Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One Minute at a Time

Barbara Kingsolver writes, in a letter to her teenage daughter, "When I was pregnant with you, I read every book I could find on how to handle all things from diaper rash to warning lectures on sexually transmitted diseases. I became so appalled by the size of the task that I put my hands on my belly and thought, Oh Lord, can we just back up? But the minute you were born I looked at your hungry, squinched little face and got it: We do this thing one minute at a time. We'll never have to handle diaper rash and the sex lecture in the same day. My most important work will change from year to year, and I'll have time to figure it out. At first I was just Milk Central, then tiptoe walking coach and tea-party referee. Eventually I began to see that the common denominator, especially as mother of a girl child, was to protect and value every part of your personality and will, even when it differed from mine."

Since May, I've been spending at least part of every day - sometimes minutes, sometime literally hours - fretting, researching, talking, asking, wondering What To Do about Annie's school situation next year. I had a gut feeling, and then I had other people's opinions. They were in direct opposition. Eventually, after months of more fretting, researching, talking, asking, and wondering, I went with the expert opinion and requested young fives. About a week later, that choice was revealed to no longer exist for us.

Not usually one to rock the boat, I wanted to be sure that we explored every possible avenue. I wrote a letter to the superintendent. It went like this:

Dear Dr. S.,

I am writing to ask for your assistance in placing my daughter, Annie, in L. Elementary’s Young Fives program for the 2009-2010 school year.

When I submitted Annie’s paperwork this spring, my husband and I were still unsure if she should be in kindergarten or Y5’s this fall, as her birthday is September 11 and her pre-school teachers had not given a strong recommendation either way. I filled out the social/emotional questionnaire, and, when I turned it in, specifically asked whether someone would be following up with me before the formal placement was made. I was told that I would be called.

In the meantime, I did some more research, and we decided that we preferred Y5’s for Annie, a preference I would have shared during that phone call. No call ever came; instead, we received Annie’s placement in morning kindergarten at L in the mail in June.

I called (principal) to discuss the placement. P was incredibly warm and gracious when we connected via phone. She explained that the process had been streamlined this year, apologized for the lack of communication, and encouraged me to consider the kindergarten placement. We agreed that I would take some time to think about it, follow up with her pre-school teacher again to get her opinion, and let P know our decision. P indicated that I could call her any time before the class lists came out in late August to switch her to Y5’s, and at no time was there any suggestion that this placement would be anywhere other than at L Elementary. In fact, she indicated that if the placement (either way) appeared inappropriate a few weeks or months into the school year, we could move her – an option that would obviously be a last resort, but one that was comforting to me as a first-time parent in the district.

In early August, I e-mailed P and left her a voicemail message saying that, after more thought, we remained most comfortable with our initial decision to place Annie in Young Fives. P called me the following week to tell me that, because of a miscommunication and some district-wide changes in procedure this year, there were no remaining Y5 spots at L Elementary and that Annie’s options were to retain the kindergarten placement at Lakeside or to switch to Y5’s at school B in the afternoons.

My husband and I would strongly prefer that Annie be able to participate in Young Fives at L Elementary, her home school. This has been a very difficult decision for us, and we don’t believe that starting her at one school, then switching to another a year from now would be in her best interest. Already, the great majority of her pre-school friends and neighbors will be entering kindergarten; we would hate to compound the sense of separation by having her at a different school and then having to re-acclimate to another group of children and a new environment next fall.

I realize that the L Elementary Young Fives class is technically full, and, as a former educator, I support the goal of small class size. I also hope that, in the interest of doing what is best for our daughter and because of the miscommunications that have accompanied this placement, an exception can be made in these circumstances to allow Annie to attend L Young Fives this fall.

We chose to move to (city) specifically because of its reputation for excellence in education and we very much look forward to investing our time and energy in making it a wonderful environment for our children to learn and grow. Dr. P has been nothing short of wonderful in all our interactions and we are heartened to know that our daughter will be in such a caring environment.

Thank you in advance for your careful consideration of this matter.

This letter resulted in a phone conversation with Dr. S., who was kind and understanding, but unwilling to change the placement. So, as of this morning, Annie will officially be entering kindergarten this fall.

I remember saying several times over the course of this process, "I wish someone would just make this decision for me." And now, someone has. I have always been someone who is able to see all sides of an issue, and while I like to think this is a good trait, it makes me one of the worst decision-makers I know. I have spent hours lying awake at 2:00 a.m., extrapolating the trajectory of each scenario out five, ten, twenty years, and imagining all sorts of consequences to either placement. I have cried - more than once - because this is perhaps the first time I've had to make a big decision about What To Do for one of my children and sincerely not known the "right" answer. (Annie, if you are ever tempted to accuse me of "not caring" or "not loving you," please tally up the sheer number of hours I have spent on this one issue alone and, you know, maybe take me out to lunch or something. And woe to you if you, someday, give birth to a child born during a month of less-than-obvious school placement, which it is traditional for women in our family to do, as you are the fourth generation first-born girl with a fall birthday. Who, by the way, have all gone to school "young," all prospered there, and all shown a propensity for languages, so keep this in mind when choosing your college major.)

We are cautiously optimistic. I was talking with some friends last night. One woman, who doesn't know Annie, asked, "Is she precocious?" I nodded affirmatively. "She'll be fine." I look at Annie, at all she can do, at how well she advocates for herself, at how insatiably curious she is, at how determined she can be, and I think she will.

I think about my gut feeling and about the fact that the only times I can remember going against it resulted in 1. Our moving to and buying a house in South Haven (which we put on the market and decided to leave less than a year later), and 2. Spelling Jemma's name with a "J" rather than a "G," which is another thing I still question sometimes in those middle-of-the-night insomnia fests.

I think about how, though this process, I have learned to advocate more for my kids, something I have to push myself to do, because it's not in my nature to question authority or to have those awkward, uncomfortable conversations. I am not the type of person who calls the school principal or who writes to the superintendent, but I found that, when my child's best interest was at stake, I didn't much care about being labeled as a pain in the ass. I've been inspired, in part, by my friend Heather, who just had to go through a few scary months of medical issues with her baby girl and who modeled the kind of intelligent, reasoned advocacy to which I am still aspiring.

So, three weeks from yesterday, we'll walk our brave little kindergartener down the street to the place that will be her school for the next six years. (Or seven, because my feeling is, if kindergarten doesn't go well this year, we'll just do it again next year.) I can't even imagine all the things she's going to learn, all the experiences she's going to have, all the ways she's going to grow and change. When I think about it, I get a little knot in the pit of my stomach, especially knowing that I'm not going to BE THERE right next to her every moment of every day. But I am trying to take it, as Barbara Kingsolver said, "one minute at a time." I am trying to value her personality and her will, let go a little more, do less protecting and more trusting, marvel at her abilities, be worthy of her.

Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michaelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.
 -Pablo Casals

1 comment:

  1. This brought tears to my eyes...this just resonates with me more than you know. By the way, I was one of those fall birthdays (went to kindergarten at 4 years old, turned 5 September 26) too. I wonder if that goes along with the 'seeing all sides of an issue', because I, too, am one of the worst decision-makers I know.