Saturday, April 16, 2011

School Daze

On Thursday, I registered Julia for kindergarten at the school down the road.  I cannot possibly put into words how torn my emotions are about this.
(But I'll try.)

I have a love/hate relationship with public schools. 
When I was in elementary school, a public one, I loved just about every moment of it.  I looked forward to getting out of bed, shoveling my cereal into my mouth, and hopping in the car to have my mom drive me the three minutes to my school.  Admittedly, I was more than a little bored with the work and finished way ahead of schedule, but that didn't bother me.  I looked forward to chatting with my teachers while the other students worked, and I ran errands and went to the library and wrote stories...I filled my time.  My teachers?  The BEST.  I'm still in contact with some of them today.  The worst thing about school was getting in trouble for talking to my friends, and I had a lot of those.

Until Middle School.  Grades six through eight were hard on me.  Being smart went from being something about which to be proud to being something that made me different and disliked.  And if you're different in Middle School, it's apparently not a good thing.  Again, my teachers were spectacular (::waves:: Hi, guys!), as were a core group of my friends in our school's gifted program.  But talking with these people and my one day a week in gifted classes was just not enough at that point.  I dreaded getting out of bed in the morning.  Glasses.  Braces.  Kids hated me for being a "teacher's pet," when in actuality I talked to the teachers all the time because they were the only ones who were nice to me.  (Also, they were the only ones who could hold an interesting conversation, in my opinion.)

I thought high school would somehow be different.  I was wearing contacts.  My braces were removed.  New students from a school across town would be merging with our school, and they wouldn't know that they weren't supposed to like me.  A week into school, they knew.  I never realized how fast a label can carry; it's like I was wearing a big sign on me that said, "Hey!  Hate me!  I'm different!"  I did enjoy the classes more than I ever had in the past.  I was able to take honors and AP classes, and I was actually challenged more than I had been in the past.  Classes were more fun.  My social life, however, was not.  I learned things I should not have been learning and did things I should not have been doing, and in the end I spent most of high school depressed and moping.  What a waste.
College was more of the same.
And then?
I started teaching.  In a public elementary school.

You know how people say that schools today aren't what they were like when we were kids?  True.  For better or for worse, that's true.  Now I was the teacher with the one kid attached to me at the hip, begging for conversation, pleading to help me sort papers or run errands.  Now I was witnessing kids being ostracized for being different from an age much earlier than what I experienced.  Too smart.  Not smart enough.  Too  much money.  Too poor.  Looks funny.  Talks funny.  Is funny.  I tried to help students work through their differences.  I tried to teach to the various skill levels in a class.  And in the end, I decided that I just couldn't make this a perfect environment.  I was agonizing over something that just doesn't happen.  It's impossible to make everyone get along.  It's impossible to make sure no one falls through the cracks--you can't put all your energy into helping one person write a thesis AND put all your energy into helping their neighbor learn the alphabet.  A teacher's energy is halved, at best.  Or at least mine was.
And that's the thing.  Many teachers are AMAZING, whether they teach in a public school, a private one, or at home.  They are much better teachers than I was and somehow never seem to be spread thin.  But the reality in today's school systems, with huge class sizes, and pressures of THE TEST, is that lots of teachers are just like me.  Lots.  They want to be all they can be for every student, socially and educationally, but realistically there's never enough time in the day or money in the budget.  That's the teachers that want to be there and do their best--what's scary is that not all of them want to be.

When Brynn was born and I decided to become a stay-at-home mom and hang up my ruler and grade book, Julia was just a few months past turning two years old.  Already I could see that she was a smart cookie.  She knew her letters and letter sounds, could count to at least a hundred, and had a better vocabulary than me.  Already, her creativity knew no bounds.  By three years old, she was reading books on her own.  And at age five, she's reading chapter books.

This started to worry me a couple of years ago.  If she goes to school, will she be bored?  What will she do when all the other kids are learning their letters?  Is she doomed to a life of trouble for talking and fidgeting and being a social outcast?  How will they possibly challenge her enough?  She began to remind me so much of myself, so I instinctively went into protective mode.

I decided that we would home school.  After all, I have a teaching degree, a little bit of knowledge, and we were already basically doing "unschooling" anyway.  The days passed, she learned more and more, and we had sort of a learning groove.  I knew how to challenge her.  I made sure she had activities so she could be around other kids.  And this was just for preschool!  YAY!  We were doing this!  This is working great for us!

Then a few months ago, she dropped a bombshell on me: "Mommy, I can't wait until August so I can go to REAL school!"
What does she think we're doing here?  Is this pretend?  And where did she even learn about an actual school building, much less that it starts in August?  Either someone had been informing her, or she read about it.  Either way, I was more than a little upset.  How do you explain to a preschooler that a school doesn't have to be an actual building?  That it doesn't matter where you're learning, as long as you're learning?  How can you say, "I know what's best for you, and that's being home with me so you're challenged and don't fall through the cracks?"
As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I had my answer.

You don't.
We are firm believers in letting our children form opinions about things in life on their own, as long as it's not something that will harm them.  Julia was so excited about school and all the things she thinks will happen there, and I knew it was something I should allow her to experience.  But being away from her for hours every day--yikes!  I wanted to send her to a half private/half home school here, but our family's one income, though my husband works very hard for it, won't support the cost.  She may go to a traditional school, realize it's not for her, and ask to home school again.
Or (gulp.) she may go to school, love it, and thrive.  She might have one of those teachers like I had in elementary school, one who seems to be able to find extra time for her, no matter how hectic the school schedule.  Maybe they'll be able to accommodate her learning needs.  Maybe she'll make lots of friends and feel like she fits in.  I hope so.  I really, really do.
And if not, I'm here for her.  We'll do this until it doesn't work anymore.  If Brandon and I sense that she's losing out academically or she's becoming bored and frustrated, we'll try other options.  If she starts learning or doing inappropriate things constantly, we'll try other options.  There are always other options, but there's just this one time to start kindergarten.

She was so thrilled to be at "real school" on Thursday to register.  As I filled out her paperwork, she was literally bouncing around that cafeteria.  They did a quick skills assessment on her (knocked it out of the park, of course), and she became fast friends with a teacher who shares her first name.  She pointed out the lunch lines, the ice cream machines, the Girl Scout registration table.  She didn't stop smiling for the entire hour we were there.
PleaseOhPleaseOhPlease let her keep that smile.  Please let her keep that love of learning.  Please let this be okay.

After all, who am I to say I know how she'll learn best?  Who am I to think that my experience will be hers?  Who am I to think I can keep all the negative out of her schooling?

I'm her mom, that's who.  And I'll be here to help guide her through this, no matter what happens or what she decides.

Please let this be a good thing.  Please.


  1. Gah. So much of our life experiences are the same. :/

    I know your heart about this. I know how hard this is for you. I think Julia will be okay. I think she's going to love school. And when she doesn't love it so much, which will happen, you're right. You're her mother and you'll be there to help her through it, in whatever way she needs helping.

    ((hugs)) to you, Jenn.

  2. I glad that she's excited to go to school. It's funny, but my kids never realized they had a choice. Amber has mentioned going to public school, but she is so far ahead that I can't do it to her, she'd be so bored.

    I hope it works out for you guys!

  3. I hope things go well for you and your daughter. Can't wait to see how it goes.

  4. I typed a long comment and google ate it.

    So pissed now.

    The gist: I'm in the same place (minus the advanced/already reading part) with my 5 year old. The social part of school worries me the most, and I'm trying to plan my future career plans around something flexible enough that I could take a few years off to be a homeschool mom when public school fails.

    I say "when" because, let's face it. WHEN.

    Great post.