Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fast Forward: 2008

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved school.

Before she could even walk she loved school, loved it so much that she refused to nap while she was there (unless one of her teachers - and she loved them all - held her), loved it so much that, sometimes, she would cry when the morning ended because she didn't want to leave. The school had a cook, and the cook baked fresh bread and cinnamon rolls so the halls smelled delicious and she would always cut up extra fruit for the girl or make a special no-cheese pizza just for her. After the little girl learned to walk, she loved school even more because she could run in and out through the almost always open door to find grass and sand and water and every kind of weather. Grand messes were expected, even welcomed. She was learning, even if she didn't know it.

Then her family moved, and the little girl had to find another school. The first one wasn't so great, but when she was three she found a new school to love. Again, the door was almost always open. Again, the food was fresh and tasty. She even learned to prepare her own snack when she was hungry, not when someone said it was time to eat. She loved her teachers. She loved her friends. But, most of all, she loved to work. Planets, continents, every bone in the body, biomes, reading, math...nothing was off limits. Cicadas leave cool exoskeletons behind. Orange peel takes a long time to turn into compost. Carrots you grow yourself taste especially good. Some things are symmetrical and some are asymmetrical. No one ever told her she wasn't old enough to learn something. Every child was capable, and every child was gifted.

One hot summer May day, she said goodbye to her beloved school and her teachers and some of her friends. She had grown up too much for this school. It was time for kindergarten.

And on another hot August day later that year, the little girl who loved school began to disappear.

Last week, I
shared some memories of my first day of school. Now it's time to fast forward from LBJ's Great Society to Bush's No Child Left Behind. If you had told me three years ago that I would abandon the public school system, the system that gave me a strong education, the system I consider to be a cornerstone of our country, the system I have advocated until folks wanted to stuff a sock in my mouth I would have laughed you all the way to the Mexican border (and that, my friends, is pretty far from this part of Texas). But it's happened. I'm Blue, and I'm a private school mom.

You've been spared a very long post, detailing - year by year - Small Child's journey through public school (unfortunately, I wasn't spared writing it; deleting it was a pleasure.). Let's just say this: with every day, every month, every year, every grade we saw less joy. A girl who often was asked to stop working because the school day was over transformed into a girl with page after page after page of unfinished work in her chair pocket. She climbed sullenly into the car at the end of each day with nothing to say about anything.  I expected to see that kind of behavior near puberty, not in first and second grades. 

We approached the problems from all the expected angles. Positive reinforcement changed nothing (nor, I'm sorry to admit, did scolding). Her pediatrician pronounced her in perfect health. Spurred by her veteran teacher's suggestion that she might have ADD, the kind that presents as "sometimes just not there, kind of day-dreamy," we subjected her to a full neuropsychological evaluation midway through second grade. 

The verdict?  "That's one extremely smart girl you've got there. She's a little anxious and a lot bored. Three hours of GT pull-out a week is simply not enough for this one. If I were you, I'd put her in Outstanding Private School 90 Minutes Away or move back to Oregon ASAP because she misses it very much [In the interest of full disclosure, the psychologist had spent a good bit of time in our former town.]. Plus, she's seriously grieving for her best friend, who moved far away. She needs to learn to complete the stuff she doesn't like, but you can't eradicate her personality type, which simply doesn't have much patience for nonsense. The focus on testing in this school district is going to be a big problem for her."

So we worked on the "self-discipline" stuff and saw improvement. She was selected a year early for chorus, and along with four of her friends had a piece of her art appear in a national publication. She earned more Accelerated Reader points than anyone else in her grade (granted, many of the points resulted from family reading time, an advantage many children don't enjoy, but still). 

That sums up the good news.  The bad news? Two new elementary schools were scheduled to open the next fall, and the district was taking a hard line on intra-district transfers. Small Child would not, under any circumstances, be allowed to remain with her cohort, many of whom she'd learned with for over five years. She would lose her art, chorus and GT teachers, a much more significant issue that that of new classmates.  And the "Mean Girl" phenomenon reared its ugly head, which made the loss of Best Friend even worse. None of us were expecting Mean Girls for at least another year. Naive much?

