Occasionally I feel compelled to write about my five-year-old son’s transition from private school to our local elementary school, which thus far has mostly been a disturbing experience. This piece is still being drafted and is quite rough, but I am dedicated to providing 2 personal essays each week, sleepless twins or not. Let me know what you think.
Lynn and I went to our son’s kindergarten orientation at the local public school last week. After two years in a private school, it was an awakening.
The principal spoke at length in a very soft voice about bus schedules and school lunches and the importance of timeliness, and then we were taken on a tour of the building by an eight-year-old, who was very sweet but knew nothing. The mothers wore purple eyeshadow and tight jeans, and they had frosted hair. The fathers mostly wore backwards baseball caps. I slipped away from the tour with the twins to spy on Ray in a room at the far end of the building. He was quietly watching a video about following rules on the school bus. On the way back to the gym, I ran in to Lynn, who was on her way out of the building toward the parking lot. There were tears in her eyes.
“I’ve seen enough,” she said. “One of the fathers was hounding that little girl about the pledge of allegiance,” she said, doing her best imitation of somebody I can best describe as a large gorilla shouting from the bleachers at a football game. “The kids gonna say the pledge? Good. Gotta say the pledge.”
Lynn and I bought a large house in an urban area in upstate New York. We knew we were leaving a pretty good school district when we moved, but the house we lived in was too small for a growing family, and we couldn’t afford the size house we needed in the same area. We chose a neighborhood on a quiet street in a residential neighborhood where people walk their dogs and children ride their bikes. And people are pretty friendly here, although I could do without all the fiscal Republicans. You wouldn’t exactly call this area an artists colony, but we could live with that.
We spoke to many people about the local schools. We were told by neighbors and real estate agents and even his old preschool teacher that the neighborhood we lived in had the best schools in the district. We met with the principal and took a tour of the building years before Ray was to enter kindergarten. It all looked nice — maybe not as good as the school district we’d left behind, but still perfectly fine. We weren’t entirely sure we were going to put him in public school anyway.
So we moved. I got pregnant with twins. Ray went to a private school in Woodstock where the parents wear patchouli and children have names like Butter and Sage. Ray was loved and tended to as carefully as the seeds in the community garden. The children walked across a wide expanse of grass at the foot of the Catskill Mountains en route to various buildings where they attended classes in yoga or art, science and library.
We liked the private school a great deal, and we felt comfortable in the community. There were other children with two moms, most of the families had a liberal-minded attitude and, in an effort to save the planet, juice boxes were not allowed on campus.
The problem was that we really can barely afford private school for one child, let alone three. We didn’t think it would be fair to put our son into a private school but not his sisters, and we disliked feeling alienated from our own community. Ray had no friends in our neighborhood because his school was a twenty-five minute drive away. I didn’t know any parents in the community.
When we told Ray that we decided to take him from the only school he’s ever known, he plunged his fingers into his ears and ran out of the room. We waited for him to come back and, a few minutes later, he returned to the living room and sat down on the sofa. We shared our concerns about him not having friends in the neighborhood, and we told him about the chicken nuggets in the cafeteria.
“Fine,” he said. He went to the kitchen to get himself a drink. “I’ll go to public school.”
He couldn’t wait to get on the school bus. He’d been watching longingly from the car or the street for as long as I can remember, even before he could fully say the word.
He said, “Mama, I want to take the school bus. You don’t have to go with me or meet me at the kindergarten class. I can do it all myself.”
Who was I to squash his moxie? I packed his lunch and walked him to the bus stop. I gave him a kiss and watched him climb aboard. Lynn cried.
It was a sad boy who stepped off the school bus that afternoon.
“Somebody tripped me,” he said. “And laughed,” he added. He also reported that the child that was supposed to be his “bus buddy” ran away from him to be with his brother, and that he sat alone for the twenty-minute ride (which is silly considering we live five minutes from the school).
I considered bringing up the incident at school, but his kindergarten teacher already noticed me hovering in the classroom doorway during orientation day, and I felt it wasn’t in my best self-interest (or Ray’s) to make too many waves the first week of school. Everyone hates That Mother.
It bothered me, though. I mentioned it to my neighbor, Patty, who put all three of her children through the same school. We talked about how the nearby closure of another elementary school — and its merger with ours — made things all the worse this year. Buses were crowded, classrooms were crowded, it was a fine mess. She told me that I had to tell both the teacher and the principal about what happened on the bus.
“I don’t know, Patty,” I said. “I suspect they already think he’s a faltering daisy.” (He is not. He looks like the love child of Harvey Fierstein and Stanley Kowalski.)
“You have to,” she said. “They need to know what’s going on.”
So I mentioned it to his teacher. And do you know what she said? She patted him on the backpack and said, “You’re a big boy now. You can take the bus.”
There was a lot of chaos in the schoolyard and the conversation pretty much ended there, but I went home disappointed. I told Lynn, and she was furious. Then I told a few other friends and some were surprised to hear it and others were not.
Everyone has a public school story, it seems.
“On the first day of school,” a friend told me, “my daughter came back with a note from her teacher saying she served a celebratory concoction called ‘Jitter Juice.’ The note said that it was a mixture of Hawaiian Punch and Sprite.”
My friend looked at me in disbelief. “I’ve never given my kid a soda in her entire life!”
The whole first week, Ray came home from school tight-lipped. It’s a long day, he said, doing his best impersonation of Bob Haldeman during the Watergate hearings. I don’t remember, he kept repeating. I don’t recall. The only conversation we had went like this.
