The Kids Are Alright / A Defense for Public Schooling

It's always funny to me when I think of how much of energy we put towards pushing along the seeds of early independence. Guiding tiny spoons from plate to mouth, holding hands to steady wobbling feet, songs sung and resung in the dim glow of an evening nursery. Pages turned and letters learned in the extended hours of those young unconstructed afternoons when they still belong to us. Then when the day comes for them to finally unhook from our handholds and find their place in line at the start of their first school year, we fall to pieces.

I experienced this once again for the third time this year. A departure I suppose by now I should be somewhat prepared for. The swell of sentiment that tides in your heart at seeing them suddenly so grown up. So ready, so wiling, and able to go out and get on without you.

No one warned me with the first, so naturally I came fully unarmed for the emotions wrapped up in sending my first born baby off to kindergarten. In fact I think I cried for a good half hour. Parked in front of an unfamiliar school under an old oak tree long after his crop of brown hair had disappeared into the shadows of that big long school hallway. Surviving without me. Sights set on collecting hours all his own, to sing and shift and laugh and grow in.

But what really gets me is what I came know a little later. Realizing how painfully fast time starts to speed up once they do come to cross that kinder threshold. How swiftly a week, a month, a year flashes by so that every time you turn around you have a first grader smiling up at you with a few missing teeth, a third grader reading alone in bed after dinner, a sixth grader with a crush, and soon enough, a sophomore or a senior headed to a dance, armed with new attitude and a license. For me, it's the hardest part about it all. Letting go and accepting just how brief their time as "ours" truly is. And these school years, more than anything else seek to prove it to you. Season after season, school photo after school photo, they all go by in a blink of an eye. Forever, ruthlessly, in a big stupid hurry to grow up.

Having to severe ourselves from the cushioned boundaries we keep to help guard their confidence and strengthen spirit in those early years, is tough. For me, it was Leon that I felt particularly protective of that first year. Second born, sensitive, painfully sweet, and altogether good in every sense of the word. Even somehow separate from the standard notions of generally good kindergartens. Different. In all the best of ways. Blessed with an innate desire to do right, follow rules, and make people feel good. The kind of trait at risk for being just as easily squashed as it is embraced by "real world" public school antics. Which is why I was there for the first few days of school last year hiding out in the bushes, stalking his first week to ensure that he sat at the right table and ventured out to meet friends out on the playground. I monitored his every move from a brush of lavender on the side gates to see that he wasn't sad, or lost, or scared, or lonely. On the third day when I spotted him asking a kid with a broken arm dangling from a sling around his shoulder at the lunch benches to help him open his yogurt, it took everything in me not to shout out that I could do it for him. Because clearly the kid he had chosen could not. But instead I watched him figure it out himself and day by day, become more and more a part of the pack. Within week my own routine regained and I stopped worrying about him there without me. And before long I saw kids calling out his name and waving hello every time he passed them by. Suddenly, he was a kid. With a lot of friends. Who all seemed genuinely fond of him. In spite of all of my fears and concerns dreading the opposite.

Some of these initial fears though were in part linked to the bad rap public school seems to get these days. Particularly on social media. Where through the years on Facebook I'd seen endless links professing the harms involved with "too much" homework, articles exposing the evils of standardized testing, or the unfortunate effects of a sleepy brain having to work so hard early in the morning. Critiques that seek to examine or buck a tired system. One that is apparently subjecting our kids to a stale, outdated learning experience. Stifled by the enforcement of rules, the monitoring of grades, the threats of bullying (or worse: violence) headlining the reputation of an institution I myself am a grown, thriving product of. The result of a middle to low income 12 year public school education. Filled with various races. Attached to various religions. Where sometimes it was rough and sometimes it was incredible. And sometimes I made mistakes, and sometimes I flourished.

What does remain is the life long friends I made there. Most of whom I would guess might share the same sentiments for our school experience as me. A school that at that time might not have cleared an 8, or 9, or 10 score on Yelp, and could easily have been cause for concern for parents worried about the exposure such a mixed variety on a playground setting could possibly present. But for me it was very fact of this diversity that I think proved most enriching. On a lasting, social level, anyway.

On Instagram now I see consistent praise surrounding the glorification of the home schooling route, private schools, the Wardolph or Montessori based schooling, or "unschooling," charter schools, and any other method that exists on the outer fringe of mainstream education, but rarely ever do I read people giving props to Public schools. Which has been hard for me to understand considering the utter admiration I keep for ours.

A Public School Decision:

There was a point, just before Arlo was Kindergarten ready, where I briefly entertained the idea of home schooling. I had a few friends who were doing it at the time with plenty of encouragement on their end to lean on. I mulled it over for a good long month or so before I was forced to face the reality of what a feat like that might actually entail with me serving as sole educator from home. A reality that saw me lazing around in oversized pajamas. Skipping math and dodging the tougher questions about science with "wait until your dad gets home" type retorts. What I saw was a flimsy education I might very well deliver. One built on a one sided love affair with literature where memorizing Dylan's lyrics kicked long division to the curb. Where Emily Dickinson served as head mascot, and walking down the street to visit the neighbor's freshly groomed puppies counted as a field trip. Where daily history lessons involved updates by Anderson Cooper, and focus lingered probably far too long on a handful of our more handsome presidents (And we all know you can only do so many reports on Bill Clinton before things start to get tricky. . .)  Basically, after much consideration, I gathered my senses and decided just before the registration date, that for me. Home schooling wasn't what I wanted.

