Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Twenty-Eight First Graders, the Lone Teacher, a Slew of Specialists, and One Shy Girl"

Anne Lamott once wrote of a type of situation so taxing it could "...make Jesus drink gin from the dog dish." This is how I often feel, as the parent of a school-aged child. It's surprisingly hard to let my kid go off all day to be manhandled by the world. It makes me want to go hit six-year-olds who might say even one mean thing to my Wee Nibben of a girl. It makes me want to creep down corridors wearing a locker costume as camouflage, just in case she needs a pencil sharpened and can't do it herself. It makes me want to hop in the mini-van and follow the school bus all the way into the parking lot (sheepish confession: I've actually done at least one of these. I could probably hook you up with a really novel costume for Halloween next year, by the way).

Frankly, though, when I first had kids and sussed how intense the early years are--from quirky newbornhood to colicky infanthood to irrational toddlerhood to no-separation-at-all-costs preschoolerhood to how-can-you-be-an-adolescent-already kindergartenhood--I couldn't wait for them to start going to school fulltime. Yea, that's right: I was counting the years until my kids would go away for a large part of the day. This is not an uncommon sentiment among parents, either, I'm here to tell you. Anything that can reap huge, awe-inspiring amazement has to suck in equal measure. It just does. Ask the guy who carved out Mount Rushmore. Giving birth to, and raising, those heads pretty much killed him. But they were worth every minute of his sweat. He created a masterpiece, but he was probably pretty flippin' happy on those days he didn't even see or think about whether Roosevelt's moustache was overshadowing Lincoln's nose. It was okay for the heads to go away from his head for awhile.

Such is the case with kids. Hence, when our first kid headed off to full-time school this year, I was astonished that it actually, gulp, hurt. All those hours of freedom we'd been anticipating in a state of mental high-kickery (sing the song "One" from A CHORUS LINE here)--you know, time to sit down while drinking coffee instead of slurping from the mug while trudging back upstairs to find size 5T pants that were "softier, like fleecier, for my tenderyish leg skin, not scratchy like these"--well, they also meant that we'd just lost the best hours of the day with our girl.

Now, she gets off the bus at 4:30 p.m., when it's already getting dark, and she's ravenous and needy and wired. And some days, when our attempts to sit down communally at the kitchen table and help out with her homework have degenerated into her sobbing and yelling because she doesn't understand contractions or what an apostrophe looks like, we end up in retreat, in the basement, cowering behind the dryer. Around nine p.m. we then stick out a tentative ear, listening for any rustling sounds up at the table in the kitchen. If we hear only muffled snores, then the coast is clear--we can stop snacking on the Bounce sheets sprinkled with Tide crystals and creep back upstairs, careful not to wake the Exhausted Scholar.

In short, having a kid go off to school for eight hours each day hasn't delivered the anticipated bliss. Even worse, we're now wracked with the concerns and questions about her education that mark us definitively as middle-class-white-overly-educated-liberals: "What curriculum are they using? How many times will she be pulled from class for assessments during the year? What's the average class size?"

This last question has created the most discussion for us, as we hover behind the dryer, night after night (on the plus side, we've figured we can accept pizza deliveries through the dryer vent; the delivery dude just shoves the pie down through the bendy tube). The dilemma is that we have not sent the Wee Gel to our neighborhood school but instead, she attends a public "magnet" school further from home, one that offers intensified music opportunities. And, because I was raised in a musical household, with a father who was a voice professor and a mother who was the Executive Director of the city's symphony, I value what music education can do for any kid, whether or not she is gifted in that area. Cripes, I just want a child who can read music and who stands a chance at identifying Mozart when it plays on public radio. Modest goals, right?

Because this school is considered a "good" one, I actually had to scramble around like a Manhattan parent four years ago, when our daughter was not yet two, and call the school to get her on a waiting list. At that time, when she was 18 months old, she was twelfth on the waiting list. Thus, we were jubilant when she reached kindergarten age, and we received the call from The School, saying they had an opening for her. It was, as those youngsters these days say, the bomb diggity.

Kindergarten passed without a hitch; she painted and cut and counted in her class of 17 kids. The fact that she is a very reserved child (often mistaken as shy...but she's more, as my friend from Texas put it some years back, "a no bullshit baby." She's quite confident and actually sees no reason to open up to someone who's never invested in her--it's the old "you get what you pay for" with our lass, which I quite respect) made no difference; it simply meant that our parent/teacher conferences would open with an exclaimed, "I would like to have twelve of your daughter in this class!"

And first grade now is going swimmingly for her, except that we worry. We do. You see, her class has twenty-eight students in it. That's a lot. Especially when we have a kid who doesn't really ask for help. This is the kid who fell off a dock into a lake two summers ago, caught in the chest-high water, buffeted between a pontoon boat and the dock itself, and she just stood there, no peep made, until someone looked down a few minutes later and saw her holding silent court there with the lily pads. So trust me, I was not a whit surprised this year, in school, when her homework--diligently completed within two hours of it being assigned and carefully put into her special folder in her backpack, ready to return to the classroom the next day--accumulated because she didn't know where she was supposed to turn it in. So the completed homework kept coming back home with her, day after day, until it had worn a groove into that special folder. "Did you take it out and show it to Mrs. A and ask her where you should turn it in?" The answer was no, a woeful no, because "Mrs. A is always so busy with the other kids around her desk, and I didn't know how to get in there."

