Monday, February 7, 2011

school

Before I made it downstairs this morning, Frances had already taken out red construction paper and colored pencils and was busy at the kitchen table working on valentines for her class. Before I groggily shuffled to the refrigerator in search of milk for my coffee, Frances was near tears because the valentines were not working out to her liking. When I suggested we could work on them together later in the day, she shot back that probably there were lots of kids in her class that wouldn't give her a valentine anyway. I looked at Mike, feeling helpless. In response to my next feeble attempt to soothe, an unprecedented thing happened. The diminutive person standing between us in bright pink pajamas, long messy bangs adorably grazing her eyelashes, kicked the dishwasher. Hard.

In keeping with my new efforts at neutral and immediate consequence-giving, I told her she had to have a time out in her room for five minutes. She sobbed all the way up the stairs. She sobbed in her room. More shocked than angry, I hesitated a moment, then followed her up and climbed into her bed. She quieted down and climbed in with me, pulling my arms tightly around her like a blanket.

Is something bothering you, Frances? Are you worried about anything?

No.

...Okay.

I don't want to go to school. Ever. I don't want to color any more worksheets ever again. I want to stay home and learn here instead.

She stuck to this position, even after considering what it would be like to never play with her friends at school, never go to music with Ms. Sallet, and never have another junk food-fueled holiday-themed classroom party again. Granted, she was being stubborn, but the extent of her negative feelings surprised me a little. We snuggled and talked about all the fun things we have to look forward to in the spring and summer. Our talk ended when we heard Gabriel waking up in the next room, at which point Frances asked if we could have "either a new baby or a pet" so that there would be more kids and/or animals to play with at home. That would make the learning at home option even better, you see.

Though my heart yearns to give her respite from the stress of school, more holistic and engaging ways to learn, and babies and pets galore, I know we can neither take on more living creatures and nor home school right now. It's not a feasible, sustainable path for our family. I occasionally wander through gorgeous nature-oriented mama blogs featuring gentle genius children who have been successfully unschooled. They spend their days building structures from fallen branches and undyed wool, or composing music while noshing on homemade spelt and flax seed scones. There are usually chickens in the backyard and plentiful delicate hand knit sweaters no matter the season. I confess, it looks pretty darn good to me. I've been dreaming of chickens for years. Frances and Gabriel would look fabulous in those felted gnome hats. But who will make them for us?

Part of me wants to be that mama, and in a way part of me is that mama - but only part. There are a lot of other parts clamoring for my attention just now! Which is why, I suppose, we recently visited an elite and beautiful private school. Perhaps some thoughtful professionals might offer something just as good to my kids, if not better. Frances had an evaluation and classroom visit last Monday. When I originally spoke to the very gracious admissions director over the phone and she mentioned scheduling a "testing," I felt the back of my neck prickle. Testing? Well, it isn't public school, after all. It isn't for everyone.

Frances was evaluated for gross and fine motor skills, abstract thought, verbal fluency, math competency, and a bunch of other things I cannot remember. She also participated with a kindergarten class for a portion of the morning. When I picked her up, she raved about P.E. with ponytailed Mr. Dan. She clearly wasn't made to feel judged, and it all seemed okay to me.

But honest to God, I forgot how to breathe when the admissions director called me with Frances' results. Everything was reported in a neutral, steady, rapid fire. I could barely keep up. This is how the conversation began:

So, the gross motor items gave her some trouble. She can't skip. And she can't hop while remaining in the same place - though she can hop while moving around.

And on and on it went. Listening with every muscle in my back clenched, trying to process all I was hearing, I silently responded to every indicator that came up less than perfect. So she can't skip! Give the kid a break! What's it to you, anyway? She'll learn, okay? So she won't be a star on the upper school's lacrosse team! Big deal.

The more time that passes, the more I feel unsettled by the experience. It's funny, because generally it was a very positive report, one that ended with a note (from the evaluator) about how Frances would be an excellent fit for the school, and that the education offered her there would be wonderful for her - that it is the sort of education a child like Frances deserves.

I didn't make up that 'deserves' part. This only stirred me up further, and made me feel awful. What child doesn't deserve an education like this? Why is it only in these high-priced educational oases that there seems to be a culture of genuine inquiry, curiosity about the world, and respect for children? Why do the kids there get to learn French and music at elegant blond wood tables? You can be sure they are not given the option of buying a Justin Bieber poster at the "book" fair.

The culture of this private school is probably the closest thing - institutionally - to our own values and ideas about what is nourishing for children in the area where we live. Maybe in the state where we live. The hitch is that it is not for every child. It is only for some children, and within that group, only for those whose families can manage it financially. Does this not stick like a sliver of popcorn between your teeth? You run your tongue over it again and again but it will not budge; it only scrapes the side of your tongue raw with successive efforts to remove it. I review the extraordinary things about this school, which are considerable, but no amount of flossing will dislodge how small I felt - how fiercely protective of my kid - when I listened to those test results. And nothing can change how lame it is that Quadir and Halligan and all the kids in Frances' class will never spend the morning inspecting snowflakes outside with magnifying glasses.

