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What I Learned in One Day at Kindergarten

What I Learned in One Day at Kindergarten
By Christine Williams

“Have fun and if you have any problems just ask the teacher for help. Try to wash your hands before lunch if you can and don’t leave your underwear sticking out of your shorts after you use the bathroom. I can’t wait to hear all about your day when I pick you up.” It was with these rather weak words of wisdom that I drove my uncharacteristically silent five-year-old son, brown bag lunch in hand, to a local private school so that he could attend a day of kindergarten…his first full day of school.

I ardently wanted to continue unschooling my son, but things at our house were changing and I began to doubt that I could.

Let’s be honest, I was terrified for him. My little life learnler would be attending a day of school in the middle of March with kindergarteners who had nearly the whole year behind them. He had no idea that he was entering the habitat of seasoned professionals. His familiarity with kindergarten consisted of stories of my kindergarten days and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. It was a risky move, I’ll admit, but I was getting desperate.

I ardently wanted to continue unschooling my son, but things at our house were changing and I began to doubt that I could. When he was younger and all of his friends were around (if only after half days of preschool), it was fun and easy and exciting for me to unschool my son. His natural curiosity and enthusiasm for any adventure fed our daily routine.

But now that his friends were in school five full days a week and he had a sister to contend with, I was spending more and more time refereeing between the kids and dealing with competing priorities. Meeting the needs of my growing family meant our adventurous whims couldn’t always be indulged, which frustrated and disappointed my son, often to the point of passionate tantrums.

In addition, his best friend moved away last summer and I felt guilty that despite my best efforts I wasn’t able to help him connect meaningfully with new friends during the year. Yes, I had an infant, we moved twice during that time, and managed one major home renovation, but those distractions didn’t help my son when he was longing for a play date. There it was in my very own house, that big socialization elephant in the room that all the homeschooling literature declared was nonsense. Of course, my son interacted with kids nearly every day on the playground, at baseball practice, or art classes. He knows how to meet and play nicely with others and share (usually) and get along, but without close friendships with kids his age that extended beyond structured activities, I knew he was deprived of something special that I enjoyed as a kid.

Also, it didn’t help that I was exhausted. In the last six months, I had managed the family bout with the flu, my Christmas with shingles and the kids with chicken pox, weaning my youngest and riding the hormonal roller-coaster that followed, and a brief family stomach ailment that felt like Armageddon. Did I mention we are a family that eats organic and leads a very healthy lifestyle?

On top of all that, I was painfully aware that our homeschooling was about to be tracked by the state, meaning I would need to document our activities in a more formal manner and submit to evaluations.

The idea of homeschooling two kids on top of all of these challenges began to seem impossible, unrealistic, and downright nuts. Was I trying to ruin our lives, I wondered? Why was I making life so hard? My commitment to homeschooling remained strong on good days, but on bad days I couldn’t help visiting “it’s not for  everyone” territory. And hey, we all know homeschooling is not for everyone! It is just that up until this point I hadn’t thought of myself as being one of the everyones.

I began to doubt that the free, fun learning we had always enjoyed could continue in such a way as to provide my son with a meaningful, yet self-directed, education. I doubted my ability to meet the academic and social demands of a first grader if everything had the potential to become less fun, more isolated, and less focused on his specific interests. Though my son declared with absolute certainty that homeschooling was the only way he wanted to learn, he passionately resisted any kind of formal school work. I knew he had no idea of what he might be missing in a school setting because he had never experienced school.

Could I handle the demands that life learning meant for me and our family? The pressure was on and the stakes were high. Before summer’s end, I had to commit to the really hard work that homeschooling would mean for me. I also wanted Dublin to understand that being homeschooled is something special, with special freedoms and responsibilities. I needed him to understand that special cooperation had to become the norm in our house or I wouldn’t have the energy to homeschool him. Surely with some creativity I could get this message across. But how? I considered the matter from every angle.

If only he could experience for one day how restricted life is in school, I thought, he might decide that cooperation at home was worth the freedom that life learning offered. In other words, he would see just how good he has it and help me out. I called a school we had toured when he was three, back when we first explored our options about attending preschool. At that time, we decided to keep him home after we realized that the best part of our tour was the picnic he and I had together on the school grounds after the tour was over. It was then and there that we both became convinced we could learn more about the world and one another far away from school’s gates and walls and dress codes and bells.

