First Day Butterflies and How Kids Categorize Themselves at School

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Categories Behavior, Classroom Placement, Difference, Education, Fear, Perspective, Relationships, School, School-Age, Theme WeekTags , Leave a comment

This was a discussion I had with my 7-year-old daughter, J, while grocery shopping.

Photo Credit: Ian A Kirk.

J: I have butterflies in my stomach.
Me: Hunger butterflies or nervous butterflies?
J: mumble mumble
Me: Excuse me?
J: Nervous.
Me: What are you nervous about, sweetie?
J: I never had a teacher I knew before. I’m worried that I’ll forget how to behave.

Some context: M and J are starting 2nd grade today. Their homeroom teacher is M’s best friend’s mother. Over the last several months, she and her husband have become close friends of mine and made my girls feel like family. My daughters have spent several full days this summer at their house and even slept over. On one occasion, their new teacher, Mrs. H, picked them up from summer camp when I had an appointment, even though her own daughter was spending the night at her dad’s and wasn’t home.

Me: What do you think might happen?
J: Well, I’m used to being the… the example of… well-behaved. Actually, perfectly behaved!
Me: So how would it be different with Mrs. H?
J: It’s just different because I know her.
Me: My advice would be to listen first, then act.
J: Act? What do you mean, “act”? Like put on a monkey show or something?
Me: No, I mean to do something. Listen to the instructions first, then follow them. Mrs. H isn’t worried about it, is she?
J: No.
Me: Well, if she’s not worried, there’s probably no reason for you to be too concerned.
J: I guess.
Me: Why don’t you give me an example of a situation you’re concerned about, and we’ll figure out how to handle it?
J: Mom, I’m a role model.
Me: I know you are. Just make good choices, and it’ll be okay.
J: I guess.

You may recall that I wrote about how the most well-behaved kids may act out with the people they feel safe with. J’s concerns seem to underline that point. Mrs. H is safe harbour and practically a member of our family. To have to behave with her as a teacher has J flustered. J knows that she’s been pushing the boundaries with Mrs. H in a way that she would never do in the classroom.

We have made some efforts to maintain boundaries over the summer. My daughters call their new teacher Mrs. H, even as they refer to her husband by his first name. Mrs. H’s daughter won’t be in her home room, but due to the nature of the dual language program all 3 kids are in, she’ll be teaching her daughter for part of the day. Obviously, she’s well aware of the issues that may arise. At Meet the Teacher night last week, Mrs. H found a quiet moment with my daughters and another close friend of her daughter’s to let them know not to be surprised if she was stricter at school than she was at home. Obviously, if J hadn’t been thinking about the issue before, she was then.

The bigger thing that struck me about my conversation with J was how certain she is of her role in the classroom. She’s the kid who is perfectly behaved, the best reader and the most enthusiastic learner. Talk to M, and she’ll tell you that she’s the math whiz, fastest runner and best listener. My daughters are in 2nd grade and they already know where they fit in the classroom pecking order. Like me, they are the disgustingly obedient nerds.

What about those kids who, for whatever reason, have internalized other, less positive labels? Mrs. H asked for a particularly challenging student to be placed in her class so that she can try to break through to find the source of his acting out. It’s the rare teacher that does that. It honestly never occurred to me that these things would already be set going into 2nd grade.

Even while it saddens me somewhat to see my daughters pigeonholing themselves already, I remember that this is exactly the sort of social skill my kids will need in their adult lives. This sort of thing is why I was happy to see my kids “held back” with their age peers instead of pushing on ahead in a grade with kids a year older. When their father insisted that our children attend public schools, it was so that they would have a broader view of the types of people in our community and better appreciate the resources they have, including their talents, to give back to others.

How do you feel about kids labeling themselves as academics, jocks, or other things in elementary school? How would you feel about your child having a friend for a teacher?

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Preparing for Kindergarten, Double-Quick

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Our first task upon arriving in our new town was getting the keys to our house. The second was getting M & J enrolled in school. They’d already missed the first month of the public school year in our new, unfamiliar town.

I’d gone ahead and registered them at the elementary school near our old home in Central Texas. Nothing is ever certain with the army. I didn’t want to run the risk of our orders being canceled at the last minute and then finding ourselves scrambling to register them. Backup plan notwithstanding, we ended up leaving town (and our neighbours, and a decade worth of friends) two days after the school year started there.

Registration seemed a pretty simple exercise in Central Texas, and I expected about the same in Far West Texas. We showed the school administration the girls’ birth certificates, shot records, and a utility bill to prove residency, and filled out a bunch of forms. As the school year approached, we received phone calls from each of their teachers inviting us to meet them at the end-of-summer open house.

