, should not be working with children.
My attempts to find out how our son was assessed when no assessment was possible have run aground. After several days of emails pinging back and forth between me and the person who assures me that they can answer my question, if only they can find the document. Then they adopt a different approach. They decide that insulting my intelligence is probably the best strategy. The following happens:
(Punctuation is provided by the Ballet School - left unedited by me)
I'm feeling frustrated. I also fear that I am going slightly insane. The person who could not originally answer my question and tells me to speak to someone else is suddenly able to write this pitiful and patronising email. For five days they have been completely wasting my time. As they know, I've read the Reporting and Assessment Policy, and there is nothing in it to suggest why a child who cannot be formally assessed owing to illness should then be subjected to a highly critical tutorial. I'm not being taken for a fool, so I write one last email to the member of staff who was supposed to be able to answer my question - the second person I have been dealing with, not the one who shouts on the phone. I explain how dissatisfied I am with the way this simple concern has been dealt with, but that I do not wish to turn it into a formal complaint. I ask what she suggests in order to prevent the concern escalating into something more formal. I click send. I wait.
I wait and I wait. Several days pass. There is no response.
I have no option. I write a formal letter of complaint to the director of the school.
Next time: The meeting with the director, and the treatment of our son becomes even more sinister.
Exit Stage Left Part 3
Please go back to the first of these blog posts, if you are new to Exit Stage Left:
One Simple Line
Why are you scared of me? I love you … I love you.
Someone else had been in the room, and we had been on speaker phone. This was not declared to me at the time, and it was denied during the call. So, there is every chance that the teachers are making faces, exchanging glances and gesturing - all without my knowledge. I am trying to find out why our child has been sending me distress signals via email, and why he has had to endure quite a brutal tutorial despite having been unable to dance properly for over ten weeks; meanwhile they have been exchanging secret signals, and when they think that they have hung up the phone, they unwittingly reveal their contempt for me with their laughter, and their comment that they think I am angry. I hadn't been angry. However, with this disregard for my privacy (please see the school’s complaint procedure), I am pretty mystified. Where I grew up, there was a much repeated phrase to express astonishment, I can imagine my dad saying it in with his own particular accent: Well, I don't know, it beggars belief. At this point in the story, my belief is beggared.
It is several weeks before I actually get the admission from the school that I have been overheard by another teacher who was also in the room, and I was indeed on speakerphone. But if I had been in any doubt about this fact, the actions of the teacher who was permitted to eavesdrop, confirm my suspicion. What happens next is extraordinary. Why would an adult man behave in this way? Stupidity? Complacency? Arrogance? A combination of all three? My theory: is that by eavesdropping on our conversation, the ballet teacher had his pride dented. He made a discovery that he couldn't cope with, and he took extreme action. This is my only explanation of what happens, because the next event is like something from a cheap, incredulously plotted bit of television drama.
After hearing that my son has been distressed by the unfair treatment of him, the ballet teacher goes into class and repeats details of what he has heard on the phone in front of all the boys and then says the line:
Why are you scared of me? I love you … I love you.
This line was said. It is a fact. In the subsequent meetings, reports and enquiries, it has been agreed by all parties that the phrase was indeed uttered. The Ballet School think it is all right for an adult man to say this to a child. The local safeguarding authority have described it as ‘deeply concerning’. And I think that it reveals a pernicious, controlling and dangerous mind-set for any adult to have, especially when they are working with children.
This is my first point: as a parent I have a real problem with an adult, who is not that child’s parent or relative, telling the child in public that he loves him. I consider it to be abusive. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is my real point: I have an further problem with this being said to a child as it indicates an unhealthy need to rewrite the past in the child’s mind and tell them what to think. The teacher has heard that the child is upset by something that he has done; his idealised view of himself is disrupted, and so he imposes his own belief on the child in a public context where the child’s sense of shame is heightened. He has heard that he is not adored, and that the child is scared of him, and he has to correct what the child believes with the other children providing witness and reinforcement. As an adult, he has to impose his will on that of a child. It is the sign of a desperate man trying to dominate the world view of his student. It has no place in the dialogue which is essential between teacher and pupil. It is like something out of a George Orwell novel. It is thought-control at its most pernicious. In my view, this is not healthy behaviour.
