my kids begin school tomorrow…

Tomorrow my five-year son enters kindergarten, and my seven-year old daughter goes into second grade. For both, it will their first year at the local, public elementary school. Thankfully, my wife is both amiable and optimistic person, so she likes to take the lead on schooling matters. It doesn’t hurt that elementary schools seem more comfortable with mothers to begin with.

I have my concerns, of course. It is unfortunate but my daughter has been moved around a lot. She had kindergarten down in Cortland. They had few resources but they did what they could, sending her to first and later second grade for math and reading. They had decided to skip her into second, but we moved and put her in a Montessori school. We thought that would work out really well and since we ended up moving in October it helped that she didn’t have to switch schools in mid-year. There were good things about the school, but it wasn’t the "solution" we hoped it would be. That, plus the cost and the hour-long bus trip, both ways, helped us decide to give the local school a try.

So now they have put her in second grade, where she would have been a year ago if we had stayed in Cortland. It’s age-appropriate and I’m not sure that skipping is a great solution either, but I know she isn’t going to learn anything in that class, at least not in terms of math or reading or other basic class material.

But my concerns stem from more than that, and I think I can best communicate this with an example. The school sent home the list of supplies she needs to bring to school. On the list, it says bring an empty cake frosting container to use as a pencil holder.  Well, ok. I guess I can go to the store, buy some frosting, dump the frosting into the trash, clean the container, and give it to my daughter. But why not buy a pencil cup at Staples when they cost basically the same as the frosting to begin with? I have to think that the assumption is that of course I’ve got frosting in my pantry.

It’s just one of many class-based, culturally-specific ideological assumptions that are wholly unexamined. To me, a can of frosting is emblematic of middle America and a whole range of values. Our community is incredibly white and almost uniformly Christian (even more specifically Catholic). There is a sense, understandable in any community, that everyone is the same, that "we" all share the same values. And I’m white, and my mother is Catholic, so it isn’t hard to understand why someone might see those qualities in me. What other assumptions are made about what goes on in my house? About my values? About the way I would want my children to be educated?

I’m less worried about my son. Kindergarten here is half-day, which actually amounts to 2 1/2 hours. I think in the winter that means take off your snow clothes, stand in line to go to the bathroom, color in one picture, and put your snow clothes back on. He’s resistant to any kind of direct instruction. He was always well-behaved at day care but I think it was because he didn’t want to become an object of attention. He would never let anyone know if he knew an answer to a question, and he rarely takes a risk. On the other hand, he always makes friends easily. I just hope that nothing happens to turn him off from school.

Undoubtedly, my attitudes toward school are shaped by my own experience, which, thankfully, I won’t detail. They weren’t traumatic by any stretch of the imagination, just dull, tedious, repetitive, and occassionally cruel. Right now, both of my kids have positive associations with school, so I just try to not share my thoughts with them.

We’ll see what happens.


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