Locally, we had two private school options. One, the good Catholic school her cousins attend, offers no GT enrichment and only one class per grade. The other, a K-12 "Christian" school, promotes the kind of elitist evangelical dreck we abhor. While some affluent individuals of hell-bound heathen non-Christian faiths may choose to simultaneously shelter their children from reality and laugh over the day's silly dogma around the dinner table, that just won't work for us. Luckily, the universe helped us find a true Montessori school within a reasonable distance. While we would have preferred a truly secular option, we are comfortable with the gentle, Episcopalian theology on offer. But what to do?

Agony ensued. Hand-wringing. Were we selling out? Turning our backs on the community in which we lived? Sheltering our child rather than insisting she face the world's realities, even those that may not fit her "personality style?" Insuring that Small Child would lose her hometown friends? Taking our marbles and sulking home because things weren't exactly the way we wanted them to be? 

I'd recently read several beautiful essays about families' decisions to choose public school, and I understood and agreed with them wholeheartedly. But my child. My child. The public school system I remembered, the one my teacher friends labor tirelessly to create, the one I still believe is possible, is not the reality in our town, no matter how much I want it to be. All the philosophy and political theory in the world wouldn't mean squat if the still-slightly-flickering light of curiosity I could see in my girl's eyes truly disappeared. 

For once, I left analysis behind and just was. And then I knew that she needed a change. We all did. And we chose a place of peace.

The result?

After the first full day of third grade, when her mother arrived to pick her up, the little girl who loved school miraculously reappeared . She opened her mouth when she got in the car and didn't stop reporting for 40 miles. She sang all the way to school on the second day then smiled, "The other girls are unusually like me."

One week in, she was equally enthusiastic. She hopped into the car and said, "Today, Millie*? [note girl inflection] You know, my friend? She did, like, the biggest thing on the bead frame, it's like millions in multiplication and division, [note on-going run-on sentence problem] she was so proud of herself, and I started multiplication today, but I like division better, I've decided to call it, 'multiplication minus' since it's the opposite, everyone always talks about how multiplication is so challenging and I thought it would be but it's not because, like, you know, it's just like addition and addition and addition and addition?"


"And we had P.E. and played monkey ball and mosquito tag? You know, boys are, like, so weird? You know, annoying? They , like, pretend hit each other and stuff, like punch the air where no one is? Weird."

Thus ends our best back-to-school ever. 

And, I gotta say, she just may be right about boys.

*The name of the friend in question has been changed in my endless quest for privacy.


Sarah said...

Oh, how wonderful that your little girl returned. My confident, enthusiastic little boy disappeared during Reception where he had 2 different Teachers who, if I ever saw again, I would like to strangle. The school got rid of them so luckily the next year's 4/5 year olds did not have to put up with them. This year, in Year 4, I am seeing a glimpse of my lost boy. I truly sympathise with you. S

Anonymous said...

K, your experience with public ed was just different than mine. I vowed when I was 16 that I would NEVER subject my children to mind-numbing/stultifying public ed. And when the time came, it was "private school or bust". Both went to St. John's, Dallas, and had a great experience. Perfect it was. The older transferred to Hockaday after 6th grade, about which I had and do have some regrets (she doesn't, apparently). Not a normal experience. The younger goes to Bishop Lynch, your basic public school out of the 1950s. BL is an unqualified success. It's "normal", which is fine by me. ...I honestly don't know how ps teachers stay with it with all the nonsense that goes on. Our mutual friend SK deserves a big medal. And she often writes about the frustrations that she experiences. In moments of doubt, I am thankful that my daughters never had the experiences she describes. ...You're doing well by your daughter. Be encouraged. she will thank you some future day. All best, Brent

bluelikethesky said...

Brent, you always were so serious back then! Now I know why. That's what such vows do to you.

bluelikethesky said...

Thanks, Sarah. It is all about the teachers, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I am thrilled to hear about Small Child's--and your--delight in her new school. School can, and should be, a great place for kids... but all too often, unfortunately, it's just not. Public schools are often underfunded, overtested political footballs. Just ask my mom (who's been teaching in one for 22 years).

And I want to see the bead loom multiplication/division thing IRL! Sounds awesome!