My Story

I have written about my thoughts on my daughters’ education, but haven’t provided any background on the education that I received and what I lived through.

I went to a private school from grades K-4 and 5-8.  The break was a year of fifth grade at a public school.  I was significantly younger than my classmates and holding me back seemed like the right idea.  In Kindergarten I had a wonderful teacher and lots of friends.  I remember spending time tracing our outlines on huge pieces of paper and riding on turtle riders down the blacktop at the playground.  Kindergarten me was pretty convinced that school was going to be amazing.

That proved true until third grade.  My teacher was domineering and used her fair share of humiliation when she caught a student making a mistake.  I made (and still make) lots of mistakes.  I misspelled the word ‘color’ as ‘colar’ once and she announced to the whole class that I couldn’t spell something that simple correctly.  As an adult, it doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but for a kid that made me feel about two inches tall.  The school nurse got used to me coming into her office with a stomach ache.  I wasn’t a big fan of school that year.  I didn’t realize how much worse it would end up getting.

Middle school was when it changed from loving my friends but disliking my teacher to living in hell.  Girls can be cruel and my classmates made it a point to show me that in spades.  In seventh and eighth grades I was bullied.  Not the ‘she didn’t like my shoes and pointed at me’ bullied.  It was the ‘these kids are freaking psychopaths and the teachers don’t care’ bullying.  In seventh grade, rumors were spread that I was sleeping with all the boys at our brother school.  I was called ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ ‘trash,’ ‘bitch’ and about anything else you can think of.  I was told I was a waste of space, my family was poor (we weren’t but it was a school where that was one of the worst things you could be), and that I was too stupid to ever do anything.  It was hell.

My parents are amazing people and did the best they could to save me.  I remember the summer after seventh grade they tried everything in their power to talk me into changing schools.  I didn’t want to feel like I let the bullies win, so I went back into battle.  In eighth grade, the teachers would ask why I didn’t try harder to make people like me.  They told me it was my fault that I didn’t have friends.  That was also the year that a group of girls tried to pay a group of guys to gang rape me.  These were not people I wanted as friends.

I left after that year – there wasn’t any reason to care if the mean girls won.  My safety was more important than going back.  My parents made it clear that the decision was no longer in my hands.  I was suicidal, depressed, and hated everything about learning.  Learning meant school, school meant hell; I had no need for it.  As an adult, I look back on that and am amazed that I lived.  If social media were around, I wouldn’t have.  I could go home and not hear the things being said.  If it were now, those words would follow me into my bedroom instead of being stopped at the front door.

The K-8 years were only a small part of my education, but they left a lasting impression.  It took almost 6 years after I finished high school (which I didn’t have a choice about) before I went to college with any feeling of belonging.  Even now, there is a sense that I have to be cautious around people stemming from my time in school.

This experience should never happen to anyone.  This is where my mind goes when I see the stories of kids being badly bullied in school.  This is what causes kids to commit suicide to get away from hell.  This is what I fight against to make sure my children never come close to dealing with it.  This is teachers failing kids.  It’s kids failing to be part of a community – a breakdown that starts with the adults.  My daughters will be raised in a community of learning and understanding, not an ‘everyone for themselves’ environment where students are pumped full of facts while the important things are ignored

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I sent my child to school with hopes and dreams and a backpack.  She was a kind child who didn’t throw tantrums.  She put her dishes in the sink without being asked and she wouldn’t dream of hurting her sister, no matter how frustrated she was.  She went to bed without complaint, woke up and got dressed without being asked, and talked to me about how everyone’s job is important.  She was excited to start school and had an amazing sense that she wanted to be there.  She walked up the steps onto the bus that first day thinking that this would be the best experience of her life.

 

It became harder to get her awake and out the door as the weeks went on.  Mornings went from a relaxed two hours to a rushed 45 minutes of trying to get everyone fed, packed, and dressed.  She had friends at first.  Unfortunately, as the months passed the girls went from liking her to trying to control her.  She wanted to play with the Ariel puzzle and the other girls were playing with marbles.  She didn’t want to play with the marbles, but she didn’t want to get made fun of for liking Ariel.  She asked me one night, “Mom, do you think if I decided to like what they want me to like that they’d start to like me too?”  The child that I trusted the school with 100 days ago would have done what she wanted and been confident in her decision.

 

She was off this week for winter break.  She cried about kids being mean to her in school, acted out, screamed, thrown tantrums, worried about not being around us when school starts up again, and generally been difficult.  Several times I found her staring at her class picture and crying.  She’s so determined to be good at school that all the stress and anxiety is building up and coming out in her behavior at home.  She told us that she’s a failure.  We’ve never told her that.  We’ve never insinuated that.  SHE CALLED HERSELF A FAILURE AT 5.  She told me that she wishes her bully would die.  That’s so far outside the bounds of an acceptable thing for her to say.  It took a minute for the shock to wear off before I could deal with it.  What the hell is going on during the school day that a child, an amazing kid, would say these things.  It’s heartbreaking.

