I brought my daughter home from the hospital on an unusually hot day in April of 2004. It was the best day of my life up to that point, or at least every other day dimmed in comparison. I had tried for seven years to have a baby, had been through three miscarriages, and was a year shy of my 40th birthday. I was not taking any chances with this little miracle.
Weeks before going to the hospital, I had fretted over the car seat, having spent several sweaty, back-breaking days trying to get that infernal contraption into the car the “proper” way over my enormous belly. My husband would have been happy to do it, but I knew he would not see all the dangers I did. The straps too loose. The angle too steep or not steep enough. I thought about taking the car to the police or fire station to have them do it, but they were men, too.
That car seat was replaced by a convertible booster seat from Eddie Bauer several years later. It remained in the car until sometime last year and the car upholstery has a permanent indention where the seat once was. My brother-in-law noticed it was gone the other day and voiced his surprise. So, you are getting the picture. I have a tendency to be an over-protective mom. Yes, many of my child’s friends had their seats taken out a year before, but my daughter had not hit the height requirement yet; so, you know, I was following the LAW!
I do not want anyone to be confused that I am a complete neurotic nut. I fight these tendencies to smother. My daughter takes gymnastics even though I hyperventilate from the sidelines. She plays softball in the midst of little girls getting broken fingers and whacked in the chest with balls. She rides a bike on gravel and has a nice scar to prove it. Just know that I am VERY observant when it comes to my daughter. I KNOW her. REALLY well.
I sent my daughter to her first day of Kindergarten on a warm, almost Fall day in 2009. You could smell the grapes wafting through the air from the nearby vineyards. We would be picking apples soon. Also in the air was that electrical excitement only experienced on “first” days and Christmas. Mixed with the nervous anticipation was my personal sadness. I was trusting my daughter’s teacher and the principal and the other professionals at her school to look out for my precious child. I lamented that this was a full day program; a half day would be less traumatic. I packed a lunch with a note inside with a smiley face and a heart drawn upon it. I made sure no tears smudged the ink. I prepared a great breakfast. My daughter’s backpack, which was bigger than she, was strapped securely to her tiny back. I cried. I did not care where the tears fell. I distractedly thought for a moment that I had not even owned a backpack until college and that got me thinking about that someday 13 or 14 years from then when I would be leaving her at college, and I cried more. Most moms do, right? Her teacher sent a note home with the parents explaining how she knew it was hard for us but that we should be reassured that she would take good care of our sons and daughters, and I cried even harder.
This is a good place to take a moment to make it perfectly clear that our reasons to homeschool had nothing, absolutely NOTHING, to do with the teachers, the principal, or the support staff at my daughter’s school. They were all wonderful and completely competent educators. We love them. We loved our school family. This is important to say, because some of what will follow will sound like I am blaming teachers. I am just trying to paint a picture. It is important because we are in this education thing together. We need to know what is common as well as what is uniquely problematic or positive.
The first time I started to get a sense that something was not quite right, or at least not what I had expected, was the Kindergarten journal. At first, you tend to think your child is a genius and you wonder how you missed it. She is writing whole paragraphs and pages and you can actually decipher most of it. Then you see the other children’s novels and you begin to think your daughter’s teacher is a genius and you should be nominating her for teacher-of-the-year.
I must admit that, despite my being pleasantly surprised at this new-found skill of my daughter’s, I could not completely enjoy it because I worried that I had been too lax in the pre-school years if they were expected to write journals in Kindergarten. What other things had I missed? Was this why so many parents had held their children back so that you had tiny four-year-olds and humongous six-year-olds in the same Kindergarten class? I had purposely not purchased any of those early reading programs or forced my daughter to learn the names of all the artists and poets and presidents at two-years-old. She had gone to pre-school at the YMCA where she learned to swim and write her letters and use scissors and glue and even learned Spanish and sign language; all in two hours and forty-five minutes three days a week.
But here they were in Kindergarten writing in journals when I was expecting them to be eating paste, learning to write their lower case letters properly, and learning a little phonics in preparation for First Grade when the good stuff kicked in.
Which leads me to the second thing that caused me to be concerned: A robust phonics system was NOT being taught. With such a focus on writing, the lack of phonics really stood out. Most of these kids’ written words were made up of consonants. The consonants represented all sounds. I was told not to worry, that this was normal development. My daughter started writing her letters and numbers backwards, something she had not done in two years of pre-school, and I was given handouts reassuring me that this, too, was normal. If it was normal, why did I have a sick feeling?
I kicked that fear to the curb, figuring that in First Grade they would really ramp up the phonics and the kids would start writing with vowels and would be taught to spell words properly. I knew that my daughter had a tendency to become ingrained in habits very easily and we might have a harder time breaking the habit to spell with consonants only, but we would cross that bridge in First Grade. Of course, if we were unsuccessful, we could move to Georgia (the country) where long strands of consonant clusters are the norm.
There were other non-academic things about Kindergarten that were problematic, like the fact that my daughter came home famished every day because a) she did not have time to eat her lunch in the effective 20 minutes to do so, and b) because they gave a snack at around 10:00 in the morning and served lunch at 11:15. When I picked my daughter up at 3:30, she had had very little to eat since the trail mix or popcorn at 10:00. As a consequence, lunches were either eaten in the car on the way home which meant we ate dinner at 8:00 in the evening or we had dinner early at 4:30. Either way, this one decision to feed snack in the morning rather than the afternoon , which was non-negotiable (I asked) because some people apparently sent their children to school without breakfast, resulted in the entire Kindergarten year being a disruption to our evening meals – and our family time.
On a warm day in June of 2005, my daughter graduated from Kindergarten. We bundled up art work and class projects, passed out thank you cards and gift cards for coffee, gave flowers to those teachers who we were not sure drank coffee, said tearful goodbyes to friends, teachers and parents and drove to the beach. Going straight home felt too sad. Even so, we were excited for summer and the lake and we were even looking forward to what next year would bring in First Grade.
Next time: First Grade. Different or the same?