Monday, August 4, 2008

Growing Up and Letting Go

In these last few weeks, we have been coping with a big transition – the start of Kindergarten. It would be difficult to say whether this is a bigger change for Jess or for us, his parents. He was excited the first day, maybe a little nervous of how different it would be, but thrilled to be starting “big kid” school. We went to the open house where he walked around the classroom, wide-eyed and absorbing every detail. He let everyone who would listen know that he was indeed, ready.

But a new school equals new rules, new ways of doing things. Jess’ preschool was a very child-led environment, rich in hands-on activities and meaningful projects. To now be in a traditional, “sit-in-your-seat” style school is a huge change. Just after the first few days, Jess made it clear that this difference was “no fun” and in fact, boring. Also, the tight teacher-directed schedule leaves little time for making friends. Add to his disappointment the fact that he now is in school until 3:30 when he is used to going only half-day and you have a recipe for exhausted daily meltdowns. Sometimes these are on the way to school and sometimes for some random reason later in the day.

Obviously, this is not unexpected. Starting school is one of childhood’s biggest milestones and Jess is not well known for keeping his emotions in check during the best of times. With all the changes, he is left with few resources with which to cope. But my heart breaks a little every morning when I drop him off. I walk him (sometimes drag him) to his class and stand at the door while he goes through the motions of his morning routine. The first few days, I’d leave and come back to peek through the window to see how he was doing but had to stop that because it made me too sad. He would just be sitting in his seat looking lost. Jess is the type of spirit who always fits in – never having trouble making friends and finding something to do to make him happy. So to see him each day, looking sad and out of place was just too much for this mommy to handle and I’d walk back to my car wiping away tears. I feel like I’m leaving a piece of myself behind at that desk each day and I wonder if there will be anything left of me by Labor Day.

Dr. T. Barry Brazelton, the grandfatherly developmental pediatrician, calls these transitions “Touchpoints.” These are the steps backwards we take before we grow and make a leap forward. Children often regress in one area while they are working on another – like the toddler learning to walk who suddenly stops sleeping through the night. Touchpoints are phases, signs of growth and ultimately, they pass. And while Jess suffers through this touchpoint, I feel like I am having one of my own. I am holding on tighter before I can let go.

It would be easier to let go a little if I felt that Jess would be landing into a fabulous kindergarten experience. But as his parents, we are coping with our own disappointment. From the moment we entered the classroom during open house, I felt doubt washing over me. It’s not that there was anything specifically wrong with the classroom, there was just nothing very right with it. There was nothing outwardly creative or outstanding in the set-up but I also understand that some teachers start off the year with a clean and almost empty classroom and add to it as the curriculum progresses. And then Jess started to bring home the coloring sheets he has been completing at school for his “work” and my stomach turned over and my eyes rolled back in my head. Worksheets, especially those where you color in the lines, go against the very grain of my child-development trained philosophy.

Now I should also explain that I look at school from a consumer standpoint. The school offers a product and I if I don’t like it, I can theoretically choose another school. And because of my educational background, I am one choosy customer. In our area, we have the illusion of a lot of choice. We have our district public schools, our magnet schools, charter schools and private schools. Our first school experience was a charter school that we chose for Dean. In the beginning, it was a seamless transition from our preschool with small class size and a project-based curriculum. The school as a whole was not perfect but we had a great teacher and good first year in kindergarten. First grade, however, was a very different story. We had an awful teacher, unsupportive administration, and a child with emerging learning issues that were not being addressed at school. That began our adventure in home-schooling and a story for another long post. After many school visits, much soul-searching and number crunching, we settled on this school – our district school. A school with a great reputation and one of the reasons we bought a house in this neighborhood. And it has been great for Dean. He is on his way to having his second great year and our faith has been restored in the public school system.

So for Jess, the choice field was narrowed down considerably because who wants their kids separated into different schools, on different school calendars? And even if we were willing to do that, I burned the bridge back to the charter school. And even if I had the money for private school (a mere $12000 per child), it’s too late to apply and enroll for kindergarten. And while I certainly know people who try a new school each year for their child, I don’t want to be one of them. I like this school and am looking forward to Jess getting the same experience as Dean – but I fear he won’t get it this year in kindergarten.

