Yearbooks

We are finishing dinner. I’ve just found out that M-ito and all his classmates are given a yearbook at school and that it is a ritual to get signatures from your friends and classmates during this whole week. M-ito is excited about it and it makes me smile. He says he wants to get the headmaster’s signature.

“I know exactly what I’m going to write in my friend’s books,” he says.

“What?” Mom-ita asks.

“To my good friends, for G-ito and J-ito,” he begins, “and to my best friends, for Mik-ito and K-ito.” He smiles as he looks at us. A settled smile it is. He has made friends this year and has both good and best friends.

Last year at this time all was in chaos. We were changing schools and we left on unhappy terms with many parents and with much disappointment in faculty. I just reread my entry from one year ago, June 7th, 2009, Classroom Blues.

It is a year later and my son has found a home base for the next six years, and so have we.

Aparigraha Lessons

It (aparigraha) means non-possessiveness or non-hoarding and it’s a yogic concept right out of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Last year at parent teacher conferences in First Grade I took a look at the interior of M-ito’s desk and found it filled with papers, old homework, half-finished drawings, used and new tissues, and all the way at the back there was a sandwich of some sort, wrapped in sarran wrap. I don’t know how old it was and neither did M-ito. Neither of us wanted to see what it looked like so it just got thrown out.

“In case I was hungry,” M-ito said, when asked,”Why?”

Last week at parent teacher conferences in Second Grade, at a new school (which we are amazingly still happy about) we found that our son was hoarding pencils. He picked them up whenever he found them during the day and put them in his desk. He had quite a few of them from 3/4’s of a year’s tidying up of pencils. He told us, “I’m hoarding pencils,” with a big smile on his face. One of his friends was hoarding scissors, the same way. I’m glad M-ito was only hoarding pencils. The kids at M-ito’s school all have pencils, scissors, notebooks, folders, and pens (when they get to them) given to them by the school. There’s no competition over styles and designs, no extra cash to lay out for these kinds of utensils of student work. It’s all in the tuition. Gulp. So M-ito’s collection of pencils is not differentiated by these things. Instead each is differentiated by whether a pencil is sharpened or not, how many times it has been sharpened which determines its length, and finally how much of an eraser is left – maybe he also codes them by the size of the bite marks left on them – I don’t know. My son collects pennies too – wheat pennies only. It’s a hold-over from my grandfather who was a trainman, and myself who collected in his footsteps.

I believe he’s going to give all the pencils back to his teacher at some point. At least that’s what he said when I asked him. At least he’s helping to keep the floor clean. Gotta give that to him.

Classroom Blues

One of the most difficult tasks I’ve had  as a father has been to choose a school for my son. It should be simple. You have a good public school nearby  and you send your child there for free. That’s what I did where I grew up in Nassau County. I didn’t like school too much – there was a lot of drug traffic and some violence and I was glad, breathed a huge sigh of relief, when I left High School. I remember two friends burning their books in the school yard our last day. I can still see the flames in my mind’s eye. I loved books too much to burn them, but I understood the significance of their act. I was tired of learning and had been for a while.

M-ito’s last day of first grade at his school was yesterday. There was a small party – his class had only twelve kids – and a meloncholy air. A good third of the children, including my son, will not be returning next year.

For pre-K we sent him to public school, one for which we were zoned. We found it not to be a good fit for M-ito. I’ve learned that fit is important. A good school for one child will not be a good school for another. M-ito got lost in the pre-K in our neighborhood. He follows rules, raises his hand, does what his teachers tell him, doesn’t speak out of turn, and listens to what his teachers say. What happened to him in pre-K? His teacher didn’t pay attention to him. She didn’t know M-ito outside of his trouble getting his coat on by himself. (He liked it when she helped him put his coat on because she paid attention to him and talked to him, listened to him tell her stories, while she helped him put that jacket on.) He knew how to put his own coat on and he also had figured out a way, within the rules set out for him, to get a little attention for himself. In his class there were three other kids who had behavioral problems. The only other way for my son get attention was to hit others, yell, take other’s toys, push kids in the hall or on the stairs – but that’s not his way. The kids who did this took up 90% of both the teacher and teacher’s aide’s time. The teacher tried to shame the children into leaving their stuffed animals at home in preparation for kindergarten. I still can’t forgive her for that. The school had no idea how to use parents to help them with the children. They said they wanted parental involvement but they didn’t. We pulled him out of there after one year. Many other parents pulled their kids out too.

