"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I picked up my son Elijah from school. The other kids were all napping or playing quietly. His teacher was sitting at a low table with him, in a chair four sizes too small for her. She was surrounded by a palpable aura of exhaustion and defeat.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” she said.
This wasn’t some early-childhood education major in her first job since graduation. Elijah’s teacher had been doing this for 25 years. And now she was admitting defeat at the hands of a 2-year-old.
“He bit again today,” she said. “There was blood. We’ve tried everything. We can’t stop him.”
The next day, Elijah chomped on another kid, and scratched still another one over the eye. The day after that was a Friday. An afternoon teaching assistant called us at home. Elijah had put a rock up his nose, and they couldn’t get it out. When we picked him up to take him to a doctor who would stick a vacuum up his schnozzle, Elijah’s teacher told us we had to have a conference Monday afternoon.
“We’re probably going to talk about solutions,” my wife, Regina, said.
“No, we’re not,” I said. “They’re gonna expel him.”
“Don’t be negative,” she said.
That Monday, Regina took Elijah to school in the morning. Teacher was there, a cloud of dread hanging over her. “I got a call at home about the rock,” teacher said. “Last week, I pulled another rock out of his nose. Two weeks ago, I pulled spaghetti out of his nose.”
Suddenly, Regina realized that the school was probably going to posit one “solution.” She came home and said: “If they do boot him out, screw them. I’m tired of feeling like I have a child who’s especially difficult. Every kid has his issues. It’s not like he’s 7 years old and doing this.”
“Yeah!” I said. “Screw them!”
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The very same day we were called in for a meeting at Elijah’s preschool, the Yale Child Study Center released a report, “Pre-kindergartners Left Behind,” which said preschool students were being expelled, across the country, at three times the rate of all students from kindergarten to 12th grade combined, and that a high percentage of them were boys. Karen Hill-Scott, an expert on “children’s development and their readiness for school,” told the New York Times: “What the data tells us, as does the show ‘Supernanny,’ is that there are a lot of out-of-control kids out there.” Yes, some of the kids are immature or even borderline violent, but there’s a reason for that: They’re kids.
The real problem here, one that the study barely addresses, is that parents, because they have to work, have no choice but to send kids to expensive, overcrowded preschools, for far more hours a week than kids are emotionally and mentally ready to handle. The waiting lists for the “best” schools are as long as those for some private high schools. Even getting accepted at second- and third-tier schools takes months. Many preschools have no reputation to protect, few standards to follow, and a long line of desperate parents at the gates, so they don’t have to deal with your kid if he or she is hard work. There’s always someone behind you waiting to pony up the $200 to $500 a month.
The survey backs this up. Expulsion rates are far higher in “faith-based” and for-profit programs than they are in Head Start schools and preschools located in public-school classrooms. Publicly funded schools have easier access to behavioral consultants, often as paid staff, who can step in to help teachers with difficult cases. But those of us who have their kids elsewhere are just shit out of luck.
Except for the few hours a week when she teaches a class at the local community college, my wife and I both work at home. The house is small. I write in a corner of the living room, and Regina, when she can, goes to paint in the garage. Even if we hired an inexperienced nanny on the cheap, the kid would still be underfoot most of the day, screeching. We’re in a strangely common situation: If we don’t put our kid in preschool, we can’t afford to send him to preschool. In the last two months, we’ve had to put our taxes on a credit card, and put our house on the market because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to pay off our credit-card debt. This is one of those years that, hopefully, we’ll be able to look back at and say, “That was one of those years.”
When Elijah was around 14 months old, we started looking. Regina hadn’t worked since he was born, and her brain was starting to melt out her ears. The two hours a day of “daddy time” that we’d set aside for me were only occasionally tenable. I may have been working in the same room where we kept the diaper bag, but I was still working. We had a couple of flimsy recommendations from friends. Most preschools don’t have much Web presence. So we flipped open the phone book.
We got ourselves on the waiting lists at two Jewish schools, but there won’t be an opening at either of them until 5750, and I don’t mean the Hebrew calendar. There was a near-miss where we almost sent Elijah to an outlet of a for-profit chain school that mostly preys on children of healthcare employees, and a brush with a place that was run by uptight marms out of a Dickens novel. One afternoon, we got a call from our fourth or fifth choice, a not incredibly expensive Montessori school 10 minutes away from our house. They had our check within an hour.