And nothing irritates a mom more than not being able to “fix” a problem. There is no way to talk to the teacher about my concerns without making the problem worse. No teacher likes to be told how to do her job and there is no way not to have hurt feelings trickle down to my son. I could talk to the principle but I doubt, despite his being as fabulous as he is, that my concerns will lead to any change. My asking nicely for a more creative approach to teaching will not stop the flow of worksheets in my child’s direction. I might as well ask for more adequate parking at the same time. In fact, I have to be very careful whom I speak to about this. Of the few friends I have in this school, one of them is friendly with the teacher in question and neither of them understands why I even have a problem with the curriculum. And while I believe strongly in my stance on this issue, I can see where these other moms think I am being a pretentious ass and why don’t I just enroll him in the over-priced private school already.

My husband is ready to pull Jess out and have me home-school him for this year. He has absolute faith in my ability to put my money where my mouth is and do a better job teaching Jess than his current situation will. But I’m not sure home-schooling will meet all of Jess’ needs either. Home-schooling takes discipline and organization – not my strongest suits. And I’m not sure my little extrovert would be happy alone with his mom and his baby brother for most of the day. Our five-week summer did not go very well in that regard. I don’t want to pull him out of school in knee-jerk haste. I also don’t want to have to contemplate any more change than necessary.

There just doesn’t seem to be any clear solution here. I want to do what is best for Jess, but it also has to work for the whole family. I want him to be happy in school. I want him to love learning. I want him to get more from school than just doing what he needs to do to make the teacher happy. But part of letting your kids grow up is accepting that as a parent, you can’t fix everything. And I may not be able to fix this. This may be a year that he just has to get through – I just hate that it has to happen this early in his education.

So for now, I’ll keep watching to make sure that Jess’ creative spirit doesn’t get lost in the worksheet shuffle. I’ll proudly keep displaying his class work on the refrigerator like it’s a lovely piece of art. And I’ll keep reminding him that he doesn’t always have to color in the lines. And I’ll try to let go, just a bit.


Marty, a.k.a. canape said...

I'm so sorry Jess is having a hard time - and his mama. I think any transition to kindergarten has to be hard; to have it be this kind of situation - well, I'm just sorry.

I learned a lot from your post though. See? You are a good teacher. Organization and discipline or not.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Oh man. Your struggles are so similar to my own these days! Mr. B fits in great with the school model, but Mr. T, alas, does NOT. I never foresaw having the struggles with educating my kids that I have--I know more than I should, and I despise the illusion of choice that has been presented to me.

Good luck finding the balance that will work for your son and for your family.

Madame Queen said...

I would give it some time. As you said, it is a big change, but maybe things will improve and maybe Jess will actually learn to love it.

Our pediatrician warned me that when Bubba starts school we may have to move his bedtime up a little bit. The school environment is going to be more challenging and he won't get the daily naps he got at pre-k, so he warned me that Bubba would be more tired than usual.

I think your plan of encouraging him outside of the classroom is a great idea.

Karen said...

We are gearing up for this transition as well. My older daughter is the model student. The little one is a free spirit, and I don't want to see her crushed.
I say hang in there and see what happens a lot of teachers are a bit more strict at school start to show whose boss so to speak and things ease up after awhile.
If he is still not happy, there is nothing to say you couldn't try to have him switched to a different teacher.
I have a friend who every summer writes a letter to the VP telling her what type of personalities her kids have and what type of teacher they respond best to. She doesn't ask for specific teachers, just characteristics and so far she's always been happy with her 4 kids placements.
HTH! Keep us posted.

1blueshi1 said...

Oh, honey. I wish I could swoop in on my broomstick, wave my magic wand, and make it all better. I remember 5 year old kindergarten as my best school year, ever, hands down. And of course I wanted the same for my kids. Zac ended his first year of kindergarten the only kid in the class who couldn't read. He did another year of kindergarten. Bookey starts this year, and I had requested a particular teacher for her. I was told, of course, no guarantees, but when I called the school today and was told, she will be in Mrs. Buttmunch's class, bitch, and suck it up (perhaps not in those words, exactly) and truly it was all I could do not to place a quick phone call to Charles Kazynski for some helpful hints on how to deal with the sitch.
So, I am feeling your pain, here...sigh.
We're gonna get through this, too, though (pastes large fake smile on face and prepares to fart some rainbows & cotton candy)