M-ito didn’t get into the charter schools in our area. He didn’t win a seat based on either of the two lotteries we entered him in. We didn’t have any contacts or “know anyone” who could influence our chances either. We looked at private schools. I still can’t believe it. Both Mom-ita and I went to public schools and I just assumed M-ito would too. After one year’s experience with public school as a parent I don’t want to do it again.

So I starting saying yes to every consulting gig I could get. I still say yes to them all. Private school is expensive – but we both think it’s worth it.

In kindergarten we sent M-ito to a local private school and it was terrific. The school seemed good and the kindergarten teachers were excellent. But around the kindergarten class, in the classes above, there were problems with bullies, and there were behavioral problems that we encountered and heard about throughout the year. We stayed in our kindergarten bubble and tried to ignore the other problems. A child was asked to leave the school in the grade above. A younger brother in M-ito’s grade left with him. This happened past the half way mark of the school year. The administration took a long time to act – but eventually did.

In first grade M-ito overall had a good experience. His teacher was good and the small band of classmates created a nice bubble again within which learning could occur. But another bully appeared in the grade above – and M-ito’s class had recess and gym with him. There was an outbreak of stomach aches in M-ito’s class in the fall because of the upper grade’s less supervised and rough play. They were switched to have recess with the kindergarten. Gym was still held with the upper grade and the threat of the second grade bully was felt all year. He made M-ito’s classmates cry, making fun of them or calling them names when the teacher wasn’t paying attention (which seemed often), and the bully’s own grade suffered his behavior too. The last day of school my son had a long discussion with us about whether he could wear a favorite shirt – a tie-dye shirt – or not. Was the bully going to call him names? Make a comment to him? M-ito stopped wearing any colorful shirt by winter’s end. Pink left the list of his favorite colors. It wasn’t worth it to him to deal with the bully commenting about what he wore. It was safer to go below the radar. M-ito knew which teachers were good in afterschool class (ie: kept control of the kids and didn’t allow bullying) and which did nothing and let the kids run riot. I’m still amazed he made it through ballet all year, walking from his classroom to the music room one floor above in t-shirt and black tights – his leotard hidden underneath. He must have really wanted to dance.

Bullying in a private school is a challenge just as it is in a public school, but the school had and still has no comprehensvie approach to address it. It’s done on a teacher by teacher basis. But not all teachers are good at classroom management. It seems most are not. Private schools also have the issue of  dealing with troublesome children whose parents make large donations of money to the school. Behavior that should not be permitted sometimes is. That’s another thing I learned.

And there are good teachers in good schools, bad teachers in good schools, good teachers in bad schools and bad teachers in bad schools. It’s tough to get a match. Friends of ours with kids in an upper grade suffered through a year with an abusive teacher. the teacher will not be coming back next year. There was some disturbing violence done to a teenager in an upper grade also. A teacher was fired. A child was expelled. What is the atmosphere of a school in which all these things happen? How is it taken in and absorbed by my son? Should I pretend that it doesn’t affect him? I know that it already has. But how much? Is he safe in his school? Administration dealt with each problem, but always seemed slow to react. I’ve found that administrators of schools are always slow to react. It’s not easy running a school with all these variables.

