Originally published in Ladies’ Home Journal, Oct. 1989 under the pseudonym Evelyn Berlin (a pseudonym of Carole G. Vogel)
“School is dumb!” announced nine-year old Michael as he stormed into the house. “And I’m never going back.” He flung his book bag on the floor.
“What happened this time?” I reacted calmly to Michael’s outburst. I know my son has Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), and is unable to focus on school work for a sustained period. Frustrated by the demands of school, he threatens to drop out on a regular basis.
“The superintendent is gonna cut out the only good thing about school – the music instrument program.” Michael tossed his jacket on top of the book bag and kicked them both across the living room.
“Tell me all about it while I make you a snack.”
As I threw a banana, milk, cinnamon, and a smattering of brown sugar into the blender, Michael explained that instrumental music had become the latest casualty in a mammoth effort to reduce the school budget.
“Next year, fourth graders won’t get the chance to play stringed instruments,” he moaned, “and fifth graders will lose out on band instruments. It’s not fair! I’ve been practicing the clarinet all year and I want to be in an orchestra.” Michael gulped down half his banana milk shake.
“Write a letter to the superintendent and tell him off, Mommy.”
I know it is virtually hopeless. The superintendent of our suburban school system has a reputation for soliciting public opinion before making budget decisions but not after. His latest decision had already been met by a loud outcry from the music teachers in the system and music-loving parents. One more pro‑test from a concerned adult would fall on deaf ears.
“You can still take your clarinet lessons after school next year.” I tried to console my son. “Daddy and I don’t mind paying for them. When you’re in the middle school, you can join the orchestra then.”
“There won’t be an orchestra, Mommy,” Michael countered in his exasperated, don’t-adults-know-anything voice. “If you take the instruments away from kids my age, they won’t be interested when they are bigger. I’ll be the only kid in town who can make music and you can’t have an orchestra with one musician.”
I hugged Michael. “Tell me why this is so important to you.”
“I can’t do anything right,” Michael said, “except play the clarinet. In reading, I lose my place all the time. My friends write better stories better than me. I can never find my math homework and my teacher thinks I never do it.”
When Michael finished pouring out his heart, I said. “Maybe you should write the superintendent yourself. I think you have a lot to say.”
“I can’t, Mommy. You know I can’t think and write at the same time.”
I understood. So Michael and I sat in front of the word processor. He told me what to say and I typed in the words for him. Then we printed out the letter.
“Looks great,” announced Michael. “Let’s mail it right away.”
“Not yet,” I said. “You have to copy it over in your own handwriting.”
“No way!” screamed Michael. “That will take a year.”
“I know, but if you don’t, the superintendent will think that a grown-up wrote it. He has to know it came from you.”
What followed, were the trademarks of a typical parent-and A.D.D.-child interaction.
Michael threw himself on the floor. “I’m not gonna do it.” He kicked his feet up and down.
“Yes, you are.” I grabbed his hands and tugged gently, pulling him to a reluctant stand. “Sit at your desk.”
“I don’t wanna.” Michael plopped down on the chair. “And you can’t make me.” He crossed his arms and held his body tight.
I hugged him. “You must be really upset about the orchestra to act like this. I bet you’ll feel better once your letter is written.” I felt Michael relax his taut muscles.
“All right, I’ll do it.” He picked up a pencil and began to write. After 20 minutes he had completed only half the letter. “I can’t do any more,” he wailed.
“Let’s take a break,” I said. “You’ve done a good job so far.”
Michael picked up his clarinet. His eyes lit up and his body swayed in time to the music as he played “The Saints Go Marching In.”
That evening, my son returned to the letter. With great effort, he copied another sentence and then slammed his pencil down. “I keep losing my place.”
“Let’s use an index card to keep you on track,” I replied.
This approach worked. Michael completed the letter and put it in an envelope. I addressed it.
“I bet this letter won’t do any good,” sighed Michael. “The superintendent isn’t going to listen to a little kid.”
“You’re probably right, Michael, but when you really believe in something, you have to stand up for it.”
Without much hope, Michael placed the envelope in the mail‑box and then picked up his clarinet and made beautiful music once more.
A few days later, the superintendent met with the teachers in our school system. Using an overhead projector, he enumerated his budget cuts, step-by-step. There were no surprises. Finally, he came to the music program.
“I had planned to cut out instrumental music,” he said, “Until I received this letter.” Then he projected Michael’s letter for all to see.
Dear Mr. Superintendent:
I am a fourth grader in your school district. I don’t want you to cut the music program because I’ve practiced clarinet and I really want to get into the school orchestra.
I have Attention Deficit Disorder and all my friends can do better work than I can. Making music is one of the things I can do better than my friends. I don’t think it’s fair to cut the music program.
After the meeting, Michael’s teacher excitedly phoned me. “Michael made a difference,” she said. “Where adults had failed, one nine-year old succeeded. The superintendent decided to fund the program.”
I put Michael on the phone. When he finished speaking to his teacher, he hugged me, beaming.
That evening I found my son hunched motionless in a chair.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m tucking this day away in my head,” Michael explained. “I might need it again when I’m feeling like I can’t do anything right. Then I can pull it out and remember that I was the one who saved the orchestra.”