Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back to School BLUES.....

I have a paper and pen fetish so I understand with no lack of clarity that my children like school supplies. I'm trying to renew their interest in school as well.

The kids see the ritual of securing Wide Rule Paper, spiral notebooks and an assortment of writing utensils in the same way I used to have "Trapper Keeper Envy" as I walked the aisles of the stores in the 70's. I can remember 30 some years ago, praying that my grandmother would take me school shopping - because she believed in new everything. Toss out the list sent by the school - my grandmother brought new underwear, slips, socks, undershirts, multiple versions of all school supplies imaginable and an assortment of hosiery, purses, hair supplies and earrings too. She didn't believe in new schools too much though, she picked a team and stuck with it. Being prepared meant something very different for my grandmother, as my mother figured out how to pay tuition. (A tradition my grandmother started with private schooling...)

I would hope for my mom to embrace the basics, but I relied on my grandmother for all of the cool choices, including my 2 pair of back of school shoes. I had a difficult elementary life after all - one had to be prepared. On this year's shopping list for said 4, 6 and 8 year olds... a Brand New School. A Black one this time! Thus, I break my week long silence for the Back to School Blues.

We attended a predominately white Christian school for two years, and I must have said 1,001 times, "at least we have the love of God in common." Well, not quite so fast - after two years and a boat load of heartache, we made the switch back to what we know. Our only reason for ever changing schools was a relocation that meant we had to make a new selection. Prior to that we would annually do a cursory scan of the environment in our home state, check test scores, compare tuition, and confirm in our mind that we had made the best possible choice. My husband from a public school background and my lifetime in private schools makes for a great combination. One new realization that we've added to the mix - Diversity does Matter, and saying we have God in common doesn't really cut it when you're alone, isolated and repeatedly subjected to the Caucasian Card. (Yep, when race cards really don't apply and cluelessness rules good sense.)

Anna Quindlen writes an intriguing fact of life article regarding being Black in American, in the latest edition of Newsweek - something that my 8 year old daughter can relate to. It is really pretty bad when a 4th grader understands the peculiar challenges of being Black in a white world, something lost completely on her clueless teacher for the last year.

The tough stuff builds character the article goes on to say, but how much character do you need to build at age 8? We went through more than tough stuff, we went through a regression of resilience, high performance and a strong resolve for science achievement spiraling down the drain. For what? Teasing, lowered expectations, why doesn't your hair (just fill in the blank), you can't be my friend, "I don't see anything wrong", MESS! I was hoping for a great command of the English language, the ability to multiply 3 digit numbers, a practical application of the Scientific Theory...but what we got was a crash course in the difference between being white and financially elite, and being working class and invested. We didn't fit in. The two are not the same

We value diversity and made the mistake in thinking everyone appreciates the value of a classroom more representative of the real world - false assumption. We have effectively traded in the joy of "don't label anything, drive through drop-off and pick-up, room moms akin to the mafia hierarchy, and more 1/2 days than the world knows what to do with" for a starkly different experience. The private Black School experience merits a blog post. Imagine that...they actually want our children. They want our volunteerism. They are invested in keeping us there. We like that change - but there are differences.

1. There will be lots, and lots, and lots of homework. Why? Because the Black private school ethic is different. There is an urgency in good education. They believe that children can, should, will and better learn. I was used to being told that children should play and be children...but it didn't work. While my daughter was busy being a child, she was regressing from a teacher who expected nothing from her and rewarded her occasional compliance.

2. Expectations are different. When a child who scores phenomenally on standardized tests and receives a final term grade of a C with a crack pot - well it makes you wonder. Communication at a parent level is different when the school has a partnership with you - when you are a number that doesn't really matter - you are told, "no one has ever looked at a 3rd grade report card in real life." I still wonder if that is something any intelligent person should tell a parent paying for education.

3. You label, well everything and the kitchen sink. No lie, we labeled for more than an hour on Sunday and I'm still believing there is a pencil, folder or paper clip that escaped our home without a Sharpie or label imprint. This is definitely in stark contrast to the "group supplies" approach. But, I think I'd rather label all of my Target, Walmart and Staples loot - than have my child labeled, or be labeled as "one of those troublemaker parents." (My pic is probably in their office!)

4. Electronic prowess. I have landed where there is a clear and consistent expectation that my children will believe in their value, their ability to learn, their level of excellence and their obligation to show it. We'll just have to do it sending SOS signals. When I got a supply list that included a disposable camera, I was grieving the days of digital camera access for every administrator and staff member in each classroom. I may have to do just 1 PTO fundraiser, just 1.

And although I could easily go on - it has led to Back to School Blues. Not because I mourn the routine or being away from my kids - I don't. I mourn the experience of families like ours in environments where their children are not encouraged, educated or esteemed. Sure, I know that there are failing school systems everywhere - we moved from Detroit mind you. But, there are still others, paying for and seeking alternative education with marginal success. Although we paid to attend one of the schools perceived to be a tremendous community asset, we'll be countering the negative impact for years to come. I wonder how many others are in the same boat?

We teach our children, embrace being their first teacher, pay for access to the "best and the most recognized" ...only to realize all that glitters is not gold. I'll sacrifice some of the nuances that I will admittedly miss, to eliminate the nuisances that were slowly eroding the potential of a tremendous kidlet. I am thinking simultaneously about Akeelah and the Bee and the swim movie Pride - and I believe that both will serve as entertainment this week. Before we prepare children for this wonderful "melting pot" of experiences that will await them - we must invest in their demonstrated understanding that they are high achievers, wonderfully gifted, capable of all things. As Anna Quindlen noted - they get tougher because of what they go through - but they shouldn't have to be battered black and blue by insensitive and unskilled teachers to learn. For some child and his/her family this school year - they'll be battling more than academic achievement this year. They'll be battling for their esteem - and I wouldn't wish that on anyone - no matter what race, socio-economic group, religion, whatever. (except the haint that tried to steal my daughters' esteem...I can think of a few choice battles she rightfully earned.)

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