Imagine the confusion of our son. At this point in time our son has no idea that a telephone conversation has occurred, or that I have ‘leaked’ contents from his email believing myself to be speaking in privacy. He just gets accosted by his teacher in class.
You might think that I am being too harsh, but I think that any adult who behaves like this should not be working with children, and more importantly, I think that any organisation which tolerates this, or makes excuses for it, or says that it is acceptable, needs to be shut down. Look, I don't want to tell you what to think. If you feel that I am overreacting, or if you feel that under these circumstances you would have been happy for an adult man to say this one simple line to your child, just let me know. I am eager to listen.
But, this is only the beginning. In terms of the psycho-terror that our son is made to endure, this is just the start. I'm afraid that you are going to have to wait until the next post to find out the horrors that are awaiting him.
Next time: The phone conversation has further consequences; it becomes clear that if you don't pledge total obedience, their behaviour plunges to shocking depths.
Exit Stage Left Part Two
This is part of a series of blog posts to be read in order. If you have not started at the beginning, please start with this post first:
Our son had been unable to attend school for five weeks. We watched him day after day sit immobile and unable to even hold a book or an iPad. He was permanently pale green and had thick black circles under his eyes. He simply had no strength. The doctors diagnosed glandular fever, and we settled in to the long haul of the recovery. Of course, we worried; his daily progress was imperceptible, and his disinterest in everything around him was something we had never encountered from him. This child who loved to move: play, dance, climb, run, had become inert. Even a short walk would render him even more exhausted. Great Ormond Street Hospital explains on their website the care needed during recovery - a percentage of children never recover; the glandular fever becomes a permanent viral fatigue. The trigger for this seems to be doing too much exercise too early. So his return to ballet would need to be handled with real care.
Eventually he went back. He started to dance but on a reduced timetable, using the time when he wasn't dancing to watch the classes of other years. He was struggling, and often tired, but he seemed to be enjoying himself - especially watching the older children dance. We were also assured that he would have a meeting with the nutritionist, a meeting with the head of academics, and regular additional sessions with the physiotherapists. The meetings with the nutritionist never materialised, neither did the meeting with the head of academics, and the sessions with the physiotherapists were infrequent and shared with other children each suffering from their own diverse injuries. However, his confidence was returning, and he seemed to be getting very slowly stronger. After several weeks back at school, he was still unable to dance a full class, and would alternate between barre and centre work each day.
Towards the end of the term we were sent a report which announced owing to his illness, no assessment for that term had been possible. We were in agreement with this - a lack of report seemed self-explanatory under the circumstances; and we assumed that any summative assessment would be postponed until the following term when he was dancing fully again.
This is now the point where things start to unravel. The parallel universe begins to open up, and we are all pushed into a reality which follows a crazy logic which only Ballet School staff seem able to follow.
We receive an email from our son. He is distraught. Despite an assessment not being possible and no report about him being prepared, he has had to endure a full tutorial with his ballet teacher. Despite not having danced a full class for over ten weeks, his ballet technique and his confidence is unpicked, and he is left to feel like a complete failure. We also receive an email to say that we are to attend the parent teacher conference for ballet, even though no assessment has been made about our son. We politely question the decision that we have to rock up to the parents’ consultation and we are told by the administrator that she has checked with the Ballet staff and we absolutely have to be there. We receive another email from our son written in BLOCK CAPITALS exclaiming that we have to be there on Saturday, and no alternative meeting will be scheduled the following term.
I write a very polite and cautious email to the person responsible for these decisions. Her role is actually quite a confusing one - depending on which online biography you read online, she is either the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ (!) or the ‘Time-Table Manager’. I fully expect that this has all been a mistake that can be cleared up swiftly, so I write asking for an explanation and perhaps even a copy of the procedural document that they are following which might suggest how a child who has been off sick, or injured, is assessed artistically. By sending this email, I am about to open a Pandora’s box; and as we know once all the diseases from the box have flown out into the world, something far more damaging is left behind … Hope.
