A new school year: it’s not just for kids.

This is the week that many parents are wiping away tears, amazed that their babies are starting this grade or that grade or heading off to college or finally accepting a full time job and signing an apartment lease.

I am not one of those parents. Back-to-school does not break my heart. 

Okay, at the bus stop yesterday, the first day of school, I was a little weepy when Joanna told me that I could cuddle with her beloved stuffed Snuggle Puppy after lunch, since she, as a first grader, would finally be in school all day, and I’d be left alone for afternoon “quiet time hour.”  I am stunned that it’s a short year until Mitzi begins the seventh circle of school hell — middle school. I cringe that soon I will have to talk to fourth-grade Cooper about…um, boy stuff. And I can’t quite figure out how Ellie all of a sudden became this person in second grade who reads full books and calls friends and ties her own shoes and does not look back (although she hugs me the hardest, and that is always heart-squeezing.)

But mostly, I smiled. And, inside, I did a little dance.

It’s been 10 years since I’ve had more than 2 hours to myself on any given day. This summer was supposed to be laid-back, easy. And it was. Kind of. We had some fun. We did a bunch of stuff.  But after a few weeks, the kids were too much together, too much in each other’s spaces, and there was too much conflict. By August, I was ready for school to start. By mid-August, so were they. Not because they don’t love each other or me (they do, I know), but everyone was just ready for their own *space.* For routine.

We had a last-blast weekend on Cape Cod over Labor Day — the first family vacation in over a year. It was whirlwind and amazing and even more special because it was so short and we had like thirty-five seconds to squeeze in every tradition we could manage before moving onto the next. And every minute that I spend with my kids I am grateful (okay, sometimes it’s hectic and irritating too, and a whole lot of work, but mostly, when I breathe deeply and step back, I am grateful that I have been blessed with these four incredible, mysterious and amazing creatures).

Still, today was the second day of school and I was…peaceful. Unrushed. I have been cleaning (long overdue) and am spending this week trying to get organized so that starting next week I can use my time productively. Do my paying job. Post here. Focus on the freelance work (hey, I have an essay in Family Fun magazine’s September issue!). Revise the MG. Revise a few picture books. Write something new! Query agents! Get back to the yoga mat. Go for walks. Take better care of myself — mind and body and creativity — so I can take better care of my family.

What I love about school, for my kids, is that it’s a chance for each of them to stand out as individuals — and I see it in their eyes and hear it in their words when they come home every day, that they are starting down the road which will lead them to themselves. Letting go is not entirely hard for me — letting go is when their wings unfurl and what’s more beautiful than that? — and letting go does not mean saying good-bye. After all, home is where they return to, and home is safe, and home is Mom and Dad, and home is what gives them the power to fly again tomorrow.

Leaving, coming back. Building muscles, resting. That’s what growth is.

After 10 years, I’m ready to start down that same road. I will always be first and foremost a mother. But I am also more than that. And by attending to the latter, I can be better at the former. Six hours a day  just for me?

I might even invite a friend to lunch. I might take a nap. I might start a business.

I can use the time to finally forge ahead in the career I have been trying for, longing for.

I might rediscover me.

The school day, six hours long — school, six hours of creativity and learning and growth. September is not the official grown-up New Year, but who says it’s just for kids?

Parents — it’s your school year too. Let’s make the most of it!

The no-food birthday treat conundrum — no pencils, please!

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. February 2nd.

Oh, it’s also Cooper’s ninth birthday. And, yes, every year, we joke about making him stand outside to see his shadow and all of that. Did you have to ask?

So today is birthday prep. Ray is commissioned to do the shopping. I will be working on the birthday treasure hunt clues, cursing myself all the while for starting this tradition that, come to find out, is the highlight of each of my children’s birthdays.

I will also be agonizing over what to send to school tomorrow — the special birthday treat the Cooper will share with his friends.

Yes, I said “agonizing.” Figuring out what to do is awfully hard. We are not allowed to send in food or candy. Cooper is tired of giving and receiving pencils for every occasion (frankly, so am I — we have a giant Ziplock bag of the things, enough to get us through high school, and I’m running out of space.)

He also doesn’t want to be the kid who didn’t bring in anything for his friends on his special day. He’s nine. He wants to party with his friends, if only in a limited way, because he knows that, yet again, this year we don’t have extra funds to throw him a “real” party outside of school. And he hasn’t pouted or complained about it. He’s practical, understands the reality of our financial situation, accepts it when we repeat what we have for the past few birthdays: Maybe next year. Maybe next year.