So I enrolled him down the street with relief carved in my every registering signature. Having accepted that as much as it inspired me to see others around me flourishing in the freedom and fulfillment that at home education can offer, that kind of arrangement wasn't cut out for my family. Plus, if we're being totally honest here I also really liked the idea of a regaining a little freedom as a mother sending them away for part of the day. And when I stopped to reflect on the lasting impression my own public school experience, I realized how grateful I was for what it provided me. A playground full of multi colored faces from all kinds of religious backgrounds. Middle class, upper class, and everything there in between. Where I tried the roles of both the bully, and the martyr, and realized which one felt worse. Where I once called a girl a hurtful name and got pushed so hard on my ass that I was sure to second guess ever doing it again. Where I stood up for the quiet Indian girl when the other kids teased her about her hygiene and then inspired a few others to do the same. Where I took sides and fought with friends. Worshiped and befriended peers and teachers (especially Mrs. Old's. With all the pretty turquoise jewelry, the cheating ex husband, and the poster of Bruce Springsteen's backside in all it's taunt glory of his Born in The USA hey day, tacked up our walls next to the American flag) and came to loath and protest couple others.

I learned a slightly skewed version of what "sex" meant at the tender ago of seven in second grade and then came to inform all of my fellow fourth grader peers about the meaning behind some controversial terms like "transexual" and "gay" (thanks in part to my long lasting obsession with day time TV talk shows - namely Sally Jesse Rapheal - and countless other crass tabloid fodder left for me by my grandmother who shared the same pechant for cheap hollywood gossip) Which is to say that there were indeed some questionable, seedy aspects plaguing the convos on the playground. Sometimes I suppose I was part of them. But then I wonder how, especially now in an age of modern media, are some of these situations to be entirely avoided. Even when we do our best the shields up.

And I wonder too, what lessons might be left out when certain situations are fully voided. Like when Arlo was in third grade he got sent to the office for a verbal fight he engaged in with another boy who ultimately flipped him off to which he responded by returning the gesture and was given a long lecture at home after it. As far as what this kind of action says about him. How such actions shape the way people judge him, and how in turn it might have been handled differently. Opening up discussion for those situations when they stumble, and we try to make their mistakes count as valuable lessons they can (hopefully) hang onto.

All of this to say that in spite of the perils we hear plaguing public schooling, I still believe the path is generally paved with love. Where we are introduced to some of life's hardest lessons in the futile stages of youth, becoming newly acquainted with the notion of what it means to lose and to win, to struggle, strive and want. Learnt like I did alongside the Muslim boy, the white girl with the half black brothers and wildly dressed father from Jamaica. The Christians kids, and the Jews. The little boy who's brother died of Leukemia the year we all turned 8. The Hispanic girl with the worn shoes and fraying dresses. And George Padilla who every girl who went to Garrettson Elementry will forever remember as the slick haired boy with the pretty blue eyes who arrived every morning in a shiny red corvette driven by his perfectly coiffed blonde mother. And Nissa from Nova Scotia, with the unfamiliar accent and waist length braids. All of us. From all kinds of backgrounds, getting through it together. A junior microcosm of real world society I see now reflected in my own boy's experiences.

On the very first field trip I went on with Arlo's class I introduced me to a boy with two moms, a girl raised by her grandparents, and another by her aunt who stood in at every school function where her recently deceased mother should have been. The same year showed me festive class parties and a caring office staff. Teachers who devout every last ounce of their energy making sure every one of their students is learning the love of reading. Janitors who tend to all the day's lost goods, principles dedicated to keeping them safe and lunch aids who treat my children like their own for those 3o minutes they are out there sweating it out on that blacktop every lunch hour.

So sure. I have my qualms with standardized testing, and common core trends, but for the most part my focus stays attached to the social aspects public school offers them above the cycles trending educational tools and state wide standards that always falling in and out of public popularity. I know I drop my boys off every day knowing they are in a good place. Under the guide of teachers I respect. With a campus run by incredible people who are all invested in their personal evolution and well being. Every day they leaning something about life outside of alphabet and arithmetic. Where we anticipate plenty more bumps and bruises along the way. Because just like life, man there always is.

In the meantime I can only hope that the tools they're gaining along the way will teach them how to pick themselves up when they need it. And lend a helping hand to others, no matter what they look like or where they come from, when they happen to need it too. Because no matter the educational route we take to adulthood, be it private, charter, home or public, we're all basically just hoping for the same thing: to raise kind, caring, smart and confident people. Who seek to give this world something back. In whatever shape or form that might entail.

And from what I've seen so far, I'd say these kids (and the future) are alright.

* Images from the annual fourth grade Gold Rush celebration last week. Where the kids stake sections in the field to mine for gold and then turn them in at the "bank" to wander the little town created by parents and faculty that provides them everything from a fresh shave at the local barber, to a saloon serving ice cold root beer, to a laundry wash station, a pie eating corner, a general store and lasso stale. Where 100 10 year olds swept the field donning mining clothes - the girls in hand sewn gowns and bonnets courtesy of over 100 hours of sewing by one fourth grader's very skilled mother. Who stayed up countless nights, and went through two sewing machines to see it through. A day filled with bright smiles and endless laughter. A shining lesson in the wild ways of California's early days. One I'm sure none of them (or I) are quick to ever forget. 

gold rush from Mrs. Habit on Vimeo.