The End of the School Year is here!

M-ito graduated from 2nd grade today. When the headmaster told the lower school that the 2009-10 school year was officially over and added, “you can yell as loud as you want to, now – ” the room exploded with K-4th graders going crazy – including M-ito. I watched him from a few rows back with Mom-ita. He yelled as loud as he could with his friends. It was a whole body yell. An exhalation of all the work he put into his education this year. So many evenings of push and pull over homework assignments. My son has his first real understanding of what summer vacation is about.

In Kindergarten he was too young to understand the rhythms of school and summer. Last year he was starting to understand the process but with the changing over from one school to another it was all still new to him. But this year… well, he yelled and screamed with the rest of his friends, his sneakers ready to run on grass, his ears listening to waves washing up on a beach, electrical impulses in his brain ready to encounter summer camp of three different types, and his psyche ready – almost longing for long endless days in the heat.

I can still feel those feelings in my bones, like it was just yesterday. The dry wind outside my window whispering… Summer.

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.

First Grade Stress

My son has too much homework, a test every week on spelling words, and a stomach ache from the stress. I know it’s only his first week in school, but this is a private school and first graders should still be playing most of the time. They’re only six years old, and some are still only 5. 

Even if his teacher didn’t say the word test, and she didn’t (a parent did) the students heard the word test and now everyone knows they have a test every week. Why can’t it just be an in-class worksheet? At six the most stressful decision a child should have to make during his/her day is what to have for lunch or which game to play. And M-ito is so good – in the I-have-to-do-everything-my-teacher-says meaning of the word good – that he will not give up until all the homework is completed. Why does he have homework everyday the first week of school? Why does he say school is not fun anymore when he loved kindergarten? I’m crushed and annoyed and angry because there are so many ways to learn imaginatively in first grade. Kids imaginations are on overdrive at this age and this creativity should be kindled. Osho, in his book on Creativity says we extinguish creativity in our children at an early age in school. I wonder if he is right. I’m overreacting to some degree, I know, I know, but I’m not to another. I have no doubt that M-ito will learn to read and write and spell and do math in time. I’m not worried about that. He’s a bright child. I have no doubt he will want to get good grades in high school when ranking and grade point average have meaning to colleges. But right now, in first grade, where he doesn’t get letter or number grades and where gpa stands for great paper airplanes and is a mere shadow of what’s to come in the far far future, I want him to enjoy learning because it’s fun with a capital F. 

Nay-sayers say “but he has to learn about the real world someday.” And I say sure, but not today at 6 years old. He can wait ’till fourth grade at least. There was a great article in Mothering Magazine last month about the ineffectiveness of homework – how it doesn’t help kids learn and mostly just turns them off on school and creates tremendous amounts of stress for kids and their parents. 

Today my son said he’s stressed about his weekly test on spelling. He’s only had one so far and he’s already feeling it. I’m banging my head against the wall here. Why do so many parents believe in the myth of more work equals more learning? Have they seen the DOE’s graduation rate lately in NYC? It’s not even 50% from high school. Have they looked a the test scores? Have they gone up due to the No Child Left Behind act and it’s fallout of standardized testing at earlier and earlier ages? The clear answer is no. School should be fun. Learning should be fun. Children should enjoy learning and develop a lifelong relationship with education – a positive relationship with education – not one based on stress and fear. 

My son is stressed and he was crying this morning because he didn’t want to go to school today. He said his stomach hurt – not enough to go to the doctors but enough to stay out of school. Then, after many tears Mom-ita got him talking and we found out his story of stress and woe. Mom-ita talked to his teacher (I am traveling today and have to get things second hand through her after M-ito is asleep) and we were left hopeful but apprehensive. Our son only gets to go through first grade once. I’m proud of him for telling us how he felt and I’m proud he brought it up to his teacher in school on his own (Mom-ita was told this by his teacher). But I’d still rather there was no homework and no testing at all. At least not this year, or next. Heck the Waldorf Schools don’t give homework until fourth grade. Unfortunately they’re not in our neighborhood or nearby for that matter and there are some problems with the cult-like nature of their curricula… I guess nothings perfect.