His matter-of-fact attitude makes my guilt worse, and I fret.  I can’t give him a party with his friends — the least I can do is make his time at school with those friends something of a mini-celebration, his chance to be the birthday boy for a few minutes as his friends smile and laugh and sing, if only for a few minutes of the day?

The easiest thing, of course, would be to mix up a batch of brownies. But I can’t do that, because, as I’ve ranted about before, somebody has decided that the occasional birthday treat during the school day is what is causing our epidemic of childhood obesity. (No, it has nothing to do with the lack of daily gym classes or after-school free time for kid play. Don’t be silly. It’s the cupcakes.)

I’ll probably go to the party store, figure out what I can get for 27 children that is not edible, and, instead of spending a few bucks on a box of Betty Crocker, I’ll spend about thirty dollars getting each one a bouncy ball or something.

It’s funny how, when making that no-treats-in-school guideline, no one considered the added expense to parents of a no-cupcake/candy birthday treat. Is it because I live in a wealthy town, where money doesn’t always seem to be an issue for a lot of families?  Twenty-seven kids is a lot to buy goodie bags for, even if I spend a dollar on each.

On one hand, a 120-calorie brownie that the average 3rd grader will burn off in about ten minutes of recess play. On the other, a fistful of money. Clearly, taking away the brownie is the better choice.

Sure, I can send in nothing. Or he will have to make do with the loathesome pencils. Or what he thinks of as “babyish” stickers.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the worst pain to suffer. Like I said, Cooper’s pretty easygoing. Whatever happens, he’ll give that little lopsided smile, a small shrug, and move on. He’ll have his treasure hunt and cupcakes at home, just as kids used to do back in the time before birthdays became the mega-celebrations they are today. (Seriously, do you remember having a party with your friends EVERY year? Me neither.) About the birthday treat, well, he probably will get over it in thirty seconds. So will his friends. I know I’m making too much over this, and, having written this post, will now let it go, except to say one more thing:

I sure wish I could make the brownies.

First day of school

I hardly slept at all last night.  First day of school today.  Nerves, excitement, and adrenaline kept me up, as it always does.

Was I ready?  Clean clothes, check.  Organized backpacks, check.  Lunches planned, ready to pack, check.  Alarm set, check.  Double-check.

At 2 a.m. I wondered idly if I should test Mitzi’s blood glucose level.  I was up, why not?  But I decided not to bother her.  The levels have been good.  No reason to think she was so low she could have a seizure or slip into a coma.  Instead, I used the bathroom and had some orange juice.

My first alarm rang at 5:45 a.m.   I ignored it.  The second rang 10 minutes later.  I got up, turned on the coffee pot, watched the news.  Surely I had forgotten something?

A shower, then roused the kids.  Even Ray got up earlier today to help with the bustle of Day One.

Everyone was ready a half an hour early.  That will never happen again, but it’s nice to start the year off on the right on-time foot.

So they went, my third and second graders.  I reminded Cooper to smile more and scowl less.  I silently worried over his ticky finger twiddling that he does when he gets nervous, grateful that second graders don’t notice that sort of thing, grateful that it’s a finger tic and no longer the jaw popping thing he was doing last year.

I reminded Mitzi not to forget her diabetes kit at the end of the day.  I silently worried that she wouldn’t eat what she was supposed to, when she was supposed to, grateful that the school nurse has tremendous experience with diabetic children, grateful that the school is small enough that nearly everyone knows who she is, what her condition is, and dozens of adult eyes will be watching out for her.

I am thrilled to be getting my quiet mornings back.  Ellie starts kindergarten on Thursday; Joanna is back to 3-day-a-week preschool next Monday.  I’ll have those occasional couple of hours to myself, and have very grand plans.

Still, I’m sad to see the summer go — not the heat or humidity, but the time.  As always, I’m sorry we didn’t do more — we didn’t camp or finish all the science projects or hike or bike the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  We didn’t swim nearly enough, and hardly had any s’mores.  But I’m glad that my kids are able to amuse themselves during the unstructured, free summer days.  They spent their days outside, without me, building forts and riding bikes and climbing trees and splashing in the blowup pool, fighting and falling down and helping each other up, just as me and my siblings did when we were young.  I have no idea what my mother did when we were not with her — to a child, a parent out of sight is a parent out of mind.  I’m sure my kids feel the same way.

A year older, a few more dozen steps away from me and Ray.  Mitzi will turn nine in a few months.  Conversations about sex and menstruation and peer pressure and more loom on our horizon.  Soon after it will be Cooper’s turn for the talks, for surely she will tell him everything she knows.

Today, though, the morning clouds are swiftly burning away under the sun’s sharp heat.  The air is soft with an early morning chill that will also fade by lunchtime.  By now the kids are settled into their new classrooms among friends old and new. 