It’s been hard to pretend my son’s in a bubble when events happen around him. I can pretend but at a certain point I need not to. I worry what will happen next and whether it will happen to a child I know or if it will happen to my son. I wonder if every school is that way. Many people have told me it is so and that I just need to take the good with the bad and leave it at that. Others say, “boys will be boys.” I hate that. Boys are “boys” because parents and schools allow them to be. It is fostered by the school environment. There you have it. That is part of what is eating at me.

When I was in junior high school my best friend was hit by a train walking home from school in a downpour. I witnessed a kid I played football with – who later overdosed in high school – beat up a bully he’d been paid to take down. I witnessed it and walked away. Many of my friend’s lunches had been stolen by the bully. Many of us had been pushed around in the halls by him and his gang, had our books knocked out of our hands by him. I played football so was exempt from much of it. My smarter friends who didn’t play sports were not. 

For this upcoming year, the tuition went up a significant amount. We were notified only a few months ago. We’d already been looking at other options for a school but that was just about the last straw. We decided M-ito would be going to another private school in the fall. 

M-ito will be leaving behind friends as will we. Many families are leaving for similar reasons. Many are just tired of fighting and advocating again and again for slow and only partially satisfactory responses. Is this the way all schools work? Does change move so slowly? We’ve tried to find a school that matches the needs of our son. Will it be the right school for him? We hope so. We’ve investigated this new one in depth but the truth is you never know. There are so many variables. There is the school itself. What the school says it does and how it says it functions and how it in reality acts and functions sometimes are two different things. How teachers will be with your child may or may not work. What will be the mix of children? Will there be bullies? Will the staff be capable of handling him or her? How will my son fit? These are the thoughts that wake me in the early morning hours and stare at the ceiling with my heart racing.

We went to M-ito’s last day of first grade with heavy hearts. Other parents who are staying are not happy with us for leaving. Lines have been drawn, pickets thrown up and demilitarized zones created. It’s been lonely for Mom-ita. These are women she has called friends. Now some won’t talk to her. That’s another tricky part of your child’s school. You meet parents and develop new friendships. Your child’s friendships bring on new relationships for you as a parent also, whether you want them to or not.

I’m sure the parents who are keeping their children in the school are questioning themselves just are we are questioning ourselves. Should we stay? Should we leave? They care about their children and we care about our child. M-ito feels it too. He played Uno with his teacher and friends most of the party, smiling and laughing. But he has told us he’s scared about going to a new school and having to make new friends. We’re scared too. It’s a daunting prospect. Change is a scary thing. But sometimes status quo is even scarier.

And change is not only about loss, even if today it’s hard to see around it. It is also about growth. As a parent I have to remember to honor this both for myself and for M-ito. And for us, we hope, it will bring about a better education for our son.

Rock and Sky – Heaven and Earth

We were eating breakfast this morning, wheat squares for me, cornflakes for M-ito. He was ignoring the cut up pear (not quite ripe), eyeing the squares of corn muffin (definitely wanted a piece), and holding his cup of OJ in two hands – red cup, his favorite. 

“I meditated this morning,” I said, thinking about my ten minutes of practice that I added to my yoga practice that morning. Sometimes I have to search for things to talk about with my son. I tend to be quiet otherwise – perhaps too quiet. 

M-ito nodded.

“Do you know what meditation is?”

M-ito nodded again.

“Tell me what you think it is,” I asked, curious to what he would answer.

He stood up from his chair and sat down on the floor at my feet, cross-legged, placing his left hand into a fist on his left thigh and his right hand onto his right thigh with his palm up. “This,” he said, moving his left fist, “is the earth or rock, and this,” he raised his left hand, “is the sky.”

“Heaven and earth,” I said, smiling. “Taoism – a Chinese belief, would call them Heaven and Earth and we – us human’s walk between them both trying to balance the heavens above and the earth that we walk on.”

M-ito nodded, smiling back at me. “This is Korean. We do this in Tae-Kwon-Do for like fifteen minutes at the end of class.”

