school

Unwanted Hugs

Earlier this week, Smoke reported to me that a girl in his class keeps on hugging him. Every time he sat down on the carpet for circle time she embraced him and wouldn’t let him go until the class had settled. Not only that, but this girl was chasing him on the playground at recess, and grabbing his shirt when she caught him so that he couldn’t get away. He held the edge of his own shirt to demonstrate, and pulled on it to reveal his lean, pale belly, his inability to move without stretching his shirt further and revealing more of his body. The more he talked about it, the more distressed he sounded.

“Did you tell her to stop?” I asked.

“She laughs at me when I tell her!” Smoke said. His voice broke around the edges.

I pulled a piece of paper off the kitchen table. It was a handout that Mrs. N had sent home about Kelso’s choices. It looked like this.

Kelso_clip_image002_0000

“Have you tried any of these choices?” I asked him, aware that I was an outsider to this new social landscape. I offered the page tentatively.

“Saying stop is one of the choices,” he explained, not even looking at the list. “Also I tried ignoring, and joining a new game, but she just follows me everywhere.”

“Do you want me to tell Mrs. N?” I asked him.

He thought about it for a moment, and decided he did.

Several years ago, I heard a public school teacher comment on how much time she spent in recent years simply answering emails from parents—parents who wanted to know why their kid got a 92 rather than a 98 on a spelling test, or parents demanding a rationale for the novel they were reading in Language Arts. I told myself I wouldn’t add to the burden; I wouldn’t be a parent emailer.

But then, in our orientation meeting with Mrs. N, she reassured us: “Please don’t ever hesitate to email me. Even if it seems like a little problem.”

I wasn’t sure what kind of problem this was. Certainly it seemed like the sort of thing kids typically did to each other, the sort of thing that thirty years ago kids would have worked out on their own. I remember epic boy vs. girl battles that happened at the very edge of the recess field, which was also the bottom of a hill, far away from any grown-up gaze. I remember a kid named Billy Duffy whose face was always stained with meat sauce, who had earned a reputation for kissing girls against their will. Playground problems weren’t teacher problems, and unless you were bleeding, the recess aides didn’t want to hear about it.

But it’s 2014, and as much as I worry about overprotecting my kids, I feel grateful that the system seems to care a little more. (Okay, a lot more.) Also, these days I read a lot about consent, and I brood over how to teach my sons to honor bodies and boundaries. So when a problem like this emerges, even if it’s a little one, I feel that there’s a lot at stake.

I mean, Smoke’s discomfort at having his shirt pulled or being hugged goes beyond annoyance. I could tell by his distress that he felt trapped. I also sensed that he, like me, wasn’t sure how much attention his situation warranted.

That night, awake in bed, I entertained the following thoughts.

  • I felt some alignment with the girl who so badly wanted Smoke’s attention. I know how it feels to want a friend so badly. And I understood why she had chosen Smoke, who is quiet and kind and funny.
  • I considered what it feels like to be physically trapped, and what a common feeling that was in childhood. Well-meaning grown-ups pinch your cheeks and kiss you with their bad breath. Bossy friends convince you to let them roll you up in blankets.
  • I imagined Smoke, some years from now, chasing girls around the playground and lifting their skirts. Maybe some would see this as a little problem, but to me it would be a Big Problem.

I emailed Mrs. N before school the following morning. As we arrived two hours later, she approached us and squatted so she could talk to Smoke at his level. “I told [redacted] that she needs to leave you alone and save all of her hugs for her family at home.” Smoke’s eyes widened. “Will you please tell me if that didn’t solve the problem?” He nodded.

Every moment of Mrs. N’s time is precious. The line of kids was already moving toward the classroom, and she was already moving with them, but as she got farther and farther away she thanked me for letting her know, and then gave me the thumbs-up sign as she disappeared through the door.

I’m glad that it’s 2014. I’m glad that my son’s teacher cares about what happens on the playground.

Advertisements

The Missing Bear

My son’s kindergarten teacher bribes her students to behave for five days straight using only a small piece of paper as a reward. At the beginning of each week, she issues each child a small die-cut shape, and if they listen, cooperate, and follow the rules, they get to bring it home on Monday.