A clean slate.  Anything — everything — is possible.  The first day of school.

A teachable moment

Just before Thanksgiving, all the parents in our school were informed of the existing policy in Massachusetts regarding gift giving for teachers.  In a nutshell,  it’s a violation of the law to give a gift worth more than $50.  It’s a violation for a group of parents to pool their money for a gift valued over $50.  The only exemption to this is if the gift is intended for classroom use, such as books or software, supplies or materials.

Thus began the brouhaha.

Newspaper articles and talk shows focused on this hot-button holiday issue.  Some parents are in an uproar, feeling that they ought to express their gratitude in any way they like.  Teachers don’t make a huge salary, and, some say, the holiday season is a great opportunity to give these hard-working educators a little something they wouldn’t be inclined — or able — to get for themselves.

Others are in favor of supporting the existing regulation.  Some say this annual ritual is akin to slipping the hostess a twenty for a fast seating.  Some claim that parents who, for all intents and purposes, tip their children’s teachers are hoping the teacher rewards the child with better grades or simple favoritism.  Others point out that even with the $50 limit, teacher gifts can get expensive, especially if you have more than one child (hmm…groceries or teacher gifts?).

Whatever side you’re on, the fuss shows a general dim view of teachers.  On the whole, teachers don’t get into the business to make money or reap the benefit of seasonal generosity.  If they do, they couldn’t have been too bright in the first place and ought to be dismissed for that singular act of stupidity.  No, most teachers start their careers with at least a minimal sense of service, a desire to help make a difference in the lives of children.  How that changes over many years in the system is anyone’s guess, and maybe these are the educators who enjoy the festival of tipping.

But I would venture that most teachers are as touched by a child’s hand-made card as they are by a gift card to Bertucci’s or a bag of Lindor truffles (or a Coach bag, if you happen to teach in that kind of town).

Time for me to ‘fess up.  In my first year of teaching I was employed by a small Catholic school in southwestern Connecticut.  My salary was a whopping $18,000 a year.  Yup.  This wasn’t 50 years ago.  More like 15.  But I was 24, living with my parents, and happy to be doing a job I loved, at a school I enjoyed immensely. The parents were painfully aware of our piteable salaries, and Christmas gifts rolled in. I mean, seriously.  It was a little embarrassing to pack my car at the end of the day.  Most were tokens, ornaments or plants or a bag of chocolate.  I was touched by the effort, and every year when I decorate my tree I remember which child gave what decoration, and I wonder where that child is today as an adult, whether they yet have children of their own.  That year, the parents en masse collected funds and gave each teacher a cash bonus of $500.  Seriously.  That was fantastic.  $18K doesn’t take you very far, even living at home.  But it only  happened once, and I never expected it then or ever.  A couple of years later, when I worked at a private school on the South Shore of Massachusetts, the gifts were fewer, but equally heart-felt.  I loved that surly middle school students would sit down to pen a thank you note and offer a”Happy Holidays!”, even if their parents made them.  I know, I’m a dork, but I still have some of those cards in a box in the basement.

I really believe teachers don’t need more, don’t expect more.  It’s the parents who get in a bunch about it, and interestingly, it’s the parents in wealthier communities who find this issue to be most disturbing.   Parents with vacation homes who give the gift of a week of skiing.   Seats to a Sox game.  A spa weekend in the Berkshires.  It seems more like an effort to one-up the neighbors than to say a simple thank you to someone who is doing a good job.  Maybe some do expect preferential treatment for their kids, maybe they don’t.   I can’t say.  But I do wonder how the teacher feels, what his or her perception is of that parent’s expectations, how the teacher must wonder what others think whenever the child of a overly-extravagant gift-giver happens to get an A.

This is a teachable moment for parents and children alike.  What message do we want to send our kids in this already stuff-crazy season? 

I’m an English teacher, so I turn to a book.  The definition of a gift = “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”  (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).

The best gift a child can give to her teacher is an honest thank you.  Instead of shopping or collecting money or making collages and scrapbooks, maybe we parents should spend that time with our kids and talk about why we appreciate our teachers, why teachers are worth far more than the world pays them.  Maybe we parents should, in a giant surge of grassroots activism, gather our huge numbers and spend our time changing the way teachers are compensated for a job that society deems thankless but for this one time a year.

Teachers don’t need chocolate or gift cards.   Show thanks with support and advocacy.  Let that be the lesson for the kids.  Put your money where your mouth is.

Not $50.  Priceless.

