The Thing About School

The First Day of School I Didn’t Photograph

My mom is going to kill me.

I kind of want to kill me.

Sam and Lily went off to their first day of school last week and I did not take a picture.

Sometimes I just kind of WANT to let these milestones in late slide by. Because time has sped up a bit, and if you don’t acknowledge it, you can just kind of pretend that everything is the same, and always will be. That this is not another school year, but just a continuation of the last school year.

Or maybe I just forgot.

In any case, I did not take a picture.

I did take a picture of Rory: the oldest child in the preschool’s kindergarten this year!

The new classroom fish, too! May Rory not love you to death, fishy dude!

And one of Wyatt, oldest kindergartener in HIS class (that’s just a fluke, because he’s not at all an old K). He’s also convinced that means he will be the tallest, but I think he’s in for a surprise there.

Why did you come back in to take my picture? I'm busy!

It’s an easy year to pretend nothing is changing. Same schools for everyone. Great teachers who suit them all ’round (I hope). This year, knock on wood, we can enjoy how far we’ve come and be the big happy family we thought we’d be. And then Sam will go to middle school, and…well, let’s not borrow trouble here, people.

I love school. I loved school for me. (I would go back to school right this minute if I could…clear goals! gold stars! an endless array of possibilities!) But I love school for them even more.

Rory, for example, cannot count to twenty. Frankly she simply refuses to learn to count to twenty, the number fourteen being one she does not approve of. When we try to teach her to count to twenty, she weeps and dissolves into a puddle of grief, and I, guilt-stricken, am reminded of all of those times when I did not comfort her in her first months home when I was so freaked out about how hard it was for both of us to adjust. I embrace her. It’s ok! You’ll learn! Oh, poor sweetie!

Not surprisingly, this does not result in her learning. But her teacher–this woman will tie Rory to her little wooden chair and get out those little wooden Montessori counting whatevers and by God, she will teach Rory to count to twenty! If it kills her! If it kills them both! I love this woman. By the end of the year Rory will be doing every single academic thing she’s capable of, and I won’t have to Kumon her or coach her or do any of the things that really do not have to be my job. I can just love her. There was a time when she had a teacher who was much better at loving her than teaching her, and that was not such a good situation. But now we’ve got everything right. Plus, the teacher loves her, but in her own special you CAN remember the number fourteen! You WILL! kind of way.

Lily feels that her teacher has underestimated her reading ability. I’m not good at reading out loud! But this book is too easy for me! I do not want this easy book! I will not read this easy book!

Well, I say, read it and prove it to her. She just wants to be sure you understand.


Ok, then tell her that.

Once again, this teacher can handle it. If she thinks Lily should read this book first, Lily will read this book first. (Sam had this teacher; she’s fantastic, and I have no doubt she’ll have Lily doing just what Lily should do.) And Lily will LIKE IT. And once again, she will save all of her worst explosions and tantrums and what not for me. See, nothing has changed!

And Sam’s teacher will fill his days with all kinds of things, and because Sam finds everything interesting, he will be constantly interested and will not be sitting in my kitchen saying things like “can I do an experiment with soda and baking soda and the coffee maker?”

And Wyatt’s teachers will love him and prod him gently forward, dealing capably with the fact that he’s well beyond kindergarden in his abilities but not in his personality, and every day he will shout “I hate school! I don’t want to go!” and then when I pick him up he will shout “NO! I am NOT READY TO GO HOME!” Wyatt does poorly with transitions. But for a blissful 7 hours a day (which really seems like rather a lot) that will be someone else’s problem.

I love school. I love teachers. I love feeling (even just for the moment) like all’s right with the world.

KJThe First Day of School I Didn’t Photograph
read more

We are READY (for School to Start)

If you’re one of those people (like me) addicted to organizing shows and Real Simple and all of their ilk, then you will understand why I had the most fantastic day:

I REALLY should have taken a before picture.

We are ready for school to start. Except for the little matter of Sam having one more paragraph of his summer reading assignment to go (that would be “summer writing assignment,” if you ask me, but they didn’t), school could start tomorrow and the kids could walk out the door.

First, I cleaned the above hallway. This time two days ago, you could not actually see the large calendar on the back wall because of a six month backlog of “things I’ve ordered that I really really need but not right now” boxed and sitting in front of it. You could not really use the cubbies because they were stuffed full of too many jackets and miscellaneous things I’ve told the kids to “get out of my car.” And two hooks per kid is only enough if you love in a climate where a child only needs to own one jacket, ever—and I don’t even know where that is.

