Yesterday I got a sub for second period and went to check out the elementary school my son will attend next year when he starts kindergarten. I arrived eager and enthusiastic, but I left in a little bit of an emotional tailspin. It was a pretty educational morning. Here are a few things I discovered.
1. Kindergarten is scary.
Like, terrifying. I’m looking at this big school with its locked doors and cavernous cafeteria and I just can’t stop thinking how little my boy is. He won’t be five until August, so he’ll probably be the youngest in his class, and it all just seemed incredibly daunting. Come August, I’ll have to wake him up before seven, shove some breakfast at him, put him in a uniform, and get him to school, where he’ll spend the whole day struggling with ideas and skills that are new to him, which the other kids might already understand because they’re bigger than him. What if he gets hungry and they don’t give him a snack? What if none of his friends are in his class? What if he gets on the wrong school bus in the afternoon? What if he’s really tired and needs a nap, but there’s no nap time anymore? This led me to a second realization…
2. My instincts are bad and I should ignore them.
At least in this case. He’s little enough that I could red shirt him and delay kindergarten another year. Will I feel any better about it then? Nope. Is he ready for this? According to all his teachers at pre-K, absolutely. Am I ready for this? Hell no. Keeping him out a year like I want to won’t do anything but make him bored and resentful and confused, and then I’ll have to go through all this again next year. My kid needs to grow and struggle and fail and try again, and if it were all up to me, he would just sit at the kitchen table and quietly play with play dough and never get upset or frustrated about anything. It’s time to put him in the more-capable hands of the kindergarten teachers.
3. Schools are appallingly inequitable.
My kid’s school has a nice playground and an outdoor classroom and a STEM lab that they visit every week. He’ll have PE three times a week and art once. He’ll take foreign language classes every day. When I wasn’t busy having a panic attack, I was tamping down the rage I felt every time the volunteer PTA tour guides talked about the Foundation, the school fundraising group that apparently has tons of cash in reserve for school improvements. (Right now they’re saving for field turf!)
The refugee and immigrant kids I teach live, shockingly enough, just outside the zone for this school. It’s amazing; it’s almost like the district lines were drawn specifically to avoid the apartment complexes! In fact, my whole street is zoned for the good school, except the apartment building at the end. Those kids attend a school that has PE once a week and no science or social studies classes. They cut those because they wanted to focus on math and reading standardized test prep. They don’t have a Foundation, needless to say. This fact, along with my kids’ reaction, helped to remind me that…
4. I’m extremely white.
When I got back to third period, I sat down and said, “Guys, I know we’ve got standardized tests to prep for or whatever, but can we just talk about me for a few minutes?” (I’m a really good teacher, I swear.) I told them everything I was worried about, hoping they’d reassure me that everyone survives kindergarten and that it was, in fact, the best year of their collective life. They just stared at me, a few of them slowly shaking their heads. “What?” I asked defensively.
“You’re worried that his friends won’t be in his class?” “You’re worried that he won’t get enough snacks?” “Are these really the things white parents worry about?” My kids are pretty adamant that their parents are a lot more worried about their academic drive and ability than their social and emotional needs, and perhaps they’re right. Maybe I’m being Super White Mom who wants to make sure everyone recognizes the specialness of her little snowflake. But regardless of what my students’ parents are looking for, the tour reminded me of something else.
5. Teaching is an awesome and terrifying responsibility.
Every day, parents entrust me with what is most precious to them. They send these kids out into the world with fear and trembling (even if they’re not worried about snack-availability) and trust that I will guide them and keep them safe. I’m primarily concerned with their minds, but I’m also charged with protecting their bodies and souls for eight hours a day. Every one of those big, stinky thirteen-year-olds represents someone’s work and prayers and sleepless nights and hopes for the future, every bit as much as my baby. That’s a priceless gift and an unbelievably heavy burden at the same time.
I left the elementary school wishing I could just homeschool my kid forever so I’ll have complete control over everything he learns and I won’t have to worry about anybody else screwing him up. Fortunately, I realize that this is completely insane. (Not homeschooling in general, you understand; just for these particular reasons.) Instead, I’m going to try my damnedest to turn that frantic energy toward reducing the gap between the education I want for my own son and the opportunities that are available for my students. And—I’ll also be stockpiling carrot sticks and hummus to make sure snacks are continually available in the kindergarten class.