The beginning…and an end

After months of waiting, Joanna finally got to start preschool today.  It wasn’t a tough transition.  After all, she’s been going to the school since she was born, when the big kids first started there.  She knows her way around all the rooms, all the toys, all the teachers.  It was hard to get pictures because she was so busy!

IMG_3942_2

So now, three mornings a week, I have an empty house for 2 and a half hours.  For the first time in almost eight years.  The silence is lovely now.  My mind is spinning with plans for how to use those 180 minutes.  

And yet, a part of me aches because the end of a time has begun, the end of the time when I was their whole world, the time when everything they experienced was shared with me, Ray, the family.  Today begins the time when they do what children are supposed to do — leave their parents.   Already Mitzi and Cooper have their own lives, small to be sure, but their own lives of which I don’t know the details.  Friends, teachers, thoughts, feelings, games, laughter , struggles, fears — there is so much that they go through every day that I’ll never know, except what they remember to tell me, what they want to tell me.  They are growing up, and I couldn’t be prouder of who and where they are now.   Still, the leaving, as small as their steps are today, squeezes my heart.

Ellie and Joanna are starting that road too, with as much speed as their little legs can muster.  Not very far, not for very long.  But they are running to greet their own lives.   

It’s what they’re supposed to do.    I stand behind them, savoring the moment.  I hope they always feel the excitement and possibility that they feel today.

I hope they always know that I will always be here, when it’s time, at last, to come home.

A Sad Kindergarten Lesson

A Mom friend was over last week with her youngest child, Ellie’s first playdate. While the three year olds played near each other (A-plus to my sister, who knows this is called “parallel play”), we Moms sat in the kitchen, talking the way Moms do.

This Mom is a nice woman, probably the first Mom friend I made after moving here. We have a similar family structure, which has made it fun for the kids too, some of whom have in the past or are now attending preschool together. I like her because she is kind, down to earth, funny, and unashamedly imperfect as a parent.

We Moms shared coffee while the girls shared the Munchkins our guests brought. Talking above the girls’ heads, my friend told me of her conference with daughter number one’s kindergarten teacher. In the course of the discussion, Mom and teacher chatted about daughter number two, who is soon to follow in elementary school. Chat, chat, blah, blah.

Until the teacher — presumably an experienced woman with many years at her current post — let this gem go:

“Oh, you’re a Preschool X family. Yes, well, that’s not really a preschool, it’s more of a playschool.” She went on to point out how graduates of the Preschool X program were not as prepared for the academic rigors of kindergarten as were the graduates of other town preschools.

Huh?

We are also a Preschool X family, so naturally I took umbrage at the slight. Our school is staffed by experienced, warm, nurturing and compassionate professionals who spent a lot of time — gasp! — letting our children be children. The kids there play a lot, outside as much as they can. And in the course of their time at Preschool X, students master skills like color, shape, letter and number recognition; rudimentary handwriting skills; reading readiness. All of which is necessary for success in today’s demanding coursework in kindergarten.

And in life, if this teacher were to believed.

I’ve heard that some other preschools in my little town — more prestigious, perhaps, fancier — have a long history of grooming the best of the best for a successful life. Some parents who place their kids in these schools are the type that have planned for Harvard since before their children were conceived. I’m sure that many parents are not like that. I won’t lump them all together and judge. But apparently this teacher believes the hype.

Now, my kids are pretty bright, so far. They have learned some stuff, at school and at home. With five weeks left in the school year, Mitzi is an independent reader. Coop seems to be on the right track. I haven’t been worried about their elementary school success, even though it’s a far cry from the schooling I remember.

When Mitzi started preschool, I was shocked at how it had changed since I attended the Jewish Community Center Nursery School back in the ’70s. Back then, preschool was for finding out that other kids existed and you have to share. That you have to wipe your own tush, and that Mommy doesn’t come everywhere with you. That was pretty much it. As a Catholic kid at a Jewish school I also got to learn about other kids’ religion, which I found extremely cool. I think if we found out about letters and numbers we were ahead of the game. Kindergarten was some of the same, with more learning, I guess. I don’t think anyone learned to read until first grade. Kindergarten was about playing, sharing, taking turns, making friends, having fights, resolving conflicts, more practice at wiping our own tushes. I remember lots and lots artwork and stage performances, pretend play and a lot of outdoor activities.

Kindergarten is just not like that now. The world demands it. Today we ask our six year olds to be miniature adults who are ready to surf the Internet with wisdom and safety, who can read well enough to navigate meaningless standardized testing so that they are not Left Behind. There is no room for play in kindergarten — Mitzi gets a gym class once every second six-day cycle. Music is squeezed in once every six days. She does not have an art class at all, a passion she is trying to hang on to despite its under appreciation by her teachers. (See me later for my rambling discourse on the shameful sidelining of the arts, the representing facet of lost civilizations first explored by generations who follow.) The faculty at our elementary school joins parents in bemoaning the sad curriculum choices that have to be made because of state and federal education demands. I am comforted that no self-respecting teacher approves of what’s happened.