Elijah was in school from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The school was OK. Within a few months, Elijah knew his alphabet, his days of the week, the state of Texas on sight, seemingly hundreds of songs, and he could count to 40. At the same time, they showed the kids Barney videos while they were changing their diapers and gave them Country Time lemonade while calling it “juice.” When we complained, the director ignored us. But at least we had our mornings.
And then he started to bite.
At first, it was only occasional, and totally excusable, since he wasn’t even 2 yet. A kid was playing with a ball he wanted, and he took a chomp. The first day it happened, I went out to the playground, where he was happily sliding. He’d forgotten about the incident. He was more interested in playing peek-a-boo with me.
When I got home, Regina and I tried gentle discipline.
“Elijah,” I said in my most stentorian voice. “Look at me.”
He did, his eyes big, sheepish and serious.
“Biting is very, very bad.”
“It makes other kids sad,” Regina said. “And they cry.”
“It’s wrong, and you can’t do it anymore,” I said. “Now, what did you do at school today that was wrong?”
“All fall down!” Elijah said.
“No, Elijah,” I said. “I’m not talking about Ring Around the Rosie. What did you do that was bad?”
“Um…” he said. “BI! BI BA!”
“That’s right. Biting is bad. Are you going to bite someone again?”
Things got worse when he went to the “big kids class” for older toddlers. When we’d signed Elijah up, there were 13 kids in each class, with two teachers and a whole gaggle of assistants. By the time he moved up, it was 17 kids, there were fewer assistants, and we were paying $50 more a month. He unleashed himself. For months, he bit three days out of five.
In particular, Elijah seemed to enjoy biting a sad-eyed little girl named Sophie, with whom he was obviously in love. He wouldn’t stop talking about her at home. “Daddy, what’s Sophie doing?” he’d ask. Or he’d say, “I bite Sophie!” and start cackling. I found myself having to say, both because it was true and because it was funny, “Elijah, you can only bite girls if they ask you to.”
But it started growing less funny. Friends suggested therapy, but our crappy health insurance, which costs us $500 a month, doesn’t cover therapy. At school, they told him to “use his words,” but using his words wasn’t really the problem, since he knows how to use his words just fine. That said, he’s not capable of voicing a thought much more complex than “I want ice on my boo-boo,” or “Maybe there’s a rabbit in my closet that’s scaring me.” Not much for a shrink to work with there.
They were putting him in timeout at school, but he didn’t seem to mind that, either, because it was one of the rare times he got individual attention. We devised an incentive program with his teachers. If you don’t bite, we told him, you’ll get ice cream. But after a couple of days of ice cream, he was sated, and he’d bite again. They told us to start sending him to school with a family picture in his pocket. If he bit they’d take the picture away. This worked for about three days. That’s when we got called in for the conference.
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The Yale study recommends that states prohibit pre-K expulsion, develop clear policies for dealing with children with behavioral problems, and require training for all preschool teachers to deal with these problems. Those are fine recommendations, and I really hope privately funded schools also take heed, though I suspect the prospects are slim. I certainly know that a “behavioral aide” would have been nice for us these last few months. Our son may be a mildly psychotic hothead, but he’s also smart and cute and funny. The school certainly tried, and so did we, but we all ended up treating him as just another naughty kid. Instead of actual help, we had a series of quarter measures inevitably leading to a conference that detailed a disciplinary disaster.
Elijah’s teacher gave us a stack of injury reports an inch thick. They were all for things Elijah had done to other kids.
“These are just this month’s,” she said. “And they’re just the ones where he drew blood. It also doesn’t include the dozens of times we’ve caught him just before he attacked another kid. We have to pull him off kids three or four times a day.” She sighed.
“I have seven new kids coming into my class next month,” she continued. “And they’re little.”
Regina and I looked at each other. Here came the hammer.
“I just think it’ll be better for everyone,” teacher said, “and that Elijah might be happier, if he went somewhere else.”
