Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Back to School, Ring the Bell."

To Prove To Dad That (He's) No Fool

We surpassed our 10th day of the school year this past week, a day my former higher ed colleagues always anticipate.  For our house the start of this school year definitely marked by a serious amount of anticipation, as this year Isla, our oldest, would be starting kindergarten, while Havi, our middle, would be starting her first year of preschool.  Like most every other parent who had a kid (or more) head off to school this fall, I also did the obligatory pondering of, "How did we get here?"  Luckily, after more than 10 days, we're still here.    

Last summer, after (questionably) surviving my first summer of stay-at-home parenting, I started to understand the sentiment of parents being ready for their kids to go back to school.  Last year, I was definitely ready, even though it was one kid going to school, three mornings a week.  This summer, I don't feel like I got to that point.  Yes, I was excited for Isla, as I knew she was ready and excited for kindergarten.  I was also excited for Havi, as I knew she was ready for something a little more stimulating and challenging (intellectually at least) than putting up with me all day.  Of course I was also selfishly excited to have a little lighter of a load at home so I could maybe, just maybe get a little more accomplished (or watch more trashy daytime television).  I think that fact though that this was going to be new territory for us - having one kid in school all day - I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

Or course before we could send our oldest off to kindergarten, we actually had to pick a kindergarten.  Growing up in small towns, this was somewhat of a foreign concept to my wife and me, where there was a school in your town (or maybe the next town over), and you went there.  Despite living in a "quaint" town not much bigger than my wife's hometown, we are apart of a larger school district, adjacent to a number of other smaller school districts and have a few private and charter school options in our larger community.  I think there are at least buses from at least six different schools that come through our neighborhood, trying to entice families to allow them to educate their kids.  All of the options have their pluses and minuses, and it certainly speaks to the privilege that we have to be stressed out about picking the "right" school for our kids.

Ultimately we decided on pursuing one of the language immersion programs offered by the public school district we are a part of.  Yes, not only did we have a variety of schools to choose from, we could also decide if we wanted our child taught in English, Spanish or Chinese.  We chose Spanish.  This did mean that Isla would be attending the elementary school in our district that is furthest away from our house, and not the brand-new (or less than 10 years old), state-of-art school that is only 1.5 miles down the road.  Again, the problems of the privileged.  Because her school is a solid 25 minute drive via the interstate, the bus picks her up at 6:30am, which has turned us into earlier risers than we already were^.  While the distance and the early wake-up gave us some hesitation for enrolling in the Spanish Immersion program, we wanted to at least try it and see how it goes.  I also vaguely recall getting on the bus at an un-Godly hour and riding for much longer than necessary (uphill both ways) during my school days.  It seems to be a rite of passage.

Fortunately, for our kids, no matter where they go to school, the odds of them having a successful school experience are pretty high.  It is often said that parents are the most important educators in a child's life, and one of the biggest indicators of future academic success is the support that they get at home for their education.  Yes, quality schools are incredibly important, but as one high school counselor once said, reassuring me that picking a school for our children wasn't such a monumental decision; you have great kids come out of some pretty terrible schools, and you have some terrible kids come out of some pretty great schools.  We likely have at least a few years before we start to see if our kids will turn out like eager overachievers like their mom, or lazy underachievers like their dad.

Coming from an upper middle-class, two parent household that strongly supports the educational experience - given that my wife and I have a combined 13 years of higher education, the chance of our kids being complete fuck-ups are pretty slim.  Not to say that it can't or won't happen, and we won't someday be bailing one (or more) of them out of jail.  The odds are just pretty heavily in their favor; to not be fuck-ups that is.  We're also fortunate that one of those two parents (that's me!) has been able to make the conscious decision to stay home with the children, having more time to support their educational experience, help with homework - the English stuff at least, and be involved with their school.  PTA anyone?  

Of course, like most parents, we have our fears in sending our kid off to school.  A lot can happen during the day when you see them off on the bus at 6:30 in the morning and they don't get back until 3 in the afternoon.  Oddly, most of the fears I've had tend to revolve around the logistical stuff - will she make her bus transfer, what if she doesn't like what they are serving for lunch that day; and the social stuff - will she make friends, will anyone play with her at recess.  We found out after the fact, that on Isla's third day of kindergarten her bus broke down on the way to school, and they had to wait for another bus to come and pick them up.  This caused her to miss breakfast at school and, because she has to get up so early, she typically doesn't eat anything before getting on the bus.  When I found this out, I had a mini-freakout.  "So, you didn't eat anything until lunch?*  Weren't you starving?  How'd you survive?"  She just kind of shrugged her shoulders.  Heaven forbid she ever have to experience hunger.