During my call, the private school’s admissions director offered us an opening the very next day that had come up due to a cancellation. Perfect, I thought – no time to build up anxiety about it, no time to back out. Game on!

I hung up and explained to my son that he would be attending school the next day just so he could see what school is all about and how other kids spend their weekdays. The night before, we set out some clothes and told him how the day would go.

After he went to sleep, I packed his lunch, and my worries started. Would this experience scar him for life? Would they break his spirit? Would he love kindergarten so much that he would be mad I had deprived him of it? Would he freak out and cry? There was only one way to find out.

Early the next morning, after our awkward drive to the school, we parked our car and walked to the main office. On the way, we managed to get yelled at for crossing in front of the drop-off lane.

At the main office, the director of admissions appeared and, after brief introductions, she took my son away. Away from me. He seemed in a kind of daze, walking in the wrong direction until I steered him toward her with an encouraging, “See you this afternoon, honey. Have fun!” The secretary told me to return at 1pm to meet with the director of childhood development.

I left wondering if I had done the right thing, if he would be able to handle it, and if the experience would help him better understand his education choices and responsibilities, or if it would just freak him out. He’ll be fine, I hoped. After all, I went to kindergarten and loved it. Then again, that was a long time ago. Also, I had four older brothers and sisters cheering me on and was totally unaware that homeschooling existed.

As a healthy diversion, I took my one-year-old daughter to a mommy-and-me gymnastics class and I’ll admit that I enjoyed immensely the freedom I had to focus completely on her for a change. She had fun but was clearly missing her brother. This was something I hadn’t considered – how his absence from home during the day would affect her.

Later, during her nap, I found myself wondering what to do with the time that remained before 1pm, wondering how my son was doing, wondering what that meant for all my Gatto-inspired ideas about true learning and living a self-directed, meaningful life.

I returned to the school at 1pm. The director of early childhood development said she had evaluated Dublin during the day. Papers with shorthand were laid out in front of her next to a pencil drawing of an armless boy with a huge smile, some brightly colored squares, and several worksheets.

“He is such a very sweet and intelligent child,” the evaluator began. “He jumped right into the class and got along immediately with the other kids and fit right in, which I was pleasantly surprised to see.” Oh, thank goodness he felt okay, I thought. “His reading is quite excellent, and he has very good reading comprehension and extrapolation, which is somewhat rare at this age. However...” she continued.

She started in on his shortcomings. His pencil grip is wrong, his drawing of himself was “quite immature,” he knows how to write numbers but is not familiar with written addition and subtraction. When he writes sentence, he leaves out vowels. In a nutshell, he is “behind” and needs at the very least “tutoring all summer” and depending upon the results “Occupational Therapy” was available.

Not wanting to be that defensive homeschooling mother, I listened on. “Here is a special pencil I want Dublin to have that will help him practice a proper grip,” she said as she set it down in front of me. “I can let you subscribe to use some math software we have that will help him, too,” she offered. “In order for your son to be ready for the first grade at our school, these tools will be essential because our first graders study a second grade curriculum,” she said. “Why?” I thought.

The rational, reasonable, homeschooling side of me was not at all surprised by this evaluation. His writing experience consisted of birthday and thank you cards, letters to his cousins, menus for pretend restaurants, and exit signs for his LEGO car washes. His math consisted of calculating the number of LEGO blocks required to build a seven story functional elevator. His art always favored three dimensions because his drawing ability is as limited as mine and everyone knows it is more fun to make paper maché people than stick figure drawings. My inner life learner also knew that drilling an active, curious, unschooled child all summer long with worksheets and tutors would accomplish one thing and one thing only — to extinguish his love of learning.

But as hard as I tried to channel my inner life learner, the irrational, unreasonable, formerly public-schooled side of me was stunned. Had I failed my son before he even reached first grade? Had I been naïve and idealistic taking him to the theater and letting him count change at the cashier instead of drilling phonics and math worksheets? This couldn’t be! He was supposed to be better off learning freely with me. I had worked so hard to let him be an unschooler these past six years. How could this have happened? He is behind. Behind! Behind!

I left the office with the director – in a bit of a daze – to get my son. His class walked near where we were standing and at first glance he ran to me and buried his face in my stomach and started sobbing. You know those kinds of quiet sobs when kids really mean it, deep, deep down. “I am the worst parent ever,” I thought.