In Mrs. N’s weekly email to parents this morning, she announced that this week’s behavior incentive was a bear. If we don’t find an incentive in our children’s folder, she instructed parents on curriculum night, we might want to have a conversation about why that is.

bear

That bear stayed in the back of my mind for hours. I didn’t think about it actively, but it stuck as a kind of visual marker for the end of the day. When I got home, I would remember to check Smoke’s folder and, assuming the bear was there, I’d make a point to share a moment of pride with him.

I was true to this intention, and I checked his folder moments after arriving home. I removed the papers from each pocket: there were instructions for photo day, a handout on conferences, a flyer for the harvest party. There was even a free magazine for parents. But there was no bear.

Last week, I had a moment of mild panic only to find that the bear was simply hiding in the flaps. Today I checked the flaps. No bear. My heart dropped. I mean, I could feel it dropping, then it raced. Blood ran into my cheeks. I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this bear.

“Did you get a bear in your folder?” I asked Smoke, hoping that maybe he’d already claimed it.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“Is there a reason you didn’t get one?” I reminded him that the bears were a reward for good behavior.

“I don’t think anyone got one,” he said. He didn’t seem to be hiding anything from me.

I took the dogs for a walk, and on that walk I was filled with dread. I kept asking myself: Is this really about the die-cut bear? Like maybe, are you upset about something else that you’re forgetting? But no, it was only the bear.

I wondered what my son had done. Clearly he hadn’t punched a child or tried to set the school on fire, or I would have heard from the principal or Mrs. N herself. But was he a disruptor? Did he poke other children during circle time? Did he chase someone around with a booger?

I wondered why it mattered. Some of it was sympathy. I started to imagine Smoke as the kind of kid who, week after week, comes home without a bear. The kind of kid who wants to do right, but gets labeled as trouble. Some of it was mystery. Smoke has been in kindergarten for a month now, and I have very little information about his performance. The truth is, as well as I know my son, I have no idea who he is in his classroom. The die-cuts every week have reassured me that all is well.

In my head I drafted an email. I would try to play it casual. Dear Mrs. N, it would read. Smoke did not have a bear in his folder today, but he wasn’t able to tell me anything about that. If he misbehaved last week, he is blissfully unaware. Is there anything I should know?

When I came home, I checked the pockets of the folder one last time, as if I might have somehow missed the bear. I hadn’t.

Though I kept telling myself it wasn’t urgent, I went to my laptop and opened my email account. There, at the top of my inbox was an email from Mrs. N.

The subject line read: Bears.

Dear Families,
The paper bear that was supposed to go home today to indicate your child
had a great week last week didn’t get into the folders today—sorry.
I will send the bears tomorrow.

Oh.

Maybe I am not the only one who had feelings about the missing bears.

My View from the Tiny Chair

1279338754656_hz-fileserver3_524684

Last night, in between story time and sleep, which is when Smoke is at his chattiest, he said, “We should do something nice for Mrs. N______”.

Mrs. N is, of course, his kindergarten teacher.

“Like what?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, like, maybe…make cookies with frosting?”

Tonight was curriculum night at Smoke’s school, one of my many initiations into becoming a public school parent. I walked into Smoke’s classroom and sat with the other parents in the tiny chairs. Mrs. N stood in front of us, reading from a children’s book. Mrs. N’s age is hard to place. She’s clearly older than the parents, but she’s leggy and sports a blonde bob and black eyeliner. Tonight she had paired a black pencil skirt and pumps with the requisite school spirit t-shirt.

I looked around the room, trying to take in the cubbies and the calendars, searching for any sign of my Smoke. Already my eyes were welling up. Shit, I thought, what’s wrong with me? I’d had the thought that this was where Smoke was spending so much of his life all of a sudden, a place that was mostly unfamiliar to me.

Mrs. N put down the book and addressed us. “This is my thirty-fifth year teaching kindergarten,” she said. “And every year I worry: this is going to be the year that it just doesn’t work, the year the kids just don’t get it and no one will behave. But then I meet your kids…” Now Mrs. N herself was fighting tears. “Your kids are great. I’m so grateful that you entrust them to me.”

I can’t tell you how many parents were also crying, because I was too busy looking at the table, swallowing, trying not to pass the point of no return. If I had let go, I could have kept it up for the full forty-minute session. Instead, I tried to listen. Here are a few of the things I learned from Mrs. N.

