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When I went to “grade school” in the 1960’s, the teachers and schools were like customers. They were always right.
When a child came of kindergarten age, they were signed up at the local elementary school, destined to climb the grade ladder of the same institution, chased up by younger siblings, until grade 8 graduation. That is, unless they belonged a travelling gypsy caravan.
Parents were invited to visit the school once per academic year, on “Parents’ Night,” to find out what their child was up to in the classroom.
In the new millennium, school is no longer a straightforward rite of passage. It’s a thriving example of capitalism. It’s a journey of often precarious parental decision-making that can feel like navigating Italy’s Il Labirinto (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Villa_Pisani) maze.
Last month, after 3 painful weeks of kindergarten, we pulled Lizzie from the same school where her brother was attending 3rd grade, just before her 5th birthday.
We had two, what can only be described as emotionally traumatic, meetings for parents—one with the kindergarten teacher and another with the principal. In the end, we were convinced we had failed Lizzie and worse, that there just might be “something wrong” with her.
After all, in the era I grew up, teachers were always right. Parents didn’t get called to the school unless their child was committing a grave schoolhouse felony, like boys setting off firecrackers in the girls’ bathroom.
When kids went to school, they disappeared behind the portals for teachers to manage how they saw fit—and many a time I saw the yard stick cross the hand of a wayward boy in our classes over the years.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that child psychology began to come into its own.
In fact, in the 60’s and early ‘70’s, preschool was just a twinkle in every educator’s eye.
At the age of five—after a lifetime of knowing only a mother’s bosom, home and hearth—each child was marched to the doorway of kindergarten class and abandoned there to wonder what they had done to deserve sudden segregation from the world of Mom.
In this regard, it was more like kinder concentration camp.
And it was accompanied by a sense of shock and loss that I can still remember 45 years later.
In my gut, I knew that there was nothing “wrong” with Lizzie. But I knew that, after 3 weeks, she was feeling deeply troubled, with her confidence evaporating like morning dew on an encroaching heat wave as the teacher’s notes made their way home each day—with a thumbs up or a thumbs down on her behavior, sealing Lizzie’s nightly fate.
I began to realize two things: I wasn’t going to accept the implication of “something being wrong” without my own research and, buried somewhere within this experience, there might be a healing for both me and Lizzie.
A lengthy discussion with a clinical child psychologist who taught child psychopathology at the local university brought many things to light.
First, 7.45am to 3.00pm was a long day for many children her age.
This—combined with a disciplined and structured environment where teachers were positioned as “authority” figures in a peer-pressured environment—would place her in the dilemma of being unable to cope and unable to consistently please simultaneously.
It was a kid’s version of finding herself between a rock and a hard place in what must have felt like kinder boot camp.
Her reaction, he said, would be to feel cornered. Close on the heels of this would be the need to fight back with everything she had, if she were a strong kid.
If this wasn’t bad enough, we learned, it could always get worse.
The explosive situation was further compounded by Lizzie’s evolved intuitive intelligence being mistaken by many as developmental maturity.
Yet, when we had her tested, her developmental age came out as 4.6 years of age—despite her giftedness, she was not emotionally ready for an intense kinder curriculum.
Since pulling her from the school, I have met at least 3 other mothers who’ve had the same experience with the same school. This does not make this school’s kinder class “wrong” for students—it’s right for the right kids.
In the end, the child psychologist explained it simply: every child is different; don’t assume their educational needs are the same.
We needed something like ‘school dating’ before we made a commitment to any institution—something, had I known sooner, I could have applied to Alex’s education as well.
I heaved a deep, visceral sigh of relief and tossed my 1960’s school rule book out the window.
I clasped Lizzie’s hand and said: “Shall I tell you what we’re going to do? We’re going school shopping—together!”
Over the course of a week, my 5-year-old daughter and I visited kindergarten classes—some private, some public—and I helped her make the selection she felt would work for her.
We chose a half-day program in a charter school with a focus on fine arts. To maintain her math and reading skills, I selected a home tutor for one afternoon a week.
For her first week at the new kinder class, I participated daily so that she felt my presence. With satisfaction and hope, I watched her overcome her shyness as her confidence grew.
The first day she asked me: “Mommy, are they going to do a report on me today like the last school?”
I felt a terrible pang of guilt.
“No, Lizzie. This school doesn’t do reports,” I replied reassuringly.
Gradually, I weaned her off of my continued presence with a plan to volunteer in her class one morning per week, so that she knows I support her—whether or not I am present.
When I picked her up yesterday, I flung open the classroom door to a blast of music. I shaded my eyes from the sun where, at last, I saw her—she was dancing in the middle of the room amongst twenty other little dancers, and giggling helplessly.
It’s early days still. But I live in hope.
Notes for this blog:
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