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?
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.