“Have you checked out kindergarten?”
“What’s your neighborhood school?”
“Did you sign up for your option schools?”
“How are the test scores?”
“What’s the student population like?”
“What’s the teacher/admin rollover look like?”
All of these questions were hurled at me at least once a week from the time my oldest child turned four until the day he started kindergarten at five and a half. For much of that time, to be perfectly frank, I hadn’t even thought about any of it. Kindergarten—and real school in general—seemed eons away to me at that point. But I watched some friends going through the kindergarten search, and they all started to panic. And their panic made me panic.
Seattle recently revised the way the school choices work. It used to be more of a free-for-all—a choose-your-own-adventure of schooling, if you will—but we’ve reverted back to the neighborhood school model. Students can stick with their neighborhood school, or they can enter the lottery for one of the nearby “option” schools. The option schools are usually highly sought after, and there’s much hemming and hawing over who gets to go. There are waitlists and lotteries and panicking aplenty.
When my oldest was a mere couple months away from starting kindergarten, he still wasn’t registered, much to the dismay of nearly everyone we spoke to. We didn’t even know which school he would attend. Our neighborhood school was great, and we intended to register him there, but we got busy. On top of that, we had hoped to move, so we stubbornly dragged our feet on making a final decision. This fact completely freaked people out. For me, there was something delightful in not knowing, a certain freedom in the inability to plan. It was nice to just wait and see.
As it turned out, we weren’t able to move. People had good things to say about the neighborhood school my son would be attending, and I was optimistic. But, as an educator, I know that everything depends on the teacher. We didn’t know until the last second who my son’s teacher would be, and that part was torturous. I knew that we wouldn’t really know if it was a good fit until at least a month in, when all the pretense had dropped and the teacher and the kids were in their groove. I knew it would only be after it was too late that I’d find out if the teacher wasn’t a good fit for my son.
This was what frightened me the most. This was my son’s first foray into school. He was moving from the warm, supportive co-op preschool world, and heading into the huge unknown of public schooling, and it felt terrifying. As a former public high school teacher, I believe 100% in public schools and the commitment of the teachers there, but I also know the very real challenges they have to overcome daily. They were challenges I struggled with. I didn’t want my son getting lost. He was used to parents constantly in the classroom, a group of adults who cared for him and looked out for his well-being. He was used to me being there weekly to watch him. To see. Now, there would be just one adult and 24 other children.
It is in school that kids decide how they feel about education. There that they decide what they love and what they hate about school and learning. There that they begin to settle into delicate social structures. There that “who they are” really begins to form. And I’m not there.
Letting go is probably one of the scariest things about parenthood. We raise our children in a lovely little cocoon of safety where we have so much control, and then must set them free, where they’re at the mercy of everyone else. The world is a scary place, and knowing that makes it hard to let your children go off into it. But still, there’s so much good to be had. So much learning and love and joy.
Giving my son away to his teacher—a man I hardly knew—was brutal. I came home after that first drop off and walked into his room, where I burst into tears. I looked around at the wonderful little world I’ve tried to build for him, and I realized that it wasn’t going to keep him safe anymore. I realized that I couldn’t keep him safe anymore. My husband walked in and found me crying and asked what was wrong. All I could explain was, “He’s not ours anymore.” I felt like I was giving him away to the world to shape. And in a way, I was. We have to.
It’s an important step for both of us—this separation. I don’t like it because I know it brings with it some hardships that we won’t be able to fix for him. But it’s important for him, for his health, for his independence, for his sense of self, and for his ability to find his place in this world. Nonetheless, it was a startling transition for him, and it hasn’t been without its challenges. Over the five months that he’s now been in kindergarten, we’ve worked together to figure out these challenges. And I’ve come to realize that he now has one more person in his corner. My son’s teacher is able to see a different side of him—and all the good and bad that comes with that—than we do at home, and he can help my son figure out how to be part of his new classroom community.
As parents, we are doing our best to provide our son a safety net, to be there when he gets home, to support him, to help him navigate all the complex structures of social hierarchies and classroom politics. But we are also allowing him to balance on his own. We’re giving him room. We’re trying to let him become, with our love to guide him.
~ Shannon Brugh