Should I Wring My Son’s Neck or Hug Him?

The past few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster as I’ve waited, belly tight and heart in throat, to find out if my 17 year old son would graduate high school or not. It all hinged on senior English class. In spite of standardized test scores that are through the roof, and his teacher declaring he was one of the most talented writers in class, he was failing. He simply wasn’t doing the work.

His entire high school career, if you can even call it that, has been a roller coaster ride for our entire family. Flunking classes, skipping classes, experimenting with drugs. My husband and I tried everything we could think of as parents to help him get it together — grounding, taking away privileges, family counseling, threats, encouragement, even a 10 week stint in an after school drug rehab for potheads. Nothing worked. Finally we realized that the only thing left to do was let go and leave the responsibility of his life outcomes in his hands, with the caveat that if this crap was still going on when he turned 18 in August he would need to find somewhere else to live.

The email from his English teacher came as I was standing in line at the grocery store deli awaiting my turn: Hi Aaron, I just wanted to let you know that you earned a 90 on your final exam; your essay was well written, insightful, and fully developed. This means that you pass senior English with a 61.

I didn’t realize how loudly I’d cried out, “Thank God!” until a few people standing close by turned to look at me. I immediately called my husband with the news, and of course that’s precisely when my deli number was called. I rattled out my order, ignoring the deli guy’s irritated expression. Yes, I was one of those rude people talking on my cell phone while he was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t care.

As I told my husband that our son would indeed graduate, without warning the tears began to fall. Weeks, no, years of built up stress, of feeling like a failure as a mother, of wondering why I was so good at helping college students find academic success, yet my own son was a hot mess, melted away in that moment. He would graduate. This difficult phase was officially behind us.

The deli guy softened his stance upon seeing my tears. I managed to get through the rest of the order before texting my other sons, mom, dad, and brother with the news. This incited a flurry of texts, ranging from pure joy to my brother warning me not to give God too much of the credit, in response to my “Thank God!”. It might very well be God, I told him, cause I’ve been praying my ass off for weeks.

The two saving graces in this whole situation have been my son’s job and my brother. About three months ago my son started working at a popular family-owned restaurant in town. He has not missed a shift or been late once. Not even on the day I took away the keys to his grandfather’s old jalopy, which he’s been driving, as punishment. Somehow, he managed to get to and from work anyway. I strongly suspect, due to the fact that it was nearly midnight when he arrived home from work, that he walked the two miles. Clearly, he wasn’t lazy. He was simply unmotivated by school.

As for my brother, his high school academic experience was similar. He barely scraped by, was in danger of not graduating, and made it at the last minute, in part thanks to notes written by my stepfather’s friend’s dentist, claiming my brother had dental work done on several of the days he was absent. He didn’t finish college, and spent several years after high school helping an uncle with his painting business, when he felt like getting up and working. Then, almost magically overnight, everything changed in his mid-20s. By chance he met the owner of a start-up technology company, got a job as an inside salesperson, and made $90,000 his first year there. He has since moved on to outside sales, client management, and is highly successful. An entrepreneur at heart, he’s also looking into founding a non-profit organization that, ironically, focuses on providing educational opportunities to disadvantaged populations.

So there’s hope after all.

Granted, my son might not end up as successful as my brother. Then again, who knows what the future holds? As for me, though I’m beyond thrilled and relieved that he’ll be graduating, there’s a part of me that would like to wring his neck for all the hell he put us through. The other part just wants to hug him.