This reality of too-many-kids-on-one-teacher stands in stark contrast to the pretend classroom that this same daughter has been overseeing in our living room for the last three years--she has 26 dolls as students, and every one gets her individual attention, from Astrid, who made the Principal's List for being able to sit upright unassisted, to Kobe, whose mom sometimes drops him off late because she had to go to a meeting at a factory in China.

(The "art specialist" demonstrates the dolls' weekly project. The kid in the front row wearing yellow, Kiki, is a bully and a troublemaker and can't follow directions for anything.)


The difference between our living room and the real-life classroom, however, is that the unengaged dolls remain benign and passive, but in the real world, the unengaged kids either clamor around the teacher even harder, looking for attention, or else they start sticking washable markers in the pencil sharpener, or else they, like our girl, sit quietly at their desks, clutching a homework folder.

Once I realized that homework--in the first month of first grade--was becoming an emotional issue, and once my husband and I remembered the frozen feeling of being painfully shy in elementary school, I chose to hop into this particular issue. Even though I want my child to learn to cope, to be self-sufficient, to figure things out in the world, I stopped by the classroom, casually, one day ("I was just, er, here in the school because, em, I needed to get fitted for my new camouflage locker costume...and so I thought I'd pop in"), and mentioned to the teacher that at least one of her students was feeling confused about the process of submitting homework. This was news to the teacher, and she easily and gratefully handled the problem. Girl's homework is now handed in where it's supposed to be, when it's due.

But the behind-the-dryer discussion about "do we keep Girl in the class of 28 at this good school with a fine teacher, or do we pull her and enroll her in the neighborhood school that has 18 students in the first grade classes?" took on steam. I ended up emailing my sister, a kindergarten/first grade/second grade teacher herself (and who isn't a fan of the Shift key on her keyboard), someone who has handled anywhere from 18 to 31 students in a class, and her pragmatic reply calmed my gut:

"and honestly, with a class over 25, no, you really don't get to spend individualized time with every kid or really get to know them. especially the quiet ones. you're just thankful they're not being a pain and can stay on-task by themselves while you deal with the "big" personalities...which is why i've loved looping, by spending more than a year with the same kids i feel like i do get to really get to know the kids better, personalities and strengths and weaknesses...so i think you have to weigh what you want for Girl's education. if she's making the academic and social progress you want for her, then she might be fine or more than fine where she is. plus being exposed to the variety of cultures available at her present school prepares her for the real world... if you want the opportunity for her to receive more individualized attention so that she can move faster in all areas, then maybe the smaller class school...BUT i'd strongly recommend visiting all the classes for a min. of 30 miutes each at the new school to see how the teachers are...you might end up swapping a big class, good teacher, for a smaller class, not as good teacher...i think it's great great that the teacher realizes she needs parent involvement AND help with a large class. i know many teachers who do not like to have parents in the room for extended lengths of time, so plough through everything on their own...with that many kids,you do need regular help. i've had classes with 27+kids and no aide and it can be killer at times...depending on the day, the kids, you, the activity...oh, and here's something i realized in denver, the kids in my smaller classes had a harder time learning to work independently and where to find information if it wasn't available cuz i was always available. i really noticed that the kids in my larger classes HAD to learn to work on their own and wait their turn and learn to ask friends who were experts for help if i was busy, where with the smaller classes, i was always available to help them...which is not a bad thing, but when i needed them to work independently, they seriously couldn't cuz i hadn't had to train them from day one how to...weird, huh?"

Yea. Weird. Huh.

The issue is settled for us for this year: good teacher, large class, Girl who copes. She luuurrrves her school and teacher and hordes of classmates and computer time and the Christmas and Spring concerts and Boost-Up gym time and art and choir and music and field trips to the Children's Museum and class visits to the school's cultural center and............

So the cost may be her never having a teacher who has the time or energy to sit one-on-one with her and unlock her talents, character, personality. I guess that's up to everybody else in her life, starting and ending with her parents, who currently find themselves on their knees, crouching behind the dryer, eating "stuffed" pizza, drinking gin out of the dog dish.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sweetie, you really should get some glasses hidden down there with you, 'cause gin in a dog dish? Meh.. not so much...

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lanaya said...

I love the locker costume what a great idea. Ha-ha.

It's too bad that school's these days don't have music in their curriculum. When I was in grade school I took three years of violin lessons and I loved it. They don't offer that at my son's school. Although they do offer piano lessons which I signed him up for but he only took for one year.
My son is also shy and doesn't know how to ask the teacher for help. At the beginning of this school year (he is in the fifth grade) He had a hard time because his teacher didn't seem to be very approachable, and he was having trouble understanding what the teacher was expecting of him as far as getting his homework in and then fixing what was wrong. Then turning it back in again for credit. Now that we have met his teacher and addressed those concerns it is all good.

Anonymous said...

what you need, is a secret food storage. That way, you can hide out from your kid for hours on end without ever having to come out. Maybe you can use your locker-costume for this purpose, also.

Carri said...

It is a difficult decision, the choosing between schools. When my daughter was in Kindergarten we put her in a private school, and she remained there through 1st grd. It was larger class numbers but the teachers were excelent. Now she in a smaller class setting, and gets much more individual attention. She doesn't have all the extras that her private school had, but she is almost a grade ahead in every subject. Its a tough call, but as long as shes happy there I would keep her there.