After 25 years of doing this job, I’ve found that asking the right questions can make the person sitting on the other side of my desk quite uncomfortable. If I push hard enough, I can even make them wish they never walked through my door.
Take this lady, for example. She’s spent the better part of the last half hour pleading her case to me, desperately trying to get me to see her side of the story. She’s done quite a good job laying out the facts. Her facts. For my part, I’ve done just as good a job listening; I’d be out of this business if I weren’t such a good listener. When she’s done, and I ask her if there’s anything else she’d like to add, I ask my first question.
Looking at my legal pad, I say, “What did he have for breakfast this morning?”
“I don’t see how that has anything to do with this conversation,” she says, letting me know I’ve stepped over some line.
Maybe that’s why I’m on this side of the desk, ma’am. That’s what I want to say. “Maybe it doesn’t,” I say. “But just for my own curiosity…” Curiosity being another reason I’ve been in this business so long.
“I don’t know,” she finally says. “He grabbed a five-dollar bill and ran out the door. He didn’t even say good-bye.”
“That happen most mornings?”
She considers that. “I guess it does. I still don’t see—”
“What about last night? What did you guys do for dinner?”
She shakes her head. “I got home late from work. Again. He just ordered in.”
I didn’t have to ask how often that happened. She’d already told me.
“What about his day?” I ask. “Busy, slow, average? Anything out of the ordinary happen? What’d he say about his day?”
“He was in front of the TV when I got home. Like always. I’m lucky to get one-word answers from him.” She takes a deep breath. “‘Fine,’ he said. We didn’t really talk much until it was time to go to bed.”
“And what time was that?”
“I don’t know. Eleven thirty?”
When they start looking at me for the answer to that question, it hits me right in the gut. I might as well be sparring with Mike Tyson.
I look down at the notes on my clipboard again and circle a few key items. By the time I look back up, her eyes have gotten wet. Save it, lady. I push the tissue box on my desk over to her. She takes one, but doesn’t use it.
“And all this brings you to me?”
“I was told you were the one to go to in . . . this situation. The ‘Specialist.’”
With as much modesty as I deem necessary, I say, “Yes. I am.”
She looks at me in silence, waiting for my response. When I give her none, she says, “Well, what do you think I should do?”
I lean back in my chair. “I’ve dealt with these kinds of situations many times before,” I say. “I can’t tell you how many people have walked through my door with the exact same problem.”
“And what do you tell them?”
“The same thing I’m going to tell you.” I put the clipboard on my desk and lean forward. “Get your kid to bed at bedtime,” I say. “If you don’t have one, make one up. Make sure he eats breakfast—at home—every day. That five dollars you give him is going towards five bucks of crap. Limit the amount of screen time he’s exposed to. TV, video games, texting, the Internet. Have dinner with him more often. As often as you can, even if that means rearranging your work schedule or taking work home. And, for everyone’s sake, spend a little more time with your kid.”
She stares back at me, clearly not used to being spoken to like this. She takes a few seconds to blink back the tears in her eyes, and says, “Would you be speaking this way if I were his father?”
“Ma’am,” I say calmly, “I speak this way to anyone who comes through my door claiming their kid has ADHD and can’t answer those five questions to my satisfaction.”
She stands up and takes her coat off the back of the chair. I do the same, without the coat. As she slips an arm through her sleeve, she says, “What about medication?”
“What about it?”
“I hear certain drugs work wonders with kids like mine.”
“So do the things I just discussed.”
She puts her other arm through and looks at her watch.
“Thank you for your time,” she says, making it clear I’ve wasted hers.
“You’re welcome,” I say anyway, and watch as she exits my classroom.
My guess? As soon as she leaves the building, she’s going straight to the kid’s doctor. Somewhere, someone will give her the answers she wants. They always do.
Interrogation desk image via Daquella manera
Tim O’Mara is a teacher in the New York City public school system. Raised on Long Island, he lives in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen with his wife and daughter. He is the author of Sacrifice Fly.