Four more hooks each! Plus Rory has one bonus hook on the outside of hers leftover from a prior effort. She gloated. Lily nearly wept.

Now each child has four hooks on the outside and two on the inside, plus a spillover hook in the middle cubby. And now there’s a place for friends to hang coats:

Isn't he cute? We've only had him, unhung, since 2002.

Those outside hooks are doubly key because Sam’s jackets are too LONG for the cubbies now, especially if hung by the hood, and they trail out and over everything else, leaving Wyatt standing there going WHERE ARE MY SHOES? when they are, in fact, under Sam’s coat.

The wall calendar has been updated and I have renewed my vow to use it—or perhaps let Lily use it, which may be just as good.

It took her hours to get it this clean and set. Note the step stool. And the Zappos box. That's new, I swear.

Top one is Sam's, bottom Lily's.

School supplies have been purchased, unwrapped, labeled and placed in the drawers reserved for storing each kid’s school output—as in, art projects, homework, etc. That meant cleaning them out. The drawers were a brilliant idea I had in, I think, January 2010. I hadn’t emptied them since, or the one I’d been using for ALL the kids since 2008. That took a while. I bought big bins, one for each kid, to go in the basement and sorted through it all with them. That’s a project I’ve been putting off since, well, June of 2010—so you can imagine I’m giving myself a pat or two on the back.

I do not know why she has a small blue dolphin suction cupped to her chin. I didn't even notice when I took the picture.

If I show Lily's clean desk I have to show Sam's. Look, Grandma!

Upstairs, desks have been cleaned–by their owners, amazingly without help. I even suspect them of inheriting my organization urges precisely as I have them, which is to say they flair up long enough to really enjoy a single organizing project but completely implode on the question of upkeep.

I am so proud of these. It better work.

In my final grand September innovation, each kid has a “homework box” containing everything you could need to do homework (or, in two cases “homework”) at the kitchen counter, just in case—yeah, right—you should chose not to do it at your desk. (I don’t think either of my children has ever done one piece of homework at his or her desk.) Pencil. Ruler, with metrics (for some reason we kept accidentally buying inches only rulers, or being given them by overly patriotic banks and businesses). Colored pencils. Protractor and whatnot for Sam. Lined paper. Rory and Wyatt each have a workbook and paper and their own colored pencils, which they don’t need, but the quiet is well worth $4.

I think it will work. I feel like an experienced pro, going into this with my fifth grader, second grader (who will have Sam’s old teacher and probably redo all of Sam’s old homework, which I actually looked through tonight before recycling most of it—seriously, I saved every spelling test? He’s not even good at spelling). I feel ready. They feel ready. And you know the best part?

We still have a week-and-a-half.

KJWe are READY (for School to Start)
read more

Carving Lessons: Not Such an Awesome Idea

Wyatt and Rory brought these home from school earlier this week.

Rory's work.

Wyatt's work.

They were part of a much-heralded art project that is truly Montessori in theme: using clay, wax and soft wood, they were exploring different carving mediums! That seemed fine to me, if a little high-falutin’; I don’t tend to question what they do on Montessori time. They go, they come back, they seem happy, I detect learning—this is all I ask. I displayed their art on the kitchen counter for the time being. Which really means I stood it up and forgot to do anything else with it.

But this morning, when I pulled the pillow off of my head, I heard Rob (always on breakfast duty due to my general morning unpleasantness) shout “What are you doing?” Then some incoherent commentary in high-pitched voices until Rory came in loud and clear: “That hurt me! I can’t do it and it hurt me!”

Turns out they’d decided on doing some more exploring of carvable mediums before breakfast, and had fished out a couple of knives (just table knives) from the drawer and begun digging away. Wyatt left shavings all over the counter and floor—thus Rob’s shout—and Rory apparently couldn’t make any headway, so he’d walked in on her holding the wood block in one hand and stabbing at it wildly with a knife with the other. That didn’t end well. Carving would appear to be one of those activities that is best done with supervision. I think those things should have come home with a warning tag. But who am I kidding. Knives? Clay? I should have known.

