Last night was the Big Kindergarten orientation. We walked in with misgivings and concerns. We expected/hoped to have them appeased. We wanted to leave feeling ridiculous in ourselves, in our worries. We wanted the school to show us how awesome it is. We walked out discussing home schooling and wondering whether any private schools would still take on a charity student.
Let me ask: what does orientation mean to YOU?
How about this: an introduction, as to guide one in adjusting to new surroundings, employment, activity, or the like.
Here's what it means to our local elementary school: Keep parents waiting outside in heat and humidity until 6:00 on the dot at which point you throw open the doors, herd them through the entry hall like cattle and then...that's it. We were ushered into the school where it was every man for himself.
We stood at the end of the entry hall and noted with dismay that the main corridor split off into two directions. We had no idea where to go, who to see, or even who to ask. That would have been nice to know.
"Which way?" I dumbly asked my husband, as if he knew.
"I dunno, a lot of people are going left, let's try that."
"Okay," I said, thinking if this were a bridge...
We shepherded the two wee girlies to the left. And swam along with the hordes of people, big and small. Some of them stopped at a wall and gazed at some paper hung there. It was a mystery what it was and the purpose it served. That would have been nice to know.
"What's this?" I dumbly asked my husband, as if he knew.
"Looks like paper hung on the wall," he explained.
"Thanks," I said sarcastically, edging my way forward to see. "Oh, look, it's class lists." I jockeyed forward and leaned over a woman who was not gifted with a height much above five feet, as I was. Tall is always a blessing in these matters.
"Here!" I cried triumphantly after about ten minutes of searching, "Here's Patience's name!"
"Great," my husband called back over the crowd, "What's that mean?"
"I don't know, but I think she's in the canine class!"
"They don't name classes in elementary school, Jules," he called back.
Hmmm. Probably true. Oh I see, it is a ROOM number with grade designation. That would have been nice to know.
We swarmed a bit down a hall, and noted more small pieces of paper with teachers' names on it. Not ours. We swarmed down another hall and eventually found our teacher's classroom. Not easy. It's a jig, jag and jog from the main corridor. There were no maps, no directions, nothing. That would have been nice to know.
We walked in and I glanced around the room, overwhelmed, largely with confusion. There were a couple of families in there already. The kids rushed in to check out the centers. As I would have guessed, Persistence made herself right at home. Patience, as I would have guessed, stood in place a bit longer, slowly surveying the room. She decided to try the home center first, and went there to investigate. That's what Patience does: investigate. Other children madly, loudly, happily played, even interacting with one another. Patience would quickly scurry away if another child came up to her, or would turn her back or shoulder as a sort of shield between herself and the other child.
She ran back to me and hid at my legs after a person spoke to her. "Hey, honey," I encouraged, "It's okay to say hello. These are the children who will be in your class starting Monday. You don't have to become best friends right now, but you do need to use Manners and be Polite. When someone says hello, say hello back." She shook her head hard no. Realizing her ally had abandoned her, she gave me an evil eye and walked to the book center.
My husband and I exchanged aggrieved looks. To anyone else, her careful investigation of the room might pass for comfort in the space. It is curiosity, but we also knew she had shelled herself up. The more crowded the room got, the thicker her shell got. She rebuffed every child. I can't force her to be friendly; I can only guide her to ways she can at least be nice. I walked over to join her at the book center, and she happily displayed two of her favorite books, The Napping House and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.
"Patience," I said calmly, "It hurts feelings when you give mean looks and turn away when someone says hello. That's not okay. You don't have to be buddies, but you do have to be polite. When someone says hello, wave or say hello. Before leaving, wave again or say goodbye. These aren't Strangers, they are just people you don't know. But they are children who will be in your class and you need to be polite."
She gave me her usual defiant, inscrutable stare and I tried hard to tamp down on the aggravated impatience I get with her in this matter. I swallowed the words that wanted to tumble out, "For God's sake girl, get a grip! It's a CHILD and all she did was say HELLO very quietly and shyly...she could make a nice friend, stop being so RUDE, say HELLO. It's not an option, YOU SAY HELLO!!!!!"
At this point, my understanding is eroded. There is nothing wrong with her. She's old enough, it seems, to begin using manners and being aware of how she affects others. She need to be kind. I always tell her this. She nevertheless too frequently skips through life only self-aware, not aware of others. As her mother, I worry, and wish I were better skilled, I suppose, although I wonder if that asks that I be more of a sculptor than parent, re-molding her from what she is into what I know the world expects her to be.
I respect and value who she is, as she is. I try to make sure she knows this, and does the same for herself. But somewhere I have failed so far to communicate that she must do the same for others. She can't always expect the world to bend around her, accommodate her way.
I know all too well that it will not.
And I also know that begins now, in kindergarten.
I noticed that amazingly we do not know one single child in this class. I am simultaneously relieved and frightened. I know if there was one familiar face she'd settle down more easily. I also know she'd latch on to that friend to the exclusion of everyone else.
