Divorce and the Outbreak of Apparent Situational Asthma at My School

By Bill Rich

As a school principal, it is easy to tell when yet another family was in the process of divorce. First the woman would go through a kind of physical transformation in very short time. Extreme weight loss of 20 to even 30 pounds in a few weeks along with dark circles under the eyes accompanied the kind of shock. If there had been a pregnancy weight gain, it was gone now. Teachers reported this to me along with stories of a disconnected, disassociated mother, perhaps suddenly unaware of homework or other parenting issues, late pick up of children after school and uncontrollable crying jags. It was a familiar pattern.

As for the fathers, they became ‘Daddy of the Year’ at school. Often I stopped these unknown individuals in the hallway to find out who they were and what they were up to. I found out that they were volunteering in classrooms and for field trips in support roles hitherto unseen by teachers or me. Sometimes the new girlfriend came along, resulting in more humiliation and anger for the mother.

After a couple more months the requests from the fathers for letters of support in the upcoming divorce proceedings arrived. Attorneys coached the fathers, telling them that they would get a better custody outcome and, thereby, lower alimony payments if they were judged to be “involved and competent parents.” Through experience my policy became to let divorcing parents know that the school only responded to such requests from the courts, not from the parents. In other words you needed a note from a judge. A note from your lawyer didn’t do the trick.

Naturally, the children were a mess. The longer the divorce dragged out and the more rancorous the conflict, the more damage the children experienced. The children themselves typically blamed themselves for the end of their family and told their teachers about their guilt and hopes for reconciliation. Counselors and nurses have long-since disappeared from California schools, so the kids relied on the limited expertise of their teachers, school aides, and principal to guide them through the adult world of divorce court.

So misbehavior needed a different response to the children of divorcing paper; sometimes comfort is more effective than by-the-book discipline. It was around this time that I started treating these kids as if I were a doctor, and they suffered from some kind of ailment. If they were being defiant during the divorce, I would bring them into my office and check their pulse. Next I would feel their forehead for a fever. I would ask them if they had a headache and to show me where it hurt. I would ask them to breathe in deeply and exhale slowly as if I had a stethoscope while I watched intently. Finally, I sent them back to class and told them to return in an hour if they weren’t feeling a little better. This worked amazingly well.

After the court proceedings were completed, the erstwhile visible fathers at school often again became invisible. Many mothers, on the other hand stayed involved, fighting off depression and transferred their focus and desire for a strong and noble man to whom else, but me? So the wonderful and wise school secretary, Betty kept her foot in the office door and prevented more than one recently divorced and now svelte mother from trying to crawl onto my lap in my office. Like the children, these mothers in crisis ascribed a level of goodness, kindness and moral strength to my office and person which was not exactly deserved.

My thoughts about this focused on the ridiculous nature of whatever we think marriage should be in our culture. What other arrangement do we believe in so deeply, and pursue so ardently, knowing that it has only a 50% success rate? If this were a savings account at a bank, someone would be in jail. We must be setting this thing up, marriage and child rearing, so wrong-headedly. Why do men suddenly bolt at such an amazingly high rate? Whatever the situation these men and women thought they had created turned out to be a fantasy. And since there was no safety valve, the weight of the upset fell on their children, at least as much as on the parents.

For the middle class mothers without financial support from the extended family, the change meant a plunge into poverty. The kids went on free breakfast and lunch program and the mothers looked for work, day care, and transportation to and from school. Houses in subdivision neighborhoods were lost in the settlement and the mothers and children learned to adapt to apartment life. I tried to help in the ways that an experienced and effective manipulator of bureaucratic rules could. One issue was always the bus. The newly single mother couldn’t be at work or go to work if her kids couldn’t get to school on time. The rule for my district was the child had to live over a mile from school to take the bus. I worked the transportation manager and administrative council to develop waivers for most rules I cared about. But of course the waivers needed to be based upon outside expert recommendations such as medical authorities. Doctors at the local clinic were usually willing to help, especially when I made up and mentioned the diagnosis such as “apparent situational asthma,” a disease I frankly made up. But the doctors are also caught in bureaucracies and went along..