I hadn’t accounted for this West Texas school district scrambling as best they could to keep up with development and population growth in the area. The school we expected the girls to attend was bursting at the seams, with 1100 students preK-5. They could accomodate them within the bilingual class, which initially seemed like a great opportunity to expose our daughters to Spanish, but it turned out the “bilingual” is code for ESL these days. There was no Spanish used in the bilingual program. We had to register our daughters as if they would be attending that school, and then fill it additional paperwork to request that they be assigned to an overflow school within the district. We would get a phone call from the district that afternoon, we were told.

The afternoon came and went, and our phones didn’t ring. The next morning, my husband called the school to find out who was in charge. He got a name, and a telephone number that was never answered. He looked up the office address, and headed out to get some answers. He talked to the folks there, who were knee-deep in overflow assignment research. Did J & M absolutely have to be in separate classrooms? Yes, my husband assured them, they did. They said they would do their best, and would call us within the next couple of days.

Sure enough, Thursday we got a phone call after a two-day wait. At 8:45 am, as my husband was headed out the door with our daughters, the local school called to tell us that our daughters had been marked absent for the day at their new school. We were perplexed, this being the first time we’d even heard the name of the second school. They would be considered present if they could get there by 10:00 am. And, by the way, there’s a school uniform. We asked whether the following day could be considered the girls’ first day. That, too, was up to the district, not the school, and besides this wasn’t their school anyway. The lady at the front desk (bless her) knew how frustrated we must be and wanted to make sure someone had spoken to us. My husband again ran the gamut of getting in touch with the school district. The attendance person was very understanding, and agreed that Friday could be the girls’ first day. Hubby located the girls’ school, 5 miles from our house, and risked epic papercuts as he filled out an entirely new set of paperwork.

Through this all, I telecommuted to work from the comfort of our home and my beloved massaging chair–our furniture arrived on Wednesday, and the chair was a huge improvement over the floor, carpeted though it is. My husband ran from store to store with both children in tow, trying to procure every last thing on the kindergarten supply list. Both he and the girls were amused by the baby wipe requirement. He managed to find the shop that sold the school’s uniforms, and learned that our five-year-olds were going to be significantly smaller in stature than their peers. He bought out everything they had in a 2-3T size, which was just enough so that they could show up at school without looking indecent.

I “commuted” home by taking the single step out of my office into the hallway, and armed with a silver and black Sharpie, did some hardcore labelling. I even got the girls’ names written on the ends of each of their four erasers and tops of their eight containers of Play-do. In retrospect, that may have been overkill. I did restrain myself from individually tagging each of 2 dozen pencils and each individual crayon.

Before we knew it, Friday was here. After all the “hurry up and wait,” which I would have thought army life had prepped us better for, our precious daughters were headed to kindergarten.

Waiting for the school bus

Dropoff was a little involved. We needed to take them to the local school, the one with no room,  and they would go by bus to their overflow location. My husband and I met the bus at the new school. My husband and friends had managed to talk me down from my initial indignation about the whole school situation, and I tried to go in the front doors with an open mind. The principal and assistant principal were helpful, forthcoming, warm, and informed. Just this week, they told us, the school has received over 20 new students, all overflow from nearby schools. The assistant principal led the girls through their morning routine, and found a little girl for each of them to be their friend for the day.

The girls’ teachers were quite lovely. When we mentioned to J’s teacher that she was comfortably reading chapter books, her first question was whether J was writing. No, I told her, she still needed to look up or ask how to spell words. M’s teacher noticed that she was being reserved, and told me that there was a boy in the class who was also being separated from his twin for the first time. The teacher promised to introduce M to him.

M came home and let out a 15-minute report about her day, her projects, and her new friends. The girls’ classes have outdoor play in the same place, at the same time. At lunch they had been served Sun Chips. Sun Chips, Mommy! J was content just to be held.

After all the drama, I think they’re in good hands.

Facetious question: What do you think the baby wipes are for?

Serious question: How do you walk the line between advocating for your children, and being that parent, the one who refuses to back off and let the experts do their thing?

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Prep School

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Categories Celebrations, Childcare, Development, Family, Mommy Issues, Preschoolers, ToddlersTags , , , , 5 Comments

My boys start school in a week.

I found out that two spots had opened up for them last August, but it just didn’t feel like the right time. We had upcoming travel to California. Their nana was moving to town a few weeks later. There was a lot of change in their lives and I didn’t want to push it. After much deliberation, talking to the school administrators, conferring with other moms, we decided they would start with the new year. I marked the calendar. January 5th was the day.