If you don't have one, it's hard to help you understand how painful it is to watch your child in a scene of children like this, knowing that yours is the one out of sync with the rest, and yours is the one who will have her heart hurt time and again because of it.
I wish I had words for how broken my heart is over this. I wish I could explain how difficult it is to know that it is my job to help guide her in life, to give her the tools she needs, but to find that I lack the tools I need to do this. I mentally and emotionally wring my hands time and again about this. I read, I ask, I try. I feel, too often, like a helpless spectator, watching a boat without paddles, rushing downstream. Do not mistake this for giving up, it's not. It just feels, sometimes, as if all my efforts are for naught.
In moments and situations such as this, I often second-guess myself, at least for a minute.
I gave Patience's back a little rub and walked over to my husband, where he still stood by the door. Other than parenting, we were still unsure about what we ought to be doing.
While we stood there uncertainly, some parents entered behind me. They stopped to talk to the woman standing by some cabinets. She had smiled at me when we walked in, but said and did no more than that so I assumed she was one of the moms.
The parents introduced themselves and their children, and I thought, "Dear God, I've already blown it...introductions. Damn. I hate that. Friendly, right, be friendly. Pretend you are not shell-shocked and make nice with people." As my husband and I swung to do the pretty with the other parents, I heard the woman say, "Hi Small Child, I'm Mrs. Kindergarten Teacher."
And my husband said, "Holy crap. Is that the teacher? My God. Should she have a chair? Is she...about to drop a baby, or more???"
"Don't assume things," I hissed. "After childbearing the belly is..." and then I got a good gander and well. Sometimes there is only one assumption to make after all.
My husband and I froze and stared at her clearly very pregnant belly in stupefied fascination and horror. Here we were already freaking out about how rough our daughter's transition will be into kindergarten (and our own, let's be honest), knowing how slow to warm she is, how difficult it is for her to build trust and relationships, the behavior we'll have to deal with until she settles down and so forth and...well, her teacher is clearly a short timer. We looked at each other, utterly distraught.
"Oh look, you're pregnant!" we heard a brave parent exclaim, "When are you due?"
"Beginning of October," we heard her reply.
One month in, max. She reassured the parent she was speaking to that she'd return but my husband and I sat and counted the number of transitions and months of pain this would mean for our family and felt sick.
I felt like a rapidly deflating balloon. All my reassurances to myself how FINE this would be and how FINE it would go and how FINE we'd all be...poof.
We hung out in the room for a bit, trying to digest and process everything. I am a person who plans. I expect plans. I like plans. I expect plans to be communicated. I want to know what I am supposed to be doing. I need to know. So it was shell-shocking to stand in that classroom with a teacher who stood to the side and waited for us to figure it all out, I guess.
I admit that yesterday was not one of my good days. I'd had to take a lot of medicine to try to compensate and was feeling like a sort of pale hologram of myself. However, I wasn't so badly off, and that doesn't explain my sharp husband feeling the same way: lost.
After a while, during which we sort of waited for It to Start, the teacher called out over the din, "There are papers outside, and I need parents to sign up on those sheets."
Another mom and I hurried out to the hall, both probably glad to have something to do. The teacher hustled behind us, suddenly invested in what we were doing.
"Here," she said, pointing to some markers, "Just fill out all the information with one of these, on that sheet."
I turned to see, with great dismay, that she was asking me to put down all of my daughter's private information on a gigantic sheet of paper, large enough for astronauts on the ISS to see, with a wicked bright marker that probably glowed in the dark. We already wrote most of this on a registration form, I thought, and at the last school hey every school we write this on paper they file for privacy.
Nevertheless, I dutifully wrote out the information. I hesitated at the "how your child will normally arrive and depart from school" block. Other parents had queued up behind me, creating a traffic jam in the hallway. I felt pressured. I carefully wrote, "Car or walk, with mom or friend," and felt worried. At preschool you carefully write in names of people who are allowed to pick up your child on an information form, and they have to go to the office, and show a photo ID, even if they've been there before. I like that. It's logical, organized, controlled, safe.
This feels...crazy. It hit me like a ton of bricks how difficult this was going to be, transitioning into public school. I'd suspected, remember, but had hoped to be proven silly. Everyone who had already traveled this path had told me I was silly, and it was no big deal. It's like childbirth, I thought, everyone forgets how hard it is.
After about twenty minutes or so, I started to regain my wits. I thought of a lot of questions, now. Probably the exact same ones the other parents who had clustered around the teacher thought of. A little presentation would not have been amiss, I thought.
My husband steered me to a low table covered in papers. "I think we're supposed to look at these, maybe take some." That would have been nice to know.
I saw some information sheets, and some sign-up sheets for snacks and parent helpers. I signed up for both. Took one of each of the others. Then I returned to the front of the room, to the teacher.
"Hi," I said, introducing myself, "I have a couple of questions?"