Do you like school?
Yes I love it.
Why do you love it?
Me and Armani make faces together.
On the first and second day of school, the teacher reported very bad behavior. She wouldn’t tell me what he did, only that he was very difficult and that he got two Time Outs in one day. He got two the next day as well. By the third day he was better, but he seemed exhausted.
“He’s doing all right,” was all his teacher would say. She gave me a look that suggested that he wasn’t being that great, but he wasn’t the worst in the class, either. “It’s an adjustment,” she said.
I had to bring out the big guns to get any real information.
“Let’s play a game,” I said, taking out a bag of Skittles. “I’ll tell you a detail about my day, and you tell me a detail about your day. Whoever gives the most details wins.”
So there we were at the kitchen table, me sharing details of the girls unraveling rolls of toilet paper around the living room, and Ray unveiling observations from the Kindergarten Underground. Ze-Ting fell asleep during rest time. Armani didn’t listen. Christopher stuck his tongue out and they read a book called We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
Then he said it.
“I got another Time Out.”
“Tell me,” I said, sliding a cherry skittle across the table.
“For calling out. She said I interrupt too much.”
“Well,” I said. “There are 23 kids in the class.” I sighed. “Everybody has to have a turn.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But she never calls on me. Not ever! What’s for dinner?”
I suspect that if Ray’s story is true (and we don’t necessarily know that it is, as five-year olds are not reliable narrators) then my guess is she doesn’t call on him because she is aware that he already knows the answer. There are a substantial number of English language learners in the class and everyone needs an opportunity to speak. But still. My heart aches just thinking about my kid calling out an answer for no reason other than youthful exuberance and a genuine excitement for sharing information.
On Friday he reported that the children weren’t listening well during gym class, so the teacher punished them by taking away the game he had intended. Instead, they ran around the gym. I asked him how he felt about this, and he said it was fun.
A boy in computer class turned off his computer so he didn’t get to paint with the cursor for the rest of class. I asked Ray if he would consider participating in such an act. He shook his head, somber and solemn, with eyes full of worship for the boy who committed this wanton act.
“I don’t even know how to do that,” he said.
The thing about post 9/11 school these days is that whole buildings are on automatic lockdown. You have to ring the bell and look up at a camera, and they buzz you in. You can’t go into the classroom for so much as a peek, unlike at his private day school, where they encouraged parents to join in and sit during circle time or observe for as long as any child or parent needed. Getting into the classroom felt like I was trying to break into the mint. Doors were closed. Faces were shut.
But I want into the classroom! How can I make any kind of assessment of what’s doing in there if I’m not privvy? These are my tax dollars at work, dammit, and I’m going to get into that kindergarten class if it’s the last thing I do.
And then — joy of joys! — on Friday he forgot his school bag. I went to the supermarket and picked up a large box of doughnuts. Then I bought two bunches of roses from the florist and dashed back to the car.
“Oh, thank you,” the office ladies said, gratefully, after buzzing me in through the fourth security gate and checking if my back taxes were paid in 1977. They were working hard on bus schedules and last minute immunization records and new admits. When I told them the flowers were for Ms. Law and her aide, she looked at me with some regret and said, “You really can’t go down there. I’ll ask the aide to meet you.”
I waited by a large bulletin board at the front of the building. Mrs. Smith came down to greet me, and she seemed genuinely touched to receive the flowers. We spoke meaninglessly about Raymond, and she returned to the clasroom.
“This is good, this is excellent,” my friend Cindy said later, by telephone. “You are very smart. You are laying the groundwork.”
“So what’s my next step,” I said.
“Well,” Cindy said. “Curriculum Night is next. When is yours?”
“Next week,” I said. “The 19th.”
“Excellent,” Cindy said, and I could almost hear her rubbing her hands together through the phone. “Now. Do you have skills of any kind?”
“I am exceptional at breastfeeding twins,” I said. “Also, I can knock down a bag of chips in five minutes flat.”
“Right,” Cindy said. “What about writing? You could offer to help with the class newsletter.”
“I don’t think they do a newsletter,” I said. “I’m not sure any of them know how to read.”
“I’m talking about the parents,” Cindy said.
“So am I,” I said.
“Work with me,” she said. “Brainstorm!”
It’s a tricky thing, getting into a public school classroom. You want to be enthusiastic and helpful, but you don’t want to be seen as obsequious, either. Over-zealousness is a definite no-no. The key was to strike a fine balance between being helpful (read: watchful) and being irritating.
I suspect Ms. Law will eventually welcome parents into the classroom. Truth be told, I want to contribute, not only because I want to see what’s doing in there, but because I believe I have something to offer (I think). I know a lot about children’s literature and writing and I even have an advanced degree in teaching English to Speakers of other Languages. Sure, I’m plenty annoying, but I always come bearing doughnuts and I can’t see how a teacher with so many students wouldn’t want another body in the room. Especially someone who can actually form compound sentences.
When I picked up Ray from school last Friday (no more bus for him), I asked Ms. Law how he did that day.
“Better,” she said, looking hopeful. “He is trying.”
I figured I’d wait to bring up volunteering in the classroom or writing a newsletter and just celebrate the fact that my son was learning how to be a good sheep and follow the herd. Baby steps. Today a doughnut, tomorrow I might retype the class list.
I couldn’t wait to tell Cindy.