Move Over Noggin

It happened sometime over the last four months. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact date. But today I could deny it no longer. It became official. Now that my son can officially turn the TV on and off without any help, and find his own channels – all this comes with graduating kindergarten – his go-to channel has become Animal Planet. I remember when it was Oswald, and Little Einsteins, and Wonder Pets, and Dora, and Diego. Everything was on Noggin, and Noggin was king. Now it’s shows like, It’s Me or the Dog, Meerkat Manor, Corwin’s Quest, and the Crocodile Hunter. Sigh, he’s growing up.

Of course this also means he’s watching commercials and quoting lines from the advertisement for Activia. Noggin had no commercials. Noggin is genius. Noggin is good. Commercials are capitalism in my living room. M-ito knows all about weight loss and other products I’d rather that he didn’t know about, but with Animal Planet comes the rest of the grown up world and a barrage of products that he doesn’t need. Still he soaks these commercials up and is fascinated by them.

Yesterday Mom-ita called him in for dinner and he said, “Wait, there’s a commercial on. I’ll come in when it’s over.”

Crikey.

Just Go Then

I was up early to go to work. M-ito graduated Kindergarten last week so he was asleep, actually sleeping late. Just as I was about to leave I heard him walk into the bathroom. I wandered in to say goodbye.

“You’re leaving?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Yeah, I have to go to work today.”

“But Mommy said if I got up early enough you’d have some time to play with me.”

“I’m sorry honey, I have to get into work and I’ve got to move the car first.” It was alternate side parking and I had about an hour before we were ticketed.

“But,” he began.

“I’m sorry but I have to go. When I get home we can… ”

“Just go then,” he said, turning his back to me.

I tried to give him a kiss goodbye but he pushed me away with his hands, folding his arms across his chest and lowering his chin to his chest. “Just go,” he said again, in a softer voice.

I walked to the front door and he followed me, detouring into the living room. I stopped at the door and walked back towards him. He was gazing at the Monopoly Junior game we’d started the day before but not finished. I was almost bankrupt so there weren’t many turns left in the game. I sat down next to him.

“You want to finish the game?” I asked.

He looked up at me and nodded.

“I can be a little late.” 

He smiled and we played for all of ten minutes. That’s all it took to bankrupt me, and to make him happy. I kissed him goodbye and he let me go this time with a return kiss.

Sleeping Beauty

M-ito’s ballet recital, part of an after school dance program at his school, was beautiful. His dance lasted all of six minutes – if that. He stood up there so proud and graceful and so serious about his dance. I was so proud of him. A father videotaping from the floor next to me looked up at me when I glanced his way from my seat and he smiled. “I got tears too,” he said. I rubbed my eyes, wiped them dry, so I could watch the rest of the show. I didn’t think my heart could swell to any greater size this afternoon when I saw him standing so still in first position, waiting for the music to begin.

George W. Bush

I watched M-ito in kindergarten class today. I brought our gerbils in for show and tell, our four remaining fur-balls, Curly, Blackie, Movie, and Fari. They were a hit, with M-ito answering questions about their “Rodent background” like a pro from Animal Planet. The gerbils and I sat in the back of the room together after their presentation and watched as the other kids brought in and talked about their show and tell with M-ito’s teacher presiding, skillfully prodding with questions, probing with a look here and a nod there until the items (a stuffed animal bunny, a castle from a game, a gameboy, a Mach 5 Speed Racer toy from McDonalds) had been examined from all angles. One item was a new five dollar bill. When the teacher asked the kids what Abraham Lincoln was famous for, M-ito raised his hand.

“He freed the slaves.”

“Good answer, M-ito.”

My son smiled proudly as two others added the Civil War and log cabins to his biography.

The teacher then talked about the Lincoln memorial on the back of the bill and said, “Famous leaders sometimes have statues made of them. Abraham Lincoln’s statue is in Washington D.C. and it looks like this,” she pointed to the back of the five dollar bill. “Who else is a famous leader who has had a statue made of him?”

“George Washington,” a boy said. 

“Thomas Jefferson,” a girl added. 

“George Bush?” a third asked tentatively.

The teacher smiled and hesitated a moment before she shook her head. “I don’t think he’s going to get a statue made of him.” Then she moved on to Martin Luther King. I had to step out of the classroom to stop myself from laughing.