The morning after sending the email, I receive a phone call. It's the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ or the ‘Timetable Manager’ - wearing whichever hat is in fashion that day. I’m out walking the dog, so I have plenty of time to talk. The member of staff wants to talk about a lot of things, but wasn't able to answer my questions. I didn't want to talk about the things that she wanted to talk about, but I did want to keep returning to my questions, and ask them again. I want to know two simple things:
1. How can a tutorial be given when no assessment is possible?
2. What procedures are being followed for assessment under mitigating circumstances?
These are two straight-forward questions which I would expect any school to be able to answer. Here are some gems from the conversation. The content makes it clear who is speaking:
On having to come to a meeting without having received a report:
Then there is this on whether we have to come to the meeting or not:
This was one of my favourites. This is about whether assessment has happened or not:
Then something strange happens. Our conversation ends, but the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal fails to hang up the phone, and I am fumbling with mine because I am trying to talk, walk, and manage the dog. So I hear the sound of laughter, and the TTM / ABP saying, ‘He’s angry. Yep. He’s really angry.’
Our conversation resumes:
This becomes an important plot point for later on. Our member of staff with her two hats denied that I had been on speaker phone, and denied that there had been anyone else in the room for the duration of the conversation. Also, just to clarify: the conversation had mystified me, but I wasn't angry, and throughout the entire conversation I had not raised my voice once - unlike the staff member who had been shouting down the phone at me throughout.
Our conversation continues:
The conversation concludes with the agreement that I would talk to another member of staff because the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal wasn't actually qualified to talk about how injured children are treated during an assessment.
Later that day, another member of staff did get back to me. We had a more honest, but equally embarrassing exchange. She admitted that she didn't know the procedures for assessment under mitigating circumstances, but looked them up. She conceded though that these were not the procedures for ballet. She couldn't find the ballet procedure but imagined it to be that each case was discussed on its own merit.
So there is a policy of sorts - but no transparency and no accountability. If this had been one of my procedures when I was working in higher education, I guarantee two things would have happened: the course would have failed its QAA audit and been shut down; a student would have sued me.
I probably would have been happy to let the matter rest here, but what happens next is truly astonishing. Had I known what the consequences of this phone call were to have, I would have just got in the car and collected him and all his stuff - never to return. But at this point in the story I believe that we are all going to still behave like adults and regrettably I still have hope.
Next time: The sins of the father are visited on the son.
Exit Stage Left Part 1
Before I begin the story of why we took our son out of Ballet School, I need you to understand the type of organisation we are dealing with: controlling, borderline psychotic. Of course I didn't understand this at the time our story starts. Here are three brief sketches to explain:
In September every year, the parents are invited to attend a meeting at which the management team discuss various issues. I only experienced three of these. Two of the them were full of simmering anger - expressed in the mutest way. For the first, I was a new parent at the school, so a little overwhelmed. The anger seemed to have been caused by a very large number of students being asked to leave. We were promised a more open and communicative style of management from then on - a promise we will return to at a later date. The next meeting was also perplexing. I was still a relatively new parent; our son was now going into his second year. The summer term had been tough - feel free to go back and read some of the blog posts. Our child had complained about being kept inside in the summer term, and how ridiculous he found the threat that if any child had a sun-tan, they would not be allowed to dance in the final year performances. One of the house -parents had told me during the term that the hardest part of the job was keeping the children in when it was sunny. During this meeting, a mother asked why the children were kept in during the previous term. She had concerns for the health of her child. Dancers needing supplementary vitamin D is something frequently discussed. What we next witnessed was remarkable. The four members of the management team grouped together. They became tense; their upper bodies armoured, and they chorused that no child is ever kept in on a sunny day. This was an unfounded allegation from the concerned mother. One of the staff members tried joking about giving their own children vitamin supplements as a matter of course.