"Okay," the teacher said.
"I was wondering about..." I began, only to be cut off by two mothers who pushed their way into the room, grabbed the teacher and seized the conversation.
"How are you!" cried one to the teacher. "How are you feeling!" cried the other. Then they peppered her with questions about her pregnancy, life, family and so forth. Finally one said, "Are you having a shower?" And when the teacher nodded, she said, "Oh INVITE ME, I've been collecting stuff for you all summer."
I stood dumbly to the side. I would have moved off, but, well, in the crowded room there wasn't much "off" to move to, and anyway, I didn't want to lose my slot by the teacher, lose my chance to ask her the questions I hadn't yet had a chance to, when I finally regained her attention. So there I stood, trapped, to the side of a conversation whose participants utterly ignored my presence.
The teacher turned to me after a minute, "These are my room mothers from last year," she explained. I stared at the gushing women and I knew them. Well, their sort anyway. Hyperinvolved moms, the pushy bossy girls grown up to be inserting pushy adults. Competimommies, with a focus on popularity and being needed, not just themselves, but also their kids. I'd run across them before, but only one at a time, and rather infrequently.
I'm in a big pond now, I thought, and there will be tons of these. I know they thrive in this type of environment, so they'll be plentiful and visible. A tangible craving for the homey, safe confines of my boutique preschool washed over me. If I felt it this keenly, I can only imagine how the kids feel.
I hope the teacher likes the sort of mom who is more ploughhorse than thoroughbred. I don't snort and stamp and look real pretty, but I can cut through rocky soil.
By the time the women moved on---finished completely stamping on my conversation---and the teacher turned to me, I'd lost most of my questions. It felt a little pointless anyway.
We'll figure it out, either the easy way or the hard way, I thought, and anyway, we'll have about three weeks of this teacher, then another one, then this one back again.
We decided to leave.
On the way out we saw a few friends, including Patience's best little friend, who was sulking impressively in the hallway, "I wanted Patience in MY CLASS," she managed to choke out. Her mother said, "She's pretty upset, even though she's got other friends." I looked at the little girl. Poor thing, she's really upset, I realized, honestly doing her best to hold back tears. My heart broke for her. Patience paused to pat her on the shoulder. "We were just looking at the gym," the dad added.
My husband and I looked at one another, dismayed all over again. The rest of the school. We'd forgotten.
"This is a bizarre layout of the building, I don't know what crack those architects were smoking or why the school district would want something this convoluted," he said, professionally irked because this should have been his project and the competition got it. But I agreed; I've seen his schools and they are lovely. Very organized, logical traffic flow...tons of signage.
With minimal fumbling, we managed to find the art room, the music room, the cafeteria and the gym (with a carpeted floor, surprise to me but none to my husband who said this is common now). Then we found the playground and let the kids run crazy. My neighbor and I planned a walking group when the weather cooled. I saw some more friends. One mentioned the library and I mentally slapped myself again. Of all the rooms, how could I forget that one. Then I felt annoyed that I'd had to think of all of this on my own, with no guidance. Then I felt irritated with myself for being annoyed. Perhaps this is SOP. I hear public school is sink or swim. Maybe this is some sort of test, you know, how well can you manage in the Big School. No more hand holding, Dorothy, you aren't in Kansas any longer.
We concluded by walking quickly through the library and left. More disheartened than when we had walked in.
We had figured it out. We had gotten some feet under us. We knew we would continue to improve. We knew that we and Patience would settle in and do fine. Fine enough is another question for another day. But we also felt a lack of trust in the school, because this felt too chaotic and disorganized. We don't believe that the school will do all it can to make our settling in as painless as possible. We don't trust that the school will be there to offer a supporting or helping hand when needed. We don't feel a partnership with the school after this night. In fact, we feel it is an obstacle to overcome. We feel confident that we'll figure this out and do fine because we believe in ourselves, and this is the only source we believe we can depend on. So far.
I can't tell you how fish out of water we felt last night. I can't find words to express how out of our place, time and element we felt. Perhaps...we ought to pay attention to this and not pass it off as simply charting unfamiliar territory. I saw how things are, I think, last night, and I saw how we needed to be to succeed there and to be honest? I think it might be more than simply getting used to something. I'm not sure I ever want to get so used to something that I change into...well, something I'm not, and expect the same from my child.
I hope next week will run better, and it probably will. I'm sure this will all be a faded memory soon. I'm sure we'll be old hands at this before we know it.
I just wish I had certainty that this was so because the night had gone well, instead of simply having faith because I believe in our family's abilities.
I just wish I wasn't left wondering if we made a big, big mistake putting our trust in the public school as the best environment for our daughter, our precious daughter with her grand mind. I'm trusting this school to be the partner in parenting my child. Perhaps we ought to have courted one another a bit longer; that's a pretty heavy commitment. It's not all just me, and I know that. I want her fostered and built up, not crushed under the wheels of a public system.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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