Tuesday, October 26, 2010

thoughts on education

I wonder if it is possible to mourn the loss of something you never actually had. Oh gosh, that sounds crazy.

I have long experienced a weird nostalgic feeling when I look at old (meaning from my early childhood) books and educational materials - I am sucked in by those awesome hand-drawn illustrations and the fonts that look like handwriting (or is that actual handwriting?). You know, the whole Free To Be You and Me thing, with the hippy-dippy style and the recipes for things like coffee-can raisin bread. Which you can't even make properly anymore because coffee doesn't come in 1 lb. cans these days.

I have vague memories of the Methodist preschool I attended in 1980, just as that era was ending. I can remember the smell of the room and of the poster paints, the look and feel of the sand table, the smooth oak of the furniture and cubbies where we put our coats. In my memory it is a serene place, warm and safe and fun.

Early elementary school holds some similar memories. Sitting around the table in Kindergarten, writing with those fat red pencils that clanged just so in the metal cup when you put them back. The metal scissor rack with those crappy scissors...and there were never enough lefties for the left-handed kids. And the milk - oh, the milk! - being wheeled into the classroom in a metal crate on a 4-wheel dolly. The cartons were red, I think. That was for snacktime, back when the school provided the milk and Kindergarten was only 1/2 day, because 5 year-olds were still kind of babies back then.

A week or so ago, the 4 of us went to Daughter's school for the annual PTA ice cream social. We're new at this, so we figured we'd better go. Don't want to look like deadbeat parents who don't participate, etc. The school holds 600+ students, and I think most of them were there with their parents, siblings, and in some cases grandparents. It's a big fundraiser, I guess. We paid our $2 each, got our ice-cream cups, and waited in line outside the cafeteria. Once we got in it was bedlam. There was hardly room to move, and as we made our way through the line with a squirming toddler, my sweater dragged through someone's ice cream. We got our melty scoops, sat at the nearest empty table, and Daughter burst into angry tears. We could barely hear her telling us she wanted to sit over there, where her classmate was sitting. So we hauled our gloppy ice cream and the children to where she was pointing. Of course right then her friend's family got up to leave, so Daughter pouted in her chair while AJ cried because he did not have his own ice cream. Hubs took AJ for a walk while I cajoled Daughter into just eating the stinking ice cream. It was so, so crazy in there. I asked Daughter if this is what it's like when they eat lunch each day and she said yes...except it's way louder.

And in that moment I was flooded with guilt and anger that each day is like that for her. She wasn't really eating her lunch the first couple weeks of school, bringing home a half-eaten sandwich and both her dessert and fruit. I was so worried, but in that moment I totally got it. Who would want to eat in that environment?

Then she told me about how a kid has been hitting her in the head with his lunchbox. And that same kid, it turns out, punched her in the stomach during lunch, on more than one occasion. Now, before your inner mama bear roars, you should know that we pried the truth out of her and she had been snatching his glasses off his face. That doesn't excuse the punching, but it does save us from potentially embarrassing ourselves.

And then there is the fundraising, which we have been hit with 3 times in the first 7 weeks of school. Nowadays they just send the items home with the kid and tell you to either buy it or send it back. Awkward. Hate it. I find that highly inappropriate in a public school, for which I pay exorbitant taxes.

What am I rambling about? Well, I guess I just feel like my kid is getting a raw deal sometimes. She is actually quite happy, so this does not stem from her, it is coming entirely from me. It's just not, to my mind, the ideal environment to shape a small human. And that makes me sad. Because a kid hitting her in the head with his lunchbox is just the beginning, you know? Hubs, while concerned about her, tends to brush it off as part of the "learning to navigate the world" process. But how come a 5 year-old has to learn to navigate noise and bedlam?

I would dearly love for her to be in a calmer, quieter place. I guess that's what draws me to the homeschooling blogs and the Waldorf blogs. We live eighty gajillion miles from the nearest Waldorf school, so that's out, but I think she would really thrive in that environment. I wanted to take her there for their preschool program, but we moved away. I read the literature and I was so into the idea that morning snack was a group affair, and all the kids had the same thing (oatmeal and apple slices) which they were to help prepare. They would also observe the mothers doing the useful work of ironing the napkins and assisting with prep and cleanup. When my mom heard about that she thought I was NUTS. But I think it speaks to educating the whole child, I really do. And I think that incorporating all aspects of daily life into education might make it a nicer environment for all the kids...reducing the urge to, say, hit someone in the head with your lunchbox.

I have a degree in education, but only now am I truly seeing what all those articles and books were about. The segmented school day, the disconnected subjects and the noise level...oh my word, the noise level! My baby girl grows further away from me every day, I can feel it - it's in the clothes she wants/doesn't want to wear, the snippy tone she adopts, the eye-rolling when she is asked to help out with basic chores.

It's uncomfortable for me (us?), but it is what it is. Hubs says I worry too much...but I often think we're not worried enough. I guess I just don't know. I know others feel it too, which explains the rise in homeschooling and the popularity of alternative schools like Waldorf. I think folks are seeking a kinder, gentler educational experience for their precious children - a softer beginning, a more comfortable introduction to the world beyond the home.

I wish I could express this jumble of thoughts a little better, a little more clearly. It's really quite emotional for me so it's difficult to articulate well. I guess it's just something I'll continue to ponder as my kids (and I) move forward.


Karen said...

God gave you intuition for a reason, listen to it. Don't let society, media, and what's "normal" squelch it.

600 kids in an elementary school? Really? That's insane.

Mrs Lemon said...

Those exact reasons are why I want so badly to homeschool my littles, but Zesty does so well in a social environment! sometimes he's actually *better* with other kids around - realizes in a very tangible way that the world does not revolve around him.

kate said...

Karen, yes, there are actually 6 Kindergarten classes within this one school, and 6 elementary schools in our district (then 4 middle schools and 3 high schools). It's a ton of kids and all the schools are quite full.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I found your blog looking for knitting projects and noticed this post. We decided to homeschool 2.5 years ago. It was a really hard decision since we are mostly a mainstream family...but now that we've gotten through the reactions we are finding our groove and loving it. If you need some info or encouragement please let me know. I blog but I'm not a professional. I'm just a Mom who does a lot of reading about education. Although lately my obsession is learning to knit! :) I love the way you write btw.

Lucia said...

I don't know. I was born right at the peak of the baby boom, and the schools were pretty crowded. The lunchroom was bedlam. In middle school if I was sitting with a friend and she got up to get something I had to wind my legs around her chair legs or someone would take it. (I clearly remember someone's trying, quite vigorously but unsuccessfully, to yank a chair free of my legs.) There were too many kids for too few teachers, and bullying was tolerated, or at least never rebuked by any adult at any school I ever went to. I think every generation has its issues.