KJCarving Lessons: Not Such an Awesome Idea
read more

When To Warn the Teacher

Rory and Wyatt had a ski lesson together this past weekend. They’re both good skiers, but Rory took a tough fall early in the season (it was not so much the fall as it was the giant snowdrifts she fell into, and the fact that it took me twenty minutes and the ski patrol to find her ski) and she has lost her mojo. A lesson seemed like just the thing. Plus, I wanted Rob to take a snowboarding lesson with me, and this would clear that time–Lily had “race training” and Sam had a friend to ski with.

The coach I really wanted was busy, but I went with another good one, known as “Boo.” And agonized some. Should I warn Boo about Rory’s, um, peculiarities with new adults? She likes to test them, see if maybe THIS grown up is the one who will give her candy and let her do whatever she wants.

But I figured that in the grand scheme of kids who have ski lessons, she couldn’t be THAT BAD. We saw them from the lift a few times. It looked like it was going reasonably well. I could tell that Rory was being Rory (“I will do what you told me to do, but not exactly like you told me to do it”) just by the way she was going almost, but not quite where he was pointing, but it seemed fine, and at least they weren’t on the bunny hill, which was all she wanted to do post-crash.

Then we ran into them at the bottom of the lift after an hour and a half (each lesson, theirs and ours,was supposed to be two hours).

“I think they’re done,” Boo said.


“Well, no. I think they’re done with me.” The obvious second half of that sentence went unsaid.

“Ok, fine, I’ll cut short too.”

“They’re very good skiers, both of them.” He told me what they worked on, etc. “Wyatt did great. He’s very quick. Really listens.” Pause. “Rory…” he looked at her dubiously. She was sitting on the snow, pretending, as she likes to, that she cannot get her skis together and will therefore need someone else to carry them. He leaned over to help, and I stopped him. “She’s fine, I said she can do that.”

He looked disbelieving. “Like I said, Wyatt did great. Rory…well, I’m sure she’s a very good person. Underneath.”

I about fell over laughing. I don’t know what went on up there, to leave him with so little to say, but I love the desperation of that. It’s like, I’m the ski instructor! We are supposed to say something positive! I’m grasping at straws!”

It’s a good thing all the instructors know me, or I would never be able to get her another lesson.

I always struggle with what to say to a new teacher about Rory. Some teachers love her, and they fall into two very clear categories: the ones determined to love the little adopted girl, who is “so sweet” (and it’s true, she’s very sweet, if you are the easily manipulable type) and those who genuinely like both her spirit and the challenge she can present. She’s lucky enough to have both this year, and probably next, for Montessori. I’ve found that people who don’t know her history–as in, how recently she was adopted–or really aren’t interested are more able to fall into that second category, and many of the ones who’ve known her longer, and saw some of that rough first year, that are caught in the first. Along with them I count many of the teachers I have needed, for one reason or another, to fill in.

Now, that may be occupational bias (I’m sorry, but speech therapists and their ilk are just inclined to be more determined to like someone, and hockey coaches, for example—and apparently ski instructors—not so much). So I may be drawing a false conclusion about the results of a little pre-info. And I could give less info—could just say, look, she’s a kid who challenges authority, but once you prove you’re not going to put up with it, she stops—but that’s not the full story, of course. And even that gives such a false impression—she’s not a defiant kid, or rebellious. What she has is a control issue—she really needs to be in control, and if she cannot be, she really needs you to prove that you are very solidly, one hundred percent in charge, but that you will actually live up to the promise implicit in that.The best approach is to take one firm stand and then, one she’s given in, return to happy normalcy, ideally with some sort of gesture towards good things (like a hug, or an offer to move on in some way). The two worst approaches are a) give in, because it means so much to her and very little to you (why NOT pick up her skis, or carry her backpack, or let her sit on the other side on the lift, or whatever?) and b) stay firm but irritated, so that the control battle is still going on.

Rory and I spent months in that last phase, so I know from what I’m talking about. Battling Rory is like getting your finger caught in the old “chinese finger trap” thing: you only win once you sincerely don’t care about winning. I don’t want to control Rory. I want her to be a happy and contributing part of our family who lives up to certain standards, which is a very different thing. I admit that it took me a while to realize that.

And I’m not sure it’s something I could really tell a teacher, anyway. I think it may be something you have to learn on your own. The question is, should I try?

KJWhen To Warn the Teacher
read more