Way back in October, I began my plan to gradually prepare them for this day. We casually talked about school. We regularly looked at a fantastic book called “Wow! School!” that I found at in the dollar bin at the grocery store. We drove past school and waved and marveled at the playground. In November, I scheduled a visit for the boys to meet their teacher and play outside with their classmates. It was a huge success. In December, we had two visits where the the boys and I spent the first hour in the classroom for their day opening activities. We’ve talked about school almost every day.

And now that we are a week away, I’m talking with them specifically about what to expect. That they will stay at school without mommy. That I will drop them off and they will spend time at school without me, like big boys, and they will play and learn and laugh and eat, and then I will be back to pick them up. When we talk about it they are happy and say things like, “school!” and “teetee! (teacher)” and “play!” We started our day today by driving by school and waving and then going to Starbucks across the street for a blueberry muffin. We’ll do this a few more times this week. I feel like they are exhaustively prepared and I’m exhausted just from reiterating all of it!

And yet, I feel completely and utterly unprepared!

How did this sneak up on me like this? I’ve spent almost every single hour of every single day of the past two years with them, and now what? How am I supposed to say goodbye to them? At almost two, are they too young for this? Will they be sick every day for the next six months from all the germs? Where do I get a freaking nap mat and can I get the 1 inch kind or should I spring twenty bucks for the 2 inch thick deluxe version? What the heck do I pack them for lunch? You mean I have to PACK them a lunch every night?!

Emotionally I feel completely ambivalent. On one hand, I feel we are all ready for this. They will strive in a structured Montessori environment. They will learn so much from people who are trained to teach toddlers. They will learn even more from being around their peers. And I know the social interaction is worth its weight in gold. The boys are great around other kids, but I’ve noticed more and more lately how they tend to cling to each other. And define what they are doing by what their brother is doing. I know this is all natural, but I want to give them the tools early on for being socially independent. Or at least giving them an environment where they can choose to be socially independent from one another.

Selfishly, I also crave some social independence. My existence has been crucially tied to them since they were born. I feel such gratitude to my husband, to the universe, for making this possible. But I’ve become increasingly antsy and want to start doing more things for myself. Professional undertakings, health-and-diet improvements, a kitchen remodel – I have goals and lists that make me dizzy. But most important, I want to regain a sense of “me” again. Lastly, the boys are quickly approaching numero dos, which has brought utter joy and hilarity, as well as incredibly intense challenges. Not that I want to cop out, but I’m pretty excited about getting a daily break from this.

But all these very healthy and logical reasons doesn’t stop the ache, the hesitation and the sense of impending loss that has invaded my heart the past few days. More than anything, it’s manifesting me to second guess our choice of school. Our last visit left me wanting. The teacher was running late so the aids were running the class. Things seemed chaotic. An aid grabbed a toy out of a child’s hand without warning. They read the kids an appalling book about a child who does everything wrong at school. I heard a lot of nos and negatives, which isn’t my style of parenting. Kids were coughing all over each other and one girl had green snot spewing out of her nose. I’m freaking out just recalling it. But I also know this is just my brain’s way of trying to flee.

I can’t help but feel a sense of loss in all this. Like this is the last week I’ll spend with my boys. Our last hurrah. Silly, I know. I’ll still see them every morning, every afternoon and every evening. But I think the loss I feel goes deeper. It means I need to let go. Lighten my grip. Allow someone, other than myself, my husband or nana, to care for my boys. I think our last visit freaked me out so much because I had to accept, in some way, an environment that was out of my control. This is a big deal for me. Not because I’m some neurotic control freak. It’s just because I’m a mom. And as a mom I realize that at some point I will have to let go. A little bit at first, a little more later, and a hell-of-a-lot more when they grab the keys to the car and say, “see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya!” This is my first time letting them out of my protective wingspread, and truth be told, I’m scared. So much so I actually had a dream a few months back that they died at school. The worst dream I ever had. Maybe I need therapy?

I know I will get through this and in a month or so I will be singing the praises of school. It’s just weighing so heavy, as I’m sure it does for millions of other parents dropping off their babies (no matter how old they are) at school/day care/etc. for the first time. It’s just going to be a tough few first weeks. Or maybe it won’t. But regardless, things will be very different around here.

Amidst the whirlwind of emotions, I am very excited. Thrilled even. To realize that I’ve gotten the boys this far and now they are ready for the next step. To witness what they soak in and learn in this new environment. To realize that I’m going to have a bit of freedom again in my life, an opportunity to re-imagine and re-identify myself. To seize this time I will have for myself, and cherish, perhaps even more deeply, the time I have with my boys.

Completely scary and completely thrilling. Just like parenting always is.

Dropping them off at school for the first time can't be half as scary as watching them climb an eight foot rope ladder at the same time!
Dropping them off at school for the first time can't be half as scary as watching them climb an eight foot rope ladder at the same time!
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