But it is what it is.

When looking for a new home, Ray and I picked this town primarily for the outstanding school system, and will have to play by the rules. I accept that. With many years ahead of us, I recognize that ups and downs, successes and failures will be a part of our family experience, as it has been for families throughout the ages no matter what their zip codes. And I know it’s a new world, with different expectations and demands. I get it.

But I don’t want my kids to have to grow up too soon. I don’t think I’m condemning them to second-class citizenry by being happier to hear about adventures on the preschool playground instead of high-frequency words memorized in a silent classroom.

That’s why I like Preschool X. They celebrate my children’s childhood. Maybe it’s all that relaxing and having fun that gives my kids space to learn their letters, numbers, all that is required of them. I don’t know. But it works for us. Turning down placement at other schools was the smartest thing we did.

And as far as that flip kindergarten teacher teacher goes, shame on her. I can only hope that she is the only one of her kind in our schools.

Sadly, I expect she is not.

Letting Go, Part 1

Mostly we forget that, as parents, the purpose of our role is to get our children ready to leave us.

When they’re babies or toddlers it’s easy to avoid thinking about this eventuality. After all, there are diapers to change, puzzles to solve, balls to bounce, and finger paint to squish on white paper. Who has time to ponder the future when our babies are not in our sight all day, every day?

But then they do go, to day care or preschool, then off to the big kids’ school where they are on their own most of the day. What they do with their time remains a mystery, even to the parent of the most garrulous preteen.

When they’re not with me, my concerns are pretty basic. I wonder if they are safe, behaving, making friends, having fun, learning a few things along the way. That’s pretty much it.

None of us want to see our kids in pain. Some of the hardest times for me are the times I see one of my kids struggle with his or her peers. And I’m sure it’s not even a struggle for them, since most of the time they work it out. But for me it’s a struggle, agonizing to watch.

Once, when Mitzi was about 18 months (mentally going on 14 it seemed to us sometimes), she approached a group of much older girls — 8 or 9 year olds, maybe — on a near-empty school playground. Never shy or afraid, Mitzi walked right up to them, uttering her usual “Hi guys!” and waited for their welcome. Either they didn’t hear her or they dismissed her. She waited, shifting from foot to foot, for a response, her easy smile fading to confusion and then disappointment. After a few minutes she headed for the slide, and almost instantly her sadness disappeared.

I, on the other hand, was seething as I watched. I wanted to yell at those girls, “Look at my baby! Don’t you see her! Answer her! Be nice!” Instead, of course, I rocked baby Cooper and cried a little inside. Mitzi hasn’t stopped being friendly because of it, but I clearly haven’t forgotten.

Then today, as we dropped the big kids off at nursery school, I wilted a little again. Normally, I walk them to the school door, Cooper dashes inside to hang up his back pack, then is off to the playground with barely a glance or a goodbye for us. Mitzi starts in the same fashion, but has to come back once or twice for goodbye kisses. Today, though, as I pulled away after our goodbyes, I saw her sitting by herself, kicking at the dirt, looking at the dust fly in the air, ignoring the happy screams of the kids around her. So I stopped to watch. Was she sad because we didn’t do the extra kisses? Because Miss Heather shooed the kids into the playground so fast? Because she didn’t see any of her friends? Because her friends didn’t want to play with her? I sat in the idling car for a few minutes, then decided it was ridiculous. Not only was I blocking the road, Ellie and Joanna needed to get home for naps and, likely, my often-moody 4 1/2 year old was pouting over something (real or perceived) and would get over it in her usual speedy fashion. I reassured myself that her teacher was there to help her solve a problem, if one existed. That’s part of why Mitzi is in preschool. She has other adults and resources to help her, to teach her, to open new doors for her. I mean, I could’ve parked, rushed into the playground, cuddled her, and tried to help her feel better, but that would’ve been insane. So the babies and I went home.

And that’s when I realized — not for the first or last time — that my kids are bound to leave me one day. I’m sure they will always need me in the way that I need my own mother (gee, it’s time for our daily call!), but not in the way they did a year, two, three ago.

And that’s what the point of parenting, is, I guess, the primary part and, I’m learning, one of the hardest parts too. I want my kids to be independent, to be strong, confident, unafraid of life’s challenges, resourceful. But a little bit of me wishes they didn’t have to grow up to do it.