There were nearly four hundred people in the room. Most of them would have known that their child was kept in the dorm on sunny days. Most of them would have heard about the sanctions, should a child dare to become sun-tanned. No-one spoke. Not one of us defended the woman who had spoken. There was a collective sense of shame. Afterwards I went up to the mother who to confirm the story of our children being kept in. Understandably, she didn't want to talk to me. She needed my support at the time; in public, not in private. She was now in a hurry to leave.
2. Chats with Staff
I am clearing out my son’s stuff from his dorm room to take home. He has not been deregistered from school yet, and we are still hoping that he might return. However, the school are dragging their feet in considering our case, and we have had enough of his clothes and other belongings being in two places. He needs to have his stuff back. A member of staff is helping. This person has not been at the school long and their abrupt departure has been recently announced. I don't share anything about what has happened to us; by this point in the story, I have become paranoid about what I say and to whom. Out of the blue, the staff member helping me says: I don't have to stay at any place where I am being bullied and harassed. I stop what I am doing. We both know that a line has been crossed. I raise my eyebrow. The member of staff simply smiles awkwardly.
On my way out, carrying bags of our son's belongings, I see another member of staff; someone who has been there for years. We have been on first name terms for ages. She stops at the threshold as I am about to walk across the car park.
3. In the Bank
The School’s name is clearly visible on a piece of paper I am holding. I am in the bank. We are at the very end of the complaint process; it is clear that our son is not returning to school. The bank employee across the desk sees the heading on the paper, and comments by asking if our son goes to the school. Not any more, I reply. The woman asks what happened. I turn to our son to see if he wants to tell the story, or if I have permission to say something on his behalf. He just nods. He was bullied at school, I say. There is a moment while she registers what I have just said, and then I add, ... by three teachers. She gasps, and repeats what I have said turning to her colleague and emphasising, by teachers. This has become our normality We have completely forgotten how to be shocked by the fact that it is the teachers who behave in the way they do. Over two and a half years, we have become completely immune to this shock; the behaviour of these ballet teachers, and the management team has become something to be expected. Suddenly, I am jolted back into reality.
For parents, there are three rules of Ballet School:
It is quite a time before I began to fully understand the third rule of Ballet School. Looking back, I was naïve. At the beginning of our story, I had no idea of the energetic malice I was about to encounter from the people who, after all, are paid to look after children. This is the lesson that I still had to learn.
Next time: The telephone conversation which changes everything.
Note: I enjoy receiving your messages. However I am unable to allow any comments on the thread below which mention any specific schools. Any legal difficulty might put the website at risk. If you are affected by this story and want to contact me directly, there is a contact form that you can fill in. I will get back to you. You can also DM me via the Ballet Dad Blog Facebook page. Alternatively, please feel free to comment below, but do not mention any specific schools, or teachers. Thank you.
A Change in Direction
Starting this week, a series of ten blog posts will offer an explanation. I am going to write about the events that led us to decide to remove our son from the ballet school he was attending. The story is shocking, and you may choose to not read the blog for a while. If this is what you choose, I completely understand.
The tone of the blog is about to change as it tells a different story. Up until now I have been telling a tale about a lack of understanding. This is a universal story, and is not only relevant to ballet. Any parent could find themselves completely alienated by their child’s dream: football, political lobbying, medicine, theatre, painting. Any passion may leave the parent thinking: what have we produced? Up until now, the blog has been about a father making a choice - to support a child even though the dad has no appreciation of the son’s chosen vocation. If I never watched another ballet in my life, I don't honestly think that I would even notice. It just doesn't move me. Up until now, I have made myself the brunt of all the jokes: a dad who is out of his depth; a dad whose vision of the world is wrong; a dad who misses his son more than he can describe; a dad who is permanently confused. I have portrayed myself as a grotesque clown in my own narrative. I wanted to make you laugh, and sometimes provoke your empathy.
