Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Truth About Back to School

(Fond end of school award rituals captured from years gone by...)

The time honored tradition of back to school holds a variety of emotions for most people I know. With a strong belief that a good education is the key to a better life, we dutifully prepare children for the schedule and routine that will dictate the next nine months of their lives and ours. We do everything that we can to make their life ready for learning - or do we? Today I ponder the truth about "Back to School."

Our entire family was not ready to go back to school. My Real Simple magazine highlights the ritual of one group of mothers who collectively toast the start of a new year, but most of my friends dread it. Literally, at the last possible minute we're cross checking book lists, supply demands and uniform codes - as if life depended on it. Doesn't it though? For our children to be prepared, don't we have to ensure that all of their needs are met? Well, common sense tells me yes. Snarky end of summer blues tells me no.

I secretly look at every person in the mall and wonder if their children can read or write. I know that they will be dressed to meet a fashion standard regardless of uniform code - but I don't know how much this has to do with true learning. I believe in being prepared to learn but I've come to resent the need for new tennis shoes, a new fall wardrobe, or the inevitable list of supplies that could teach a small village I'm sure. My resentment may come because our finances are so tight, or maybe because I hear the coded language that follows the observations that I share. Sometimes I share the observations - wondering is it racism, a matter of class, or both.

1. Why does a child who needs tennis shoes from the donation program get picked up in a Lexus?

2. Why does the backpack drive come complete with parents who have a fresh manicure, pedicure and hair appointment within the last 7 business days?

3. Why does a child who can go 3 weeks without duplicating clothes not carry books home at all? (He did indeed attend the event in #2)

4. Why does a child with free or reduced lunch get dropped off in a late model car?

5. Why are there voucher programs accepted signs now proudly posted on every store I shopped at in the last month - where the average home value is $300K?

You can tell me about the stereotypes I'm making if you want to, but the conversation is starting to bother me too. My neighbor is a school administrator and sighed in disbelief after he told me story after story of the child that they helped...when it seemed as if the parents had not made a better decision - that they could have easily made. Maybe its because I had to listen to a woman tell me why she understood my private school decision because of the lack of "serious rigor" in my Suburban School district that had evolved from "working class people to the west." She was surely serious as I looked at her clueless behind with disbelief. Hello...I would be one of those working class people. The local school performs well, but the lack of diversity just grieved my spirit for my children - couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. It either makes me really dedicated to their education - or a fool for buying what I could get for free. The later is real high on my list some days.

We didn't buy all new school shoes this year - we worked with what we had and supplemented the obvious gaps. We brought new backpacks because the old ones had holes, not because we were excited about this years' selection. We scrambled like crazy people today looking for the components of the "dress uniform" which is worn one day a week - and why you might ask. Because the children who have clothes rolling out of their drawers and closets - have 1 dress uniform each, because we paid 3 sets of tuition in the last month. And although they have what they need to make it through each day - school started on August 11th. We have yet to make the shift from sun and fun to "back to school" - we managed tears with less than a full week of homework completed. Transferring to a new school means new uniforms and countless clothes without a purpose nowadays. Sigh. Hiss. Sigh.

Although no one has come forth to organize the mother's social for my peer group, our networking has begun. Can you pick up the children next week? Can you feed mine on Thursday of this week? Will you tell me the assignment from last Friday? What time is the PTO meeting and who had the audacity to think the dinner hour was smart? So as I see the umpteenth request for donated school supplies, or I see the line at the check out counter for back-to-school essentials, it isn't lost on me that this is only one aspect of preparedness for learning. What about listing good parental guidance and common sense on the list - can we get some of that? I doubt it. Last year I dealt with bullying, mean girl syndrome, racism, and a boatload of things I thought my private Christian school would handle better. Nope. In a true false test you'd be in trouble I tell myself.

1. Breakfast - did I make it? Will they eat it?
2. Sleep - are they showered? How fast can they get in bed? How many hours did they get?
3. Homework - is it written down? Is it completed? Is it correct? What needs to be studied?
4. Activities - are they relevant? Is the time commitment reasonable? Am I asking too much of them? me? husband?
5. Clothing - does it fit? Is it where it needs to be? Is it in the closet, drawer, basket, washing machine, dryer?

I'm astutely aware that the Back to School ritual means different things to different people. I've started my own snarky observations of those around me. School for some is daycare at best. I'm concerned at the core for latch key children, followed by my own reality check that if I'm not careful I'll have kids splattered around the city in aftercare. (Also known as no care in many mom circles.)

As we set the course for this year, ever so slowly, I've got to wonder what will we all learn and what will we all accomplish by the time June rolls around. We do a lot of busy work - but are we teaching the skills, values and lessons that we need to? I feel it every time we put gas in the van, assess the soles on those tennis shoes, write 1 of 3 checks for the privilege of learning...but the real preparation, is that financial at all? Just maybe we should be teaching high expectations, study routines, and cooperative parenting 101, while our children are sent off to learn the state mandated concepts we so aptly do in the few waking hours they have now that Summer is officially over. The Truth about Back to School .... it is starting to appeal to my cynical side for the difference between being "prepared to learn" and capitalism 101, fashionetta 214B, and remedial priorities.

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