My son started kindergarten this year. The first week
he resisted it--kicking and squirming with all his strength in my arms
as I placed him inside the door. Towards the end of the second week,
I looked at him from behind the chain link fence where the parents
stand, as he reluctantly, but obediently stood in line waiting, looking
small against the dusty rose wall of the large city school. The other
children excitedly waved to their parents across the asphalt, while
Leif fixed his accusative eyes on me without making a gesture. The
waiting parents took note of his compliance, saying hopefully, "Look, he's going in by himself today." I
watched long enough to see his body swallowed up into the classroom and
then the heavy, institutional door clicked shut.
What happens behind that door is a mystery to me. Leif will only occasionally
reveal the details in spurts here and there--usually whispered in the
darkness of his bedroom before he goes to sleep at night. His school
life is a part of him that I don't really know and will never know
well. The person that develops there among his peers and teachers will
be separate from the one I know at home. My only part in this is selecting
the school--and being vigilant.
The man who created kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel,
produced developmental toys which would teach children certain concepts.
He referred to these toys as "gifts." There are twenty progressive
toys, but only the first five were published in Froebel's lifetime.
From brightly colored yarn balls to wooden blocks, the first five
represent the exploration of solids, graduating step by step in complexity:
color, shape, number, extent, and symmetry. Searching for a good
pre-school the year before Leif entered kindergarten, I hunted for
a more modern descendent to these nineteenth century ideas and turned
to another scientist, Maria Montessori. With Montessori, I was attracted
to the toys that taught children abstract ideas in a concrete manner.
Simple and well designed, they are a stark contrast to the usual
plastic electronic fare offered up by the corporate toy stores. It
made so much sense.
In the fall of the year before kindergarten I enrolled
Leif in a Montessori school. Although I had occasional short
talks on the phone with his teacher, it wasn't until a sunny May
afternoon eight months later that I arrived for the first official
parent conference. Parent conferences at his previous school had
been a breeze--a listing of his strengths and positive development.
However, I soon saw by the look exchanged between his stiff and uneasy
Montessori teachers that this conference would be different. They
got to the point: Leif was not ready for kindergarten, certainly
not in a public school. He won't sing in the music class; he won't
respond during attendance; he doesn't engage with the developmental
toys--only the computer, storybooks, and puzzles. The only time he
comes into his own is during recess. They had evidence: a poorly-cut
paper autumn leaf executed on the first day of school and a cut and
paste ditto showing the sequence of how a flower grows--the seed was
planted after the root growth.
Not one word of appreciation for him. Their dry, severe voices had
nothing astonishing to report. And that seemed curious to me because
there is so much that is wonderful about him--his strong sense of self,
his ingenious play, his laughing blue eyes, the smear of freckles on
his nose, the pure sunlight in his smile. After 8 months with him,
they would know these qualities well.
What I did understand from our talk was that he truly
hated his school. He had told me this many times, but I hadn't listened.
A hot, red feeling flooded every cell of my body. Why hadn't I listened? How
could I dismiss his aversion for this school as a difficult adjustment?
Why hadn't I been more observant? How could I have left him to cope
with a teacher who I now saw as sourly rigid? I should have seen
what an abrasive fit it would be for him. I resolved to never let
this happen again.
But there is actually a word for what the Montessori
teachers were recommending for my square peg child. It's called redshirting.
Boys with summer birthdays are held back for "an extra year of childhood." It's
a common practice now; I had heard other parents saying that they planned
to do this with their boys, but Leif had always seemed right on target
to me. I consulted our neighbor, a kindergarten teacher, who strongly
advised against retention. There is no research to support that it
helps and these redshirted boys risk low self-esteem, poor attitudes
toward school, and increased risk of becoming a high school dropout.
Leif started kindergarten in public school right on schedule, wearing
a green shirt.
Over the summer, he had cut out shapes: monster masks, stay-out-of-his-room
signs, and a red and green circular target for his arrows. I noticed
that he preferred his left hand, but other than that, his fine motor
skills seemed strong. With play-doh he created three-dimensional objects:
coiled snakes and pinched roses.
The first week in kindergarten, I discovered that I had much to learn.
There was homework, a lot of it: If you have nine coins that make up
a dollar and one is a quarter, what are the rest of the coins? It was
my job to sit with him to hear him read words and do worksheets. Having
been a good student, myself, the idea of unfinished homework was abhorrent.
My parenting values were cast aside as I found myself reduced to threats
and other manipulative tactics to get the all the blank lines completed
with his scrawled penciled answers. I could see why parents were tempted
to retain their children--to circumvent the escalation of academics
into kindergarten. Certainly this curriculum belonged in the first
I also discovered that kindergarten students are graded--with numbers,
1 - 4. On his first report card, Leif's 4s were in math--his number
concepts were exceptional. His 2s were behavior-related; sometimes
he hid inside the plastic tunnel of the outdoor play structure and
refused to come in from recess.
The strong point of Leif's school was that he would
have the same teacher kindergarten through first grade. He had the
opportunity to develop a deep relationship with her. And I had learned
my lesson. Ever vigilant, I met with Ms. Ortega the first week of
school, I volunteered in the classroom once a week, and I had frequent
conversations with her after school. Leif began to say "good morning" during
attendance and he learned to tell his teacher if he wanted more recess
time, because sometimes she let him have it. He became engaged in
his class work, developed friends, and seemed to truly enjoy school.
His teacher seemed to understand him; she celebrated his eccentricities
and allowed him to evolve in his own unique way.
Kindergarten was going well, but behind the scenes the school administration
was busy shifting the working program around. When the changes where
announced to the parents, we discovered that our children would lose
Ms. Ortega to an added kindergarten class in the fall. It was as if
the center was lost. The assurance I had that Leif would have a good
first grade experience was now up in the air. But this time, I was
ready to put up a fight to preserve the good relationship my son had
developed with his teacher. I mounted a campaign to keep Ms. Ortega
with the class. I wrote up a petition, had every family sign, and arranged
a meeting with the school administration. I was inspired by stories
of parents succeeding in struggles against massive school districts.
But ultimately we lost because as the administrator said it didn't
really matter what the parents wanted. This was public school.
The fifth Froebel gift is a collection of wooden blocks, an extension
of the previous two. It contains a surprise: some of the cubes are
made up of triangular blocks. Parts make up a whole; fractions are
learned. Kindergarten has been an exercise of finding the right pieces
that will fit together to make up a whole: the teacher, the environment,
and the curriculum all in perfect balance with the temperament of the
child. I succeeded in finding that equilibrium for my son in kindergarten
and have to trust that by my being vigilant, it will happen again.