Once again, I took the 'northern summer' off from blogging, since as most of you know, we took a trip back to Boston for a visit. I could blog again about travelling with children and the hilarity that ensues: boarding through Biz Class and Ted says, 'This is MY seat, riiiight heeeere...', accidentally bringing a toy gun through security, the expectation that they will be on their best behaviour while poor diet and lack of sleep creates the opposite effect. (Actually meant to be my August topic, but never mind.) However, I picked a subject a little closer to home. Enjoy...
September: I heard the collective sigh of relief all the way down here in the southern hemisphere and I recognised it instantly: the ‘Ahhhhhh…’ of mums across America as everyone returned to school after Labor Day – accompanied by utterances under the breath of ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the bum’, ‘Thank God for school buses’, ‘First chance I’ve had to [finish a whole cup of hot coffee/vacuum/make an uninterrupted phone call] since June.’ The heck with Christmas. September is the most wonderful time of year.
Although the new school year here for us is still months away (February), we had our own brush with the Spirit of Back to School recently: Ted had his highly anticipated big school interview. He was nervously excited, hair gelled, handsome clothes donned. As Ted is the middle child, this was our second time through the process, so we knew what to expect. But how do you prepare a five year old? Or more to the point, should you? Isn’t the big school interview meant to be a ‘take me as I am’ snapshot of the child, a meet and greet, an ‘I’m-not-that-scary-of-a-principal’ themed intro, before school begins to leave its own indelible impression?
Apparently not. In this case, it’s an assessment and that’s that. The first of thousands over a lifetime of schooling.
Now I’ve heard my fair share of big school interview horror stories: my niece fell asleep during hers. (Clearly, she was so advanced, she was completely bored by what was being asked of her). Or my personal favourite: my friend’s son farted during his – but not discreetly with a sheepish nod of his head. Oh, no. (Five year old boys rarely throw aside that God-given opportunity for bodily humour.) He stood up on a chair to do so, as if to put a big exclamation mark on the event, insisting no one in the room could ignore it.
While Ted's wasn't exactly a horror story, it wasn't exactly a shining moment: if it’s possible for one to fail a big school interview, then he did just that. While at first he was engaged, he quickly wanted to steer the topics of conversation to things of his interest (cowboys, Hitler) and wasn’t really all that obliging. He vacillated between boredom (sighing) and disinterest ("You talkin’ to me?") peppered with moments of nervous chatter. A couple of things he was asked to do he just replied, ‘Nah.’ Overall, he didn’t give the impression that he was really all that fussed with this big school business.
At the end of the interview, I was told by the principal: ‘He’s the only child I’ve interviewed who can’t yet write his name.’ ‘Yes, that’s why I’m sending him to you,’ is what I thought. He commented on the way Ted held his pen. ‘Is it bad?’ I asked. ‘YES!’ he said and encouraged me to get some triangle-shaped pencils for easier gripping. (Obviously, the very ones Einstein himself used.) He also said that he had some ‘real concerns’ about his readiness, especially given his age. Sheesh.
Lucky I already know the guy, or I probably would’ve been tempted to tear strips off of him. Or cry. Or at the very least, become indignant. And if Ted were my first child, I probably would’ve been gutted. Or have felt like I failed as an at-home mum for not pushing the whole Baby Einstein agenda (which I so detest), attempting to teach a woodwind instrument or becoming bi-lingual myself in the hopes of making my child ‘smarter’.
His basic concern was that he didn’t want to see Ted struggle when he got to school, and I can fully appreciate the warning. But struggle? Who struggled in kindergarten when we were kids? Who got the report sent home saying, ‘Jill just can’t seem to grasp higher spatial concepts and has regrettably failed blocks’? When did kindergarten become work? What was once an extension of preschool with some learning laced in has become learning with all too little time for play. The result? After making the expectations so high so early, we then go on to complain that they grhave become ‘tweens’ at age 10 and their childhoods are more or less finished.
As far as I’m concerned the interview was merely a formality – he’s going next year. Legally, he has to start school or I must submit a homeschool curriculum, and to me, homeschooling should’ve died with Jane Eyre’s governess job. Ready or not, here I come. I can’t hold him back any longer, nor would I want to. Who wants the five-foot tall kid in kindergarten?
According to the New South Wales government standard, he was eligible for school this year – but I delayed sending him. Not because of what I wanted to do, but because it has become the ‘done’ thing, especially with boys. (The upside to the current way of doing things is that there seems to be fewer children who have to repeat a year of school, and that is a good thing.) While the pressure is on not sending them until they’re really ready, that leaves too much of the decision in the parents’ hands.
The whole issue of ‘school readiness’ is another way we have complicated our roles as parents, all in the name of choice. We research how to get pregnant, then what to eat, obstetricians, birthing plans, prams, preschools, discipline strategies, and now, our child’s school readiness. It used to be when you were five by a certain date, you went. Period. Yes, there were variations in age and ability, but that is not something that ever changes in the course of a child’s life, educational or otherwise: there will always be those who are smarter, faster, funnier. While the government’s curriculum has changed radically over the years, the school starting age hasn’t, which creates a dilemma: some will gladly push them out the door to school at 4.5 years because it’s cheap day care; others will hold them back till they’re 6 in the hopes of giving their child every ‘advantage’.
Am I worried for Ted’s sake? Not in the least. School is still four months away. I do think keeping him at home has kept him younger, similar to the way going to uni keeps you a teenager for another four years. Although in the remaining time before school starts, I will certainly try to encourage him, I simply refuse to create a battleground for us before he has even begun his formal education. Right now, Ted writing his name has no value in his world, which at the moment revolves mostly around cowboys, Lego and army men. But all that will change once he starts school – of that I am convinced. And that used to be the acceptable way it was for the vast majority of children starting school a generation ago.
Perhaps I will have better luck teaching him to write ‘Cowboy Ted’ instead of his name…