Now this is about to change. The central figure is about to be recast. Mr Bean is about to turn into Erin Brockovich. There are only a few areas of life in which I feel really confident; one of them happens to be getting my point of view across. Ask me to put up a bookshelf and I will freeze with panic; ask me to help out with an employment dispute, and I know exactly what to do. I am the sort of father who will walk over hot coals for his children, I am also the sort of person who has a heightened need for justice. Life has taught me that you bide your time - you watch and wait - and you only get involved with disputes when you are certain that you will win.
There are two uncomfortable questions that I need to ask:
- What would you have done in my position?
- What are we going to do about this as a community? Our story is not unique. We are not the first people that this has happened to; and I know for a fact that we are not the last.
We have debated as a family whether I should tell this story. We are all aware of the possible implications, but we all still feel that the story needs to be told. The events in the story are shocking. I am not going to report anything that I do not have evidence for. If you choose to read this, you will be accompanying me and my family to some very dark places; and the conclusion of this story with astonish you. I have decided to call this sequence of blogs, Exit Stage Left.
Autonomy, Freedom, and Inevitable Rebellion
I think that it was Spider-Man who said: with great power comes great responsibility. This is also true for autonomy. With more autonomy comes a greater responsibility and also, perhaps, a greater degree of self-control.
We have a new system for our son, now that he is nearly fourteen, and again living with us rather than staying at a boarding school: at the beginning of each week he is given a sum of money, and he has to budget for himself. Transport, ballet classes and any lunch, drinks or snacks all have to be paid for from this weekly amount. Our unexpected circumstances have led to a new opportunity - he can learn an important life-skill, And hopefully avoid the mistakes that not having these skills might bring when he is older.
It means of course that he can embrace the dark side. Fast food has been forbidden all his life, and he let it slip the other day that he got a portion of French fries after a class. We have also discovered that he is quite partial to a chocolate brownie now and again as a source of post-ballet carbohydrate. Years of ballet means that taking water with him at all times is habitual - so, we are yet to discover him swigging from a coke can (or anything else, for that matter) - but only time will tell.
I suppose that this is a normal stage of parenting. There comes a point when surveillance - like some neurosis powered helicopter - has to stop. We just have to trust that we reasoned and persuaded enough, so that left to their own devices they won't freak out entirely and submerge themselves in a life of excess. Is there any research to suggest that children who are kept on a tighter leash become more hedonistic and irresponsible in adult life? Or is all the evidence wrapped up in the much quoted marshmallow test - delayed gratification as the secret to adult success. I suspect that if my children are anything like their parents then their ability to delay gratification is not very good.
Apparently thoughts of rebellion are an important developmental stage beginning at the age of eight. It occurs to children for the first time as eight-year-olds that they can cut loose and become free-spirited and independent. I don't mean to brag about how precocious my children are, but evidence would suggest that both of mine had this thought five years early - at the age of three. Both skipped over the ‘terrible two’s’, and became almost uncontrollable a year later. They really seemed to understand that they were individuals who didn't need to tow the line any more - a quality that we have nurtured in both ever since. In fact, such is the anarchic nature of their upbringing, I considered our son’s desire to attend a traditional boarding school based on an archaic and patriarchal model to be an early act of rebellion - we failed as parents by not putting enough rules in place, and his rebellion was to go to ballet school. I'm thankful that this phase has now passed. Now that he has patriarchy out of his system, he can move on to more valuable forms of rebellion.
And with this in mind, a couple of weeks ago, he announced where he had taken himself for lunch in a particularly swanky restaurant. Well actually, as he assured us, he didn't go into the restaurant, but had lunch in a the deli and café which the restaurant owns next door. How much was this beautifully presented tomato and mozzarella ciabatta? We tried not to gasp, and swallowed our potential exclamations when he told us. A deal is a deal. He had budgeted for it, and it fitted into his weekly planning, so it would have been remiss to make him experience any form of shame. In fact, I did the opposite. I congratulated him on his adventurous choice and his ability to handle money. His teenage rebellion is taking an interesting and unexpected shape.