  1. For many years she taught kindergarten the way most teachers do. She stood in front of the classroom and led them through a project from beginning to end. But children, and kindergarteners in particular, move at different paces and have different skill sets. This way of leading a class, normal though it was, left everyone frustrated.
  1. After years of doing it this way, Mrs. N changed systems. Now she sets up multiple stations with projects. Some projects are required, and some are optional, but kids get to move through them at their own pace. Sometimes kids want to do a particular project but that station is full, so they get to learn about disappointment. This is one of the best lessons they get to learn in her class.
  1. Mrs. N has an elaborate system to help each child track his or her project, but I could not begin to explain it to you. Apparently, though, the kindergarteners can keep track of these procedures.
  1. According to Mrs. N, “These kids pretty much know exactly what’s going on at any given moment. You’d be surprised.” I was surprised. I can barely get Smoke to put his shoes on in the morning, or answer when I ask eight times what he wants for breakfast, but apparently he’s capable of understanding a complex behavior incentive system, staying in line, waiting his turn etc. when Mrs. N is in charge.
  1. Mrs. N reports that when the kids are working on their various projects, the room gets loud, but it’s the sound of focused learning. “I don’t do crazy,” she says.
  1. Please do not come into her classroom, watch the kids at their stations, and comment, “Oh, cute! They’re playing!” They are not playing; they are working. Last year, when a new principal came on, Mrs. N insisted that he sit in and observe her kindergarteners at their stations, because she wanted him to understand exactly how it worked. From what I can tell so far, the principal is a kind enough man, but I enjoyed imagining him in one of the tiny chairs, being schooled by the kickass kindergarten teacher in her thirty-fourth year of teaching.
  1. Every time there’s a change in administration, Mrs. N braces herself. She is totally prepared to retire if a new principal ever insists she go back to the old way of doing things. “I’ve been there and I was nothing but frustrated,” she says. “And I know I frustrated more than a few kids too.”

Three weeks ago, if you had asked me to imagine an ideal kindergarten teacher, I think I would have pictured a plump and patient woman, someone with no discernible edges. But I love Mrs. N’s edges. In fact, I feel the need to point out that I’ve done absolutely nothing to land my son in what strikes me as an exceptionally awesome kindergarten class. I didn’t pull strings or write letters. I didn’t visit dozens of schools. We go to this school because it’s two blocks away, and Smoke found Mrs. N because he was assigned to her. Also, of course, I have the privilege of living in a small city with a functional and relatively well-funded school system.

Because I’ve done so little, I’m left wondering: How do I show my appreciation for someone who manages over twenty squirrely little bodies every day, who has taught for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, and who has somehow maintained enough passion for her work that she gets teary-eyed when talking about her students? How do you thank someone for offering so much of themselves to your child?

I guess cookies with frosting is a start.

Among Life’s Disappointments: The Two-Day Weekend

Weekend

Weekend

On Sunday I had to break the news to Smoke that Monday would be a school day. I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. So far, he hasn’t been forthcoming about his kindergarten experience. At the end of every day I’ve asked him “What was the best part of your day?” and every day he’s answered, “Recess.”

“You feel that way already?” Kellie asked him on day one. I guess we both hoped he’d say he loved learning songs in circle time, or mastering sight words during reading. But both of Smoke’s best friends go to his school, both have been assigned to different classrooms, and so recess is a twenty-minute parent-free play date. Of course that’s his favorite.

So, anyhow, I wasn’t sure if he’d be excited or disappointed to learn that Monday was imminent, and that Monday meant the beginning of the school week. We were lying sideways on the bed, and I gave it to him straight: “Tomorrow is a kindergarten day.”

“What?” he answered. His lower lip quivered. “But that’s not fair—I haven’t had enough home days!”

I understood where he was coming from. During the school year, I never feel like I’ve had enough home days. For the last two months, I’ve had the luxury of summer, where home days and work days blend together. I’ve taught one online class and paid for childcare here and there; most days I’ve graded papers through nap time or answered emails on the fly. I’ve been relieved from the Pressure To Perform during the workweek, followed by the Pressure to Do All the Shopping and Connect with All the People and Do All the Laundry and also RELAX and HAVE FUN on the weekend. Instead, I just worry about attending to one thing or another, keeping the kids happy enough, and hopefully enjoying some part of the day. I’m a little productive and a little bit restful, and the rest is just survival. That’s how it should be.