“Fifteen minutes?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s excellent. I’m really glad.” I didn’t know he’d been doing this as part of his studies with his sensei – yet another reminder that my son has a life outside of mine that I know not everything about. “It’s good to have quiet time,” I added, not ready to let it go.

“Uh-huh.”

“When our world is full of noise.”

M-ito spooned some corn flakes into his mouth then grabbed a piece of cornbread and looked at me, hesitating.

“Go ahead,” I said and he added it into his mouth, bulging his cheeks like a chipmunk.

Boys Ballet – Hand Holding Hand Wringing

M-ito told me a week ago that he can’t wait until after his ballet recital so that he never has to go to class again. “I can’t wait,” he said. It made my heart sink.

I have some idea what it has been like for him, as a boy, to do ballet, but this really brought it home to me – how much I don’t know about his world. I know he has developed ways to allow himself to do ballet in school. I know that he has two lives on Wednesday afternoon – one in school and another in the music room during ballet class. I know that he walks the gauntlet from his room to the music room successfully – one floor, fifty feet and a flight of stairs – by wearing a black fencing t-shirt with a skeleton fencer on it over his leotard. He has to pass through groups of children in after-school who look up to see what he’s doing, what he’s wearing, where he’s going. I know a couple of kids (one bully in particular in the grade above) have made comments to him about his dancing ballet, but he doesn’t talk about it anymore. When he gets into the music room, the door is closed and he dances with three older girls in a small four person class. I know he enjoys dancing – I’ve seen his face and watched him in class. He is graceful and beautiful. I’ve seen him talk about the different moves he’s learned and he’s demonstrated them at home – with great excitement. But it’s been a while since he’s done that. I also know there are things he hasn’t talked about with us – that have gotten to him too. 

The recital is a public demonstration of his dancing abilities in front of his peers. It is an opening up of his behind-closed-doors dancing self. This week he finally told Mom-ita that it’s the hand-holding in the dance choreography that’s embarassing him and that he doesn’t want to do – that he can’t do it. He’s told us he doesn’t want to do the recital a couple of times already and we’ve averted his backing out by getting a detail here and there from him about why, that we can address so he’ll take one more step towards it. Right now hand holding is too much for him in front of his peers.

I was elected to talk to his dance teacher. She was upset when I told her M-ito’s plans not to take dance classes anymore after the recital. She understood right away what I was saying and what M-ito must be going through. I asked her if she could change the choreography so M-ito didn’t have to hold hands during the dance with one of his partners. She said she’d change it and talk to him about it. 

This afternoon when I came home, M-ito, for the first time in a month, showed me the “cool” moves they were doing in the recital instead of the hand-holding piece. He was excited about it and smiled while he showed me how he ended the sequence in “fifth position.”

Today we’re four weeks away from the recital, but one step closer.

Good Morning Good Morning

Mom-ita is working four days this week. As any good Dad-dito would do, I’m doing double duty, getting M-ito off to school in the morning and leaving early from work to pick him up when school/afterschool is over. I’m pretty tired.

Usually Mom-ita and I take M-ito to school (drive) together and I walk from his school to the subway. The morning tasks with M-ito are divided up between us – Mom-ita makes our son his lunch (heat the thermos with hot water, heat the hot meal, fill the lunchbox, put it by the front door) while I make our son and myself breakfast (Hot cereal for me and Cornflakes for him – Mom-ita has breakfast later with her friends). She has done both jobs many times by herself when I’m away traveling and is a pro. It is rare I have to do it by myself for more than a day or two in a row so I am an amateur. I’m on day four tomorrow. It makes me grateful for the school lunch (today) and for Mom-ita’s ability to multi-task.

I’m getting better, quicker. But my to do list on Monday was sketchier than my list today. 

