Dear Anand, I wrote this as a letter to you, and then ended up rewriting it to a different voice. But it’s still basically a letter to you, to explain why we’re making the decisions we are, why we’re keeping you in the school that is doing much better than last spring, but is still stressing you out. Love, mama.
I phrased and rephrased, trying to find a way to tell my son’s first grade teacher what was likely to work with him, without making him sound like a troublemaker.
“Anand is high-energy, full of enthusiasm and full of ideas, many of which he thinks are funny. Unfortunately, not everyone finds those ideas funny, and his energy can be hard to manage in a classroom setting.”
A few weeks ago, my son started school, and all of us were nervous. Kindergarten was rough – though Anand tried to be a good student, sometimes his ways of participating (enthusiastic shouting out of answers without raising his hand, interrupting his teacher, falling out of his chair with wiggly excitement) were challenging. He was hardly the only kindergartner having trouble with the new patterns of expected behavior, but as the weeks went by, most of the others adapted. By January, it became clear that he was having the hardest time in his class, which broke our hearts a little.
“When he’s done something wrong, Anand often needs a little time to process what’s happened; immediate consequences sometimes lead to either him arguing with the adult, or bursting into tears and running away.”
He would get off the bus, and I’d ask him and his sister, Kavi, how their days were. All I wanted was to hear a little bit about what had happened at school – something cool he’d learned, a conversation with a friend, a fun game at recess. But every day, the first thing Anand reported was how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ he’d been that day. “I only got three boxes today,’ he’d sadly report. His kindergarten teacher realized partway through the first semester that it was challenging for Anand to stay ‘good’ all day, so she’d broken the day into thirteen sections. If he behaved appropriately, he would be rewarded with some time playing a game. It helped, but we wished that our son’s whole focus wasn’t on trying to be good, on knowing that he was often bad. Kavi loved school, and so had I; we wanted that for him too.
Some of our friends’ kids have had trouble with public school. The class sizes are often large (Anand’s class was about twenty, which is a vast improvement over the thirty that was typical in my own elementary school, but is still a lot of wriggly little bodies for one teacher to manage). Lots of our friends have ended up with kids who are bored by a standard school curriculum, which then results in frustration, misbehavior, weeping. Several friends have ended up pulling their kids from public schools and either homeschooling or moving to private schools instead.
We’ve certainly considered our options, grateful that we have the financial ability to make such choices. If we homeschooled, we could get by on one income, though we’d have to have a serious conversation about which of us would step back from our career. Kevin’s job pays better than mine does. That’s typical for men and women, so even in an otherwise egalitarian relationship, it’s often the woman who stays home, sacrificing her own career in the process. Society tells us that mothers should sacrifice for their families, and of course, we do, all the time. But we should also ask, why do we so often ask women to make sacrifices we would never ask of men?
I dream of my ideal school – smaller class sizes, five to ten students per teacher. A curriculum that follows their interests flexibly – if Anand obsesses about video animation for a few weeks, letting him follow that interest would help keep him engaged in school, excited about learning. But that’s expensive – if wanted our public schools to look like that, we’d have to pay for more teachers per grade, so they’d be able to develop flexible and individual curricula to best suit each students’ talents and needs. I’d also love a lot more time spent outdoors – we know that human bodies thrive on regular movement, and that children’s bodies want to run and jump and twist, not be forced into stillness for hours. We should be building schools that accommodate and work with those natural instincts. There are private schools that look like that, but it’s rare to find a public school with those resources and that approach.
“Right now, Anand’s very conscious that he’s had difficulties in a school environment, and is worried and ashamed about it; he sometimes gets upset when an adult tries to talk to him about what he’s done wrong.”
We’re holding the possibility of moving our son out of school if we have to, but we’re still hoping that he’ll find a happy and productive space in the public school here. We moved to this leafy suburb for its schools, after all, which are well-funded (art and music and gym, a host of student service personnel). They’re great public schools, and we want to support public schools with our property tax dollars (at least until we manage to uncouple property taxes from public school funding, but that’s a political argument for a different day).
We think it’s better for society if the kids who live in the apartment building next door, the bright, sweet kids that are our kids’ friends and classmates, have access to the same schooling that our kids do. Excellent education for all children builds a better society for everyone. We could afford private school for both our kids, though we might have to sell our house to do it. But we’d rather pour our money and parent volunteer energy into the public school, as part of our commitment to growing a better community overall.
That said – we love Anand more than we love society. If it comes to it, we will absolutely pull him from that school if it’s making him miserable. We’re going to spend some time and energy on trying to find a way for him to be happy there first, though. Which is why I ended up spending a solid hour with his dad and his dad’s schoolteacher sister, trying to fill out the little personality form for the school, to help them place him in a first grade classroom.
“What usually calms Anand down is having some time away from class, either walking or sitting, to quiet down by himself.”
We were worried that an overworked, harried teacher would write him off in the first weeks as a difficult child, a ‘bad boy.’ And that he’d then be struggling with that label all through first grade. Age seven seems young to have that hung around his neck, weighing him down.
“Last year, Anand was allowed a fidget, a little toy that he could play with at his desk. They gave him his own special chair, to make it easier for him to sit still, and that did seem to help. He wears a chew toy on a necklace sometimes, because without that to chew on, he often ends up chewing his shirt, or a pencil, or the tv remote – whatever’s at hand.”
A lot of these accommodations are designed to help students on the autism spectrum, and if Anand continues to have difficulties at school, we’ll be getting him tested, to see if he fits onto that spectrum. I suspect he may be borderline – but I also think our understanding of mental structures is in its infancy. We tend to speak as if the range of human intellectual ability is like a line from normal to disabled, or from typical to atypical. But I suspect it is more like a map, or a globe, or perhaps some four-dimensional structure like those his mathematician father studies. We all have different needs and abilities, and we cluster and separate along a multitude of intersecting axes. Introvert / extrovert. Silence / stimulus. Visual / auditory / kinesthetic learner.
A few weeks ago, my own semester started, and I faced a classroom of young adults with their own anxieties about school. I tried to set a good tone for the semester, making clear the academic standards they’d be expected to meet, but also encouraging them to come to me if they have problems; we’d work on them together, try to find accommodations and approaches to make it possible for them to succeed. After just a class, I was already starting to get to know them. By the end of the semester, I’ll know them well, and even love them a little, these young people who want to learn, who can learn, if they get the right help along the way.
That’s really all I hope for, as Anand starts first grade. That his teacher sees the smart, funny, anxious, affectionate boy who hates to be alone. The child who enjoys wordplay and math games and climbing places he shouldn’t go. Yes, he may have licked the door to the classroom because he thought it was funny; yes, he planted his tiny kindergarten feet in the lunchroom last year and argued loudly with the principal over a point of perceived injustice. But my son wants to be good, and he wants to learn. In this country, we ought to be able to build public schools that can teach all our children well. Even the ones who aren’t easy, who don’t fit the standard mold.
We will fight for that dream of what public schools can be, and we will fight for our son. Hopefully, we can do both at the same time.