There’s no cataloging the feeling of helplessness that washed over Regina and me then. Our child was being expelled. From preschool. What had we done wrong? I felt terribly guilty. Though I was never a biter, my own childhood was full of intermittent emotional outbursts, fights, visits to behavioral specialists when the schools made them available, and lots of muddled weeping. This continued well into adulthood, until about a year and a half ago when I started taking a pill that shall not be named here but that helped me a lot. Elijah’s struggles made me especially sad because I knew that not much could be done to soothe his turbulent little mind. The fact that he has my full sympathy and understanding will provide little solace whenever that chemical stew inside his cranium goes out of balance. Why couldn’t he have inherited his mother’s demeanor? She’s a little bossy and self-righteous, but at least she’s sane.
“I guess we knew there was a problem,” Regina said. “But…”
The teacher said she felt “sick” about this. She’d had to talk to her boss, the school’s director. The boss came to class and said, “Him? How could he be trouble? He looks like a little Botticelli… ”
Elijah’s teachers were kind and more than competent, but terribly overworked. As for the director, she could have seen our son sometime between the day she’d first taken our money and the day she’d expelled him. Maybe, I thought, if she didn’t leave 17 kids in the charge of two teachers, we might have had less of a problem. Now she was telling me my kid looks like a Botticelli cherub?
“He’s smart as a whip,” teacher said. “I can see it in his eyes when I talk to him. He understands everything. He just has problems with impulse control. Maybe you should get him some clay,” she said. “Something he can pound his aggression into. Or find him a nanny who can give him individual attention.”
I wanted to say: He already has clay, superstar. And do we look like we can afford a nanny? Instead, I said…
“Can we just have until June 1?”
On the drive home, Regina and I could barely keep from weeping. Our respective families were 1,000 miles away in either direction. We were terrified at the prospect of a summer without help. The irony was that we don’t have the $1,500 it would have cost to warehouse Elijah through September, so we might have had to pull him out anyway. But now we’ve been forced into the challenge of caring for a smart, stubborn, high-strung 2-year-old. We love him very much, but that’s not the kind of work either of us wants, at least not full time.
“I was a good boy, mama and daddy!” Elijah said.
“Yes, son,” I said.
“I no put rocks up my nose today!”
“Good boy,” I said.
“No!” he said. “I not a good boy! I hurt my friends!”
“Oh,” Regina said.
“I’m a good boy!” he shrieked. “I’m a good boy! I’m a good boy!”
One day last week, Regina dropped Elijah off at school. Teacher was standing there with a little girl. They looked very serious.
“This is Sophie,” teacher said.
She lifted the girl’s shirt. There was an enormous bite mark on Sophie’s back that was just beginning to scab over. Sophie’s dad had started calling the school. From here on, Elijah wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near any of the other kids. That would be his last day.
At home, Regina had this to say, through tears.
“I feel like a bad mother!” she said. “I don’t want to spend all summer with him! He’s difficult! He’s a difficult child! He wants too much from me. And you’re going to go crazy if he’s around all the time. Our marriage always suffers when he’s home!”
“So our marriage has to suffer,” I said.
“This is a fiasco,” she said.
Later that afternoon, a few of Regina’s paintings were going on display at a local gallery. My job was to keep Elijah from tearing the room apart. I was reasonably successful. When we got home, I had some things to empty out of the car. Regina took Elijah inside. He was begging her to let him open the refrigerator. I came inside to hear this:
“AHHHHH! He bit me!”
I threw down the sippy cups, shouted something like “I’ve had it with your goddamn biting!” scooped Elijah up by the armpits, and plopped him down into the “penalty chair,” our version of Supernanny’s “naughty mat.” I held him there until he stopped shrieking, and then he gave me a kiss and apologized to his mommy.
All was peaceful again in the house, temporarily. But Elijah still had the same problems and we were still broke. In our minds and in our hearts, Regina and I silently wished the summer away.
This story has been changed since it was originally published.
Neal Pollack is the author of the literary satire "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," among other works of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book, "Open Your Heart: A Matt Bolster Yoga Mystery," will be released in paperback on November 14.More Neal Pollack.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)