Gus has a book, Elmo's First Day of School, that he insists on us reading almost every day (I think he just really likes to say "Elmo").  On Elmo's first day of school, he is a little hesitant at music time because he doesn't know the words to the song the teacher is playing.  Elmo's teacher reassures Elmo by pointing out that school is all about learning new things.  It's somewhat rhetorical to say that school is all about learning new things for the students, but I also think it's as much a learning process for us parents as well.  Of course our kids are learning how to read and write and do math.  They're also learning how to be independent and make choices and interact with others in various settings, not always in the purview of adult supervision.  Most importantly, I think they are learning how to cope and deal with the circumstances and situations that they are in.

As parents we're learning, or should be at least, how allow them to cope and navigate those situations on their own.  It's not as though we're sending them out into the world on their own, but slowly we're giving them more independence.  In one of the many parenting books that I've read, the author pointed out that we cannot control our kids.  We can only coach them, and hope that their behavior and actions will reflect how we've coached them.  I think this is particularly true when you send your kid off to school.  We can't control everything that they do or foreshadow every situation that they're put in.  We can't keep them in a bubble, filtering what they are exposed to (more on censorship later), dictating their actions, or deciding what crowd they decide to pal around with.  Am I somewhat concerned that Havi, who habitually waits too long to relieve herself might have an accident while at school?  Sure, but there isn't much I can do about it if it happens.  Odds are she wasn't the first and most certainly won't be the last.  

The sooner we can learn to gradually let go, the more independence and confidence they will gain (which presumably is a good thing in the long run).  Will it always go smoothly?  Of course not.  It can be excruciating to watch our kids struggle and at times ultimately fail at something.  We've already experienced two such moments with Isla during her first two weeks of kindergarten when she broke down in tears because she couldn't figure something out.  As eager as a parent can be to rush in and try to solve the problem for them, that is part of the process of school, and life.  I think our role as parents shouldn't always be to solve our children's problems, but to support them through their failures.  When I feel the urge to come "helicoptering in" to rescue one of my kids, I like to think of the line from the Frou Frou song, "Let Go" - "there's beauty in the breakdown".

Of course we as parents will fail at times too.  That is how we learn and grow as parents.  On Isla's first day of school, because it wasn't raining at 6:30am when she got on the bus, we neglected to send a coat with her.  It proceeded to rain for pretty much the rest of the day, and when I found out that they still went outside for recess, I was a little taken aback by my lack of foresight.  "So you went outside for recess.  In the rain.  Without a jacket because we didn't send one with you.  Interesting."  Note to self, double-check the forecast each morning before sending kids out the door.  Luckily my kids can't grasp the concept of micromanagement just yet, trusting that I will (someday) learn from my own mistakes.    

Not only do we have to learn to trust that our kids will be able to figure it out, we also have to learn to trust the educational structure that has been created to support and nurture them.  The teachers, the bus drivers, the administrators, the resource officers.  We have to trust that they have the safety, security and best interest of our kids in mind every day, while also being mindful of everyone else's kids too.  We have to believe that they want to see our kids succeed as much as we do, but that they might have a different perspective on our child and how they can support their pursuit of success.  It can certainly be hard to develop this trust, especially when you hear about tragic events like the Jacob Wetterling abduction that took place in our "quaint" community over 25 years ago, and only recently came to a very sad and tragic close.

When most of our news headlines are dominated by terrifying and heart-wrenching stories about the things that are most precious in our lives, it seems justifiable that we as parents have a desire to embed GPS chips into our kid's socks or conspicuously follow a block behind the school bus the entire way to school.  I think it would be informative, likely soothing, and certainly funny if we could watch our children navigate the school day through a hidden camera without them knowing.  Observing would hopefully ensure us in knowing that they're okay, and likely provide a little validation to us as parents that we're doing at least an okay job raising our kids.  But we have to find a way to give them that space to develop themselves and their personalities. Or, to paraphrase Martha Beck from her book Expecting Adam, we have to transform into parents who can accept our children, no matter what.

Right now, I will graciously accept our kindergartner who was excessively excited to get her first homework assignment this past week.  And who is disappointed that she doesn't get to go to school on Saturdays and Sundays, even if that means the notion of sleeping in on the weekends is lost on her.  I'll also graciously accept our preschooler, who is a little hesitant to leave the comforts of her mom and dad's presence (mostly mom's), even though she always has a ton of fun in school.  In a few months/weeks her excitement will probably (hopefully) mirror her older sister's.  And our little guy, who certainly notices when his older sisters are gone, saying their names with an inquisitive look on his face, and responding with a somber "oh" when I tell him they are at school.  His time will be coming certainly fast that we can expect.  However it is that we got "here", we're here. Soon enough we'll be "there", wherever "there" is.  "Everybody on?"

Havi started the school year for us with her first day of preschool.

Isla followed the next day with her first day of kindergarten.
Poor Gus is just stuck at home with dad.
It will give him some time to grow into his glasses.

^I will completely understand if you never again invite our family to be overnight guests at your house.

*Bear in mind that they eat lunch at like 10:30am.    

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