I think that’s also how it’s been for Smoke up until now. For the last several years, he’s gone to preschool two days a week, played at a friend’s house the other two, and had three days at home. So, kindergarten is actually his initiation into the American-Capitalist workweek.

And while before this week I’d been imagining that kindergarten is all fun and games, all circle time and finger painting, Smoke’s tears over home days have helped me to remember what school felt like for me as a child. School felt: Relentless. Every day I spent seven hours at the mercy of my teachers. We lined up outside the school and waited in the weather for first bell. We’d be shuffled then to homeroom, then to art or music, then to recess, then to reading groups. We moved always in single file, and every segment of the day was marked by the shrill sound of the school bell that rang through every classroom.

My teachers were kind. I admired them; I wanted to please them. But having so little agency exhausted me, and so I welcomed any break—holidays and sick days, weekends and vacations. I didn’t call them “home days,” as Smoke does, but that’s what I longed for. Days to sit in the square of sun that came through the window, days to keep my pajamas on till noon, days to meander on my bike, or play Barbies, or put my new reading skills to use. Days where home was at the center of my day, not just the place where it started and ended.

Monday came, as it always does, and Smoke woke up without my help. He dressed himself and packed his own lunch without complaining about the day ahead. But when we arrived at school it took minutes for him to settle into the kindergarten lineup, and once he had he stared off into space. He was slack jawed and just a little pale, his eyes unfocused. He looked unmistakably weary.

Weekday (one of Smoke's many selfies)

Weekday (one of Smoke’s many selfies)

Smoke is right. Two days just don’t yield enough time to recoup what the workweek has taken.

Kindergarten Journal, Episode 1: I Worry

smoke in disguise

My son Smoke starts kindergarten in less than a week. I should be ready for this. Because he has an October birthday, he’s had to wait until he’s nearly six to start. His friends with March birthdays and August birthdays have, in his eyes, beat him to it and ever since he turned five, I’ve been answering the question “When does kindergarten start?”

Smoke was still in diapers when I learned about the official cutoff dates, and at the time I thought it was a shame that he would have to start so late. I knew that many parents these days were holding off on kindergarten, intentionally waiting until their kids were older, or as they called it “ready.” At the time, I saw this practice as overprotective. For some reason, I was eager to begin my son’s formal education, to watch him learn to read and write, to forge his own way in the world. Also, I’ll just say it: I was looking forward to free childcare.

But over the past year, the year that would have been my son’s first year of kindergarten if I had petitioned for early entrance, I’ve come to question all of my assumptions about his readiness. Now that he’s nearly six, and should be more than ready, I wonder if he’s ready at all.

I wonder if he’s ready for a class of twenty-two students.

My son has gone to preschool since he was two and for a long time I assumed that this meant he’d be amply prepared for kindergarten. Then one day it hit me—his preschool had pretty much the same cast of eight kids for three years. In kindergarten, he’ll share a room with twenty-two kids. For six hours every day. That sounds emotionally exhausting to me, and I guess I should know. I teach groups of 28 college students for two hours at a time, and when I come home my brain is fried. I can barely form a coherent sentence. Sharing one space with that many personalities is work.

I wonder if he’s ready to follow instructions.

I know I’m biased, but I find my son brilliant. He uses big words, tells elaborate stories, and spends hours focused on building tiny sculptures out of Legos. For a while I took for granted that my son’s intelligence guaranteed that his school experience would go smoothly, but I’m no longer sure. Smoke likes to do what he likes to do. His brilliance lies in his ability to concentrate. But this ability, paired with his constant insistence on following his own agenda, will likely be at odds with his ability to learn at school. He’s not so interested in pleasing adults.

I wonder if he’s strong enough and kind enough.

I worry about the pecking order in kindergarten, about the small groups that form, the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that shift and evolved. I wonder how my son will fare. I worry of course that someone might be cruel to my son, but I worry more that my son might participate in cruelty. I picture those smaller kids, those genuine five-year-olds, the ones with snot bubbles in their noses, or the one who pees his pants on the first day. I sure hope he’s kind to them.

*This post kicks off a new series on Goodnight Already that tracks my son’s transition into kindergarten. I’d love to hear from other parents who are entering the same era. Please consider sharing and commenting if you are so inspired.