The evaluator at my side was shocked. “Dublin did you hurt yourself? What is wrong?” He didn’t look up. He couldn’t speak. “I think this is just his way of releasing all the anxiety and tension of the day,” I explained. She seemed somewhat offended that her school could cause anxiety and tension and surprised that this young boy, who had put on a brave face as he joined the class in their daily activities, had transformed into a sobbing mess at my side. I wasn’t. I knew just how he felt – emotionally exhausted and confused. I felt tremendous guilt because I realized I put him through a day of school not only to see if it would make him cooperate more at home, but also to see if it might be a better option for me. Yikes! I said my thank yous and goodbyes, let him cry a bit more, and then took him to the car.

As we made our way home, he regained his voice between sobs, “School is dumb,” was repeated over and over again. Did I mention dumb is a swear word in our house? “Why don’t they just knock down that school and leave the playground?” he insisted. Tears were jumping out of his eyes. I let him vent.

Only that night as he went to bed did he offer something he liked about the school – going into a bright, round atrium room where they played a handwriting game on iPads. I could picture it, having been inside that room, and smiled because that is the kind of thing I would have loved when I went to school.

The next day, with the teacher’s many criticisms still ringing in my ears, I foolishly abandoned life learning and indulged in a moment of morbid curiosity. I asked him to draw himself. He started crying. I wanted to cry, too. “What is the matter?” I asked, as if I couldn’t answer the question myself. “That dumb school ruined everything! I don’t want our house to turn into a school!” I agreed, and that was that.

Aren’t kids perceptive? He sensed in me the fear that life learning might leave him behind. He sensed my panic that he must catch up to some all-knowing definition of what an incoming first-grader should know. I guess his extrapolation skills were even better than the evaluator realized!

I had underestimated how deeply my public schooling roots ran, feeding my uncertainties that were growing stronger as my son grew. Why couldn’t I just trust in his innate ability to learn, surrender to his interests, and facilitate his talents? I had to try harder to get out of the way and let the new demands and dynamics of our family become life lessons about flexibility and independence.

“We won’t turn our house into a school. If you’re doing it right, learning doesn’t feel like school.” This idea percolated with my son for a few days and, more importantly, it percolated with me.

A few days later, even as we received an “acceptance letter” in the mail for the private school’s fall semester, our happy household was still healing. We returned to our life learning. I read an adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to my son in a day, even though we wouldn’t see the play for two weeks, because we just couldn’t put it down! We were back to enjoying stories for the sake of stories, not because they were part of a lesson plan. It felt better than ever.

We decided to start a kind of journal. We took a trip to the store to buy a notebook – one that had writing lines in it. We agreed that he will write one dictated sentence per day, usually about his day, and he would help come up with the sentence. Then he would draw something to go with it.

Another day he heard a Between the Lions CD where they mentioned AEIOU and the word phonics, which he had heard at the school. It stuck. He jumped up from the table one day to show me how one of his games makes the same “x” sound as is in the word “fox” that he wrote in his notebook. At lunch he said, “You know mom, vowels are easy. AEIOU and sometimes Y. I have two vowels in my name.” Pretty soon we were writing names of everyone we know and circling vowels like crazy. This lead to a game of trying to find a person we know with the most vowels in their name. Wow! What an amazing kid. This was cooperation. This was fun! This was learning his way.

As all of this was unfolding, I started to relax. My son is not behind at all. He has just taken a different path where the development of his personality and interests are the priority and out of that his understanding of academics happens naturally. That means his learning takes time. That also means whatever happens in our home, including balancing priorities, moving, getting along with his sister, losing friends and finding others, and even creating interesting things to do when Mom is sick, are all moments of learning. It means he isn’t better off if he can do second grade math in his first grade year. It means he loves to learn, is curious to discover what interests him, and isn’t afraid to take control of his learning.

As I write this, many weeks have passed since Dublin attended that day of kindergarten. He has emerged from his school experience wiser because he learned something about freedom, cooperation, trust, and self determination. In fact, we both did. We remain grateful to be life learners. We enjoy tremendous freedom to discover ourselves, develop our talents, and share our love of learning. Also, we are more aware than ever that we bear a tremendous responsibility to take control of our learning ourselves, swim against the tide, and figure things out as we go. This takes confidence, stamina, and conviction that we must renew daily. On tough days, I still have doubts that I am up to the task of unschooling my kids next year, but on great days I feel like the luckiest parent in the world.

Christine Williams is a homeschooling mother who lives, learns, loves, and writes in Florida.

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