  • Do yoga practice
  • Wake Mom-ita up to get to her work
  • Get M-ito up (not an easy task)
  • Get his clothes together and put them near him on the bed (in case he gets up)
  • Make lunch for M-ito (heat the water for the thermos and put the food in the oven)
  • Check on M-ito to see if he’s up yet
  • Put M-ito’s food in the thermos and thermos in the lunch box
  • Make breakfast for M-ito
  • Check on M-ito to see if he’s up yet
  • Make my own breakfast
  • Check again on M-ito to see if he’s opened his eyes
  • Plead with M-ito to wake up
  • Bribe M-ito to wake up
  • Remind M-ito to pee when he does wake up
  • Eat breakfast together
  • Attempt conversation
  • Listen to Pokemon story
  • Take shower while M-ito gets dressed nearby
  • Get dressed with M-ito finishing getting dressed nearby
  • Make sure lunch box is packed and by the front door
  • Make sure backpack is packed and by the front door
  • Turn inside out M-ito’s socks (the seams bother him)
  • Get M-ito’s sneakers laces loose so he can put on his shoes quickly and easily
  • Help M-ito get on his sneakers anyway (hold laces with finger while he ties bunny ears)
  • Get on my own shoes and jacket
  • Help M-ito get on his sweater and jacket
  • Tell M-ito he has to wear a hat (it’s cold out)
  • Tell M-ito he has to pick a hat (too many choices)
  • Adjust the hat he’s chosen (he chooses my favorite hat which I was going to wear so I have to choose another one for myself)
  • Hand him his backpack and then help with the arm through the strap (otherwise I’ll watch him going around and around trying to get his arm through the second strap)
  • Watch as M-ito goes back to the table for a Pokemon action figure to bring with him
  • Watch as M-ito goes back to the table for a Pokemon card from one of his new decks to bring with him
  • Remember wistfully that it used to be a Lego Star Wars figure that he took with him
  • Go back to the living room for my keys, my wallet, my money, my watch
  • Look each other in the eyes and leave together
  • Walk to school, holding hands most of the way

Om Nama Shivaya. I’m going to do it again in the morning.

In case it sounds too idylic, we had a huge fight this morning – day three – because he wouldn’t get up and we were half an hour late for school. My tactic was to let him be late and I simmered. Maybe it was better than blowing up. Mom-ita and I fought a little instead on her way out. I said to her, “let me handle it.” I was probably wrong in my approach. As we were on our way out the door M-ito apologized to me. I told him he had to get up in the morning to get to school. Then I added when he was late, I was late to work. Then I added Mom-ita and I fought because he was late this morning (ie: it was his fault). Guilt is my speciality. Then I called him from work a couple of hours later (a phone that goes right into his classroom) and checked to see if he was all right – feeling very very guilty for guilting him on the way to school with words that will probably scar him for life. He sounded fine on the phone as if it had all passed him by a long time ago. I’m glad he’s resilient.

When I picked him up from afterschool ballet, he sat on my lap on the couch outside the classroom for fifteen minutes. We watched all the other kids (all three of them) leave the class with the teacher. I gave him a big hug and kiss. We talked a little while, then, he looked at me and said, “I’m ready to go.” I helped him get changed. I carried his bag (too heavy – it was) and his extra jacket (too hot outside – and it was) and watched as he ran back and forth playing with two friends that we walked a few blocks home with. 

Mom-ita and both joked with M-ito this evening that we would wake him up this morning singing, “Good morning, good morning” from Singing in the Rain. He laughed and laughed. The giggle that launched a thousand ships.

Pokeman Dad-dito Style

My contribution. I printed out the information sheets on each of the Pokeman that M-ito bought, used the three hole punch, and placed them – in alphabetical (that was Mom-ita’s idea) order – into a bright blue binder. We put the cut out cards from the back of the action figure boxes in a side folder and M-ito brought the binder into school with him on Friday. The kids said he was now “officially” the smartest kid in Pokeman – because he had the binder which told them everything about his Pokeman. Count one for Dad-dito… finally.