Every day, parents everywhere let go of their children’s hands and put them on busses, wave goodbye to them after a morning walk, or kiss them goodbye from the front seat of the cars they drive through a long line of other parents and guardians. Parents send their children to school and into someone else’s arms.
The phrase in loco parentis is one I learned early in life, helping my father proofread the textbooks he wrote on educational administration. It is Latin for “in place of parents,” and it forms the legal standing for schools professionals to act as responsible for and in guardianship of the students in their care. On a practical level, it allows them to call an ambulance for a child who has been hurt, to administer medication with a legal guardian’s permission, and to supervise those students throughout a school day. “In place of parents” is exactly how all parents hope their children’s schools are behaving.
In reality, though, no one can act in place of me. No one on the planet can look my children in the eyes and tell, in moments, whether they’re sick, whether they’re scared, whether they’re ready to answer a question or whether they’re feeling too shy to respond. I knew this on the first day that I dropped my oldest daughter off for kindergarten, kissing her curly hair as I double and triple checked that she had her backpack, her name tag, her lunchbox, and the necklace with an elephant on it that she’d picked out to be the holder of her “secret kiss from Mommy.” I knew going into those moments that her wonderful, kind Kindergarten teacher didn’t really know her. Even by the end of the year, he’d never know her like I did. After all, he had 17 other children to know.
And as for the principal? Well, for goodness sakes, he had almost 500 children to know, and some of them had five years’ head start on my daughter. And even when I brought my second daughter, with her food restrictions and her special box of allergen-free food to school, even when he’d known me and my husband and her big sister for three years already, even then I knew that he wouldn’t know my little daughter as well as I did.
More than anything, though, I wanted him to know this: food was really, really hard for her. Really hard. She couldn’t eat quickly, even when she was told to eat quickly. She had an esophagus riddled with white blood cells and, at age 5, she weighed just over 30 pounds. I told him that. I told him, the school health clerk, the kindergarten teacher, the district health coordinator, the social worker, and every fine arts teacher she knew. I told them all in an official way known as a 504 plan. So, while they didn’t know her like I did, they knew this. I know that they knew this.
What I hadn’t realized was that, as an institution, the school really didn’t care.
In theory, of course, everyone knew not to feed her things she couldn’t eat. When people tried, and my smart little five year old refused, there was never an apology. But when she couldn’t finish her lunch, and she told me it was too hard to eat with the cafeteria supervisors screaming at her class to finish, what I never expected was the blank, cold look on the face of the principal.
“If she needs to eat her lunch somewhere else, you can add that to her 504 plan,” he said, half-an-eye on the clock.
No, I said. I wanted to know if there was a way to give all the kids more time to eat. Their twenty minutes, it turned out, included the walk to the cafeteria — a gaggle of five year olds shepherded down the hall by the most patient kindergarten teacher ever — AND the time to clean up their table to prepare for the next group of kids. I wondered aloud to the principal if any of these kids could really finish a healthy lunch in the ten or twelve minutes they had left.
“They manage,” he answered. “They’re pros by 5th grade.”
Pros at what? I didn’t ask him. Pros at scarfing their food? That was something my daughter would never be. Years later, we would learn that an artery in her chest was compressing her esophagus into several right turns. Food sat inside it for many minutes at a time, up and down until it squeezed its way to her stomach. Sure, the other children likely had nothing that strange happening in their chests, but as I scanned the signs in the cafeteria advising healthy portion sizes and multiple food groups at every meal, I wondered if any staff member in the building could sit in their winter coat among a crowd of forty children and three shrieking supervisors and eat all the food groups in ten minutes.
It’s not right to do this to kids. It’s not right that those in loco parentis not only can’t see what it does to them but can’t advocate for real change in the school day to accommodate a longer lunch period. There are dozens of reasons why that is a challenge, but thousands of children who need that challenge met.