It's doubtful that we will have to make a decision between private and public education for our kids, because I can't imagine we will be offered enough financial aid to make it a real possibility for us. The aid application arrived in the mail today, and we will dutifully fill it out. But come on. Why would they shell out the big dollars for a five year old that can't skip?

Sometimes, the best you can do for your kid is to climb into bed and snuggle. And listen (or distract, as the case may be). We're aiming for good enough here, right? The hard part is that within that excellent, forgiving concept of being a good enough parent, there are countless inevitable moments of pain and disappointment to endure - every time we confront the impossibility of making the world always and only good for our children.

8 comments:

Claudine Intner said...

Sending you a mommy hug! I continue to struggle with the "am I doing enough for my kids" thing. My 9 year old frequently tells me that he could learn at home.

The private school testing is unbelievable. How funny (and sad) that they start with the skipping thing. Any school would be lucky to have Frances! I hope that financial aid comes through for you.

Heather said...

I can understand the mixed feelings of both wanting and not wanting to be a member of the private school club. Especially when Frances feels down about her public school. But it sounds like you had the perfect response and that you successfully comforted her. Augh, valentines. The sting of rejection from those parties still haunts me from elem. school!

Meagan said...

Claudine, thank you. I know you do enough, and much much more, but with our own children it can be so much harder to perceive that. Just curious: are your boys in public school? And H, you are the most thoughtful ed professional I know in the whole wide world. What are you own thoughts about private school clubs, especially for little ones?

Amelia said...

I commented yesterday but lost it in the ether...
"Good enough" is kind of agonizing in practice, as you say. But keep in mind my favorite finding of "happiness studies": most decisions are a 60-40 proposition, so just try to guess which is the 60. What I like about this concept is not only does it take the "all or nothing" pressure off most decisions, but also it acknowledges the positive elements of both choices, and that in choosing one you'll necessarily be losing something the other offers. And that's okay; you just choose the 60 anyway. Finally, I just read the little essay by Tina Fey in the New Yorker, in which she delicately questions her daughter about why she brought home a book about The Working Mommy from school. She's worried her daughter resents her choices, her work, daycare, the juggle.... "I can't read, Mommy," the girl replies, "I thought it was a book about Halloween." There might be an element of this in Frances' freakout--maybe it was just a bad day, and she put it in the terms (school) that she knew would gain your sympathy and understanding.

Heather said...

I support Amelia's comment 100% percent. An unromantic (but not negative) view of the 60-40 proposition and the very real possibility that F. was just having a bad day and framed it in terms that happen to cause us adults lots of angst seems like the accurate reading. Amelia's comment also helps me identify one of the things I don't like about what I've recently identified as the industry of "gauzy Motherhood" blogs with all those creepily perfect sweaters and DIY craft projects. Whether intended or not, they create the impression of ONE way and ONE authenticity, which is invariably Mother staying at home and returning her family to some mythologized earlier time when children learned by doing. (Notice the absence of any mention of daycare or babysitters or nanny in the Etsy world!) I think it creates a temple of Childhood and Motherhood, which places pressure on parents to live up to some sacred ideal. I admit that I, too, find Little House on the Prarie immensely appealing. But come on people! Most of us don't live on a beautiful farm with horse-drawn plows, and most of us will probably need some form of daycare for our children. Yes, the private school you mention sounds cool and like F. would really like it. But it also has trade-offs, just like the public school does. 60-40. The decision certainly matters, but either way, you're not destroying F.'s childhood.
So there; I've thrown down the gauntlet on the DIY movement. Will I later recant all this when I do have kids?

Meagan said...

Heather, I resented all the worshipful, celebratory media I encountered on motherhood (read: stay at home motherhood) back when I worked full time. And I didn't even know about the proliferation of beautiful farmy/crafty mama blogs then! Of course once I stayed home I began seeking out validation of the choice, and inspiration for how to make it life-giving and not isolating/draining. With mixed feelings, I began reading some of those blogs - and I think it is a hard blogger line to walk, sharing your life with others (providing the inspiration/solidarity I so desperately needed when I was first home) without implying that your choice is better. Best. Because you are right, there are so many ways, and so many good ways, and all of them require compromise. Raising children requires serious sacrifice, and that is something most people don't talk about much.
As to the 60-40 thing: yes, I get it. Less angstful, certainly! But if you have not noticed already, I kind of like angst. Perhaps a nicer way to say it would be that I would like to live even the smaller moments in a way that is connected to my values. Regular life requires compromise - but maybe sometimes we are called to more than going along with things as they are.
And sure, it might have been a bad day. I have often read emotional depths into behavior that was about no more than hunger or naplessness. But I do think Frances is struggling right now, and I do think she will have to struggle, no matter where she goes to school, simply because she is a kid and growing up is hard. That's something I know rationally, but resist emotionally - perhaps to both our detriment.

Amelia said...

Love to you in these challenging moments. I do not particularly like angst (though I do like questioning), so much of my own mental work goes to talking myself down off the ledge of one concern or another-- see the above.

Meagan said...

Good morning, dear friend. It is so nice to wake up to a continuation of this conversation here. It is a little silly to say I like angst. Let's just say I benefit GREATLY from our friendship, and your ability to stand back when I am inclined to mire myself in further and thus lose whatever shred of perspective available to me...A, I always appreciate it when you talk me down off my ledges. xo