 

We’re done.  Finished.  Bye-bye.  This stops now.  Her Dad and I talked about it and she’s been pulled from her school.  She isn’t going to have her self, that amazing thing that makes her her, strangled and standardized down to a kid who doesn’t play how she wants for fear of alienating other kids.  We will find the homeschool groups and activities that she will learn positive things from.  She’ll learn about apples from an orchard, not a book.  She’ll see a real farm, not a video.  She will be taught how to be part of a family and community while also being taught the wonderment of her.  She will never again tell me that she doesn’t know anything and is stupid.  Her education is looking up.

Mayhem’s Education

I haven’t yet written about my younger daughter.  She is three and not in school which makes me feel like there isn’t anything to say about her education.  The truth is she learns just as much as her sister does only in a different environment.  She spends all day with me going to PTO events, playgroups, running errands, and helping me around the house.  I don’t do flashcards with her.  I don’t drill her on her letters.  There aren’t any worksheets.  I’ve had people ask if I was worried about her ‘getting behind’ –  whatever that means for a three-year-old.

 

She learns through play, that’s her medium.  She’s too young to have much of an attention span, and frankly too chaotic.  Her nickname is Mayhem as building and destroying things seems to be her main pastime.  She practices writing by drawing circles and straight lines, but only when she feels like picking up a pencil.  Coloring doesn’t occur inside the lines here, but neither does life.  Her favorite thing to draw is a windstorm which means she scribbles all over the page.  Earlier I wrote about my oldest coloring and cutting a leaf.  Mayhem was there too; she just drew a scribble-circle on the paper.  When the adults tried to tell her to focus on the leaf, she informed them that she was putting it in a storm.

 

In a few years if we send her to school, then she can have her days of worksheets and inside the lines and flashcards.  She’s a full-time kid, not a student.  This doesn’t mean she isn’t being taught.  She doesn’t have chores in the house, she has responsibilities.  We have a dog and she has the responsibility of letting the dog out and in and feeding her.  She hands me the dishes from the dishwasher and she gets the ingredients from the cupboard when it’s time to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  In those activities she’s being taught how to take care of herself and be part of a family.

 

I can tell by watching that her mind doesn’t ever stop.  Grocery shopping is an event.  She wants to learn about everything, so we talk about all the fruits and vegetables – how they grow and what we can make with them.  At the store with live lobsters she asks the employees to take a lobster out so she can pet it and we talk about why it has claws.  She is fascinated with how various animals protect themselves, that’s a constant source of discussion.  We’ve watched videos of different animals eating as she likes learning about what their diets consist of.  And while I’ve never formally taught her any vocabulary, her’s is considered advanced by her doctor through me talking to and with her constantly.

 

This isn’t right for everyone, but it is for us.  I get asked how I know she’s learning anything.  I see it in her train tracks that span the upstairs and in her shows that she has her stuffed animals put on.  For that matter, even if she isn’t that won’t stunt her academic growth forever.  She’ll have plenty of time for formal learning.  If there was a quality non-academic preschool in the area, she would likely go.  She only gets so many years before academics start, why speed that up?  She is going to build her education on the foundation of life lessons that will serve her well, or at least that’s the hope.

Emotional Safety

As a society, we do everything we can to protect our kids.  People have started stepping into other’s parenting choices to do what they can to save other people’s children too.  We have babies sleep on their backs to try and prevent SIDS, we debate if children should be rear-facing in their car seats until they’re four to help keep them safer in a car wreck.  There are discussions about baby monitors and breathing monitors and people call the cops when an eight-year-old walks home alone two blocks.  It seems like we’re wildly (overly) concerned with the safety of children, ours and others.

 

Today I was thinking of how we handle a child who is suicidal.  Too often, I hear people say that suicidal thoughts are just someone looking for attention.  Even cutting is considered to be ‘attention-seeking lite’ in a way.  We look out for a child’s safety in so many ways, why not try to keep them safe from themselves?  Mental illness still has such a stigma around it that people would prefer to leave alone an obviously hurting child instead of risking their death.  Even if the child (and for that matter adult) is just looking for attention, if they’re that desperate why not give it to them?  These are kids who are obviously hurting.  There is a problem, it should be talked about.

 

When society addresses mental health, it tends to be all talk and no action.  My daughter has brought projects home on nutrition, stranger danger, fire safety, and exercise, but they haven’t talked about mental health.  Maybe it’s because she’s young, at least I hope that’s the case.  I fear that it won’t be covered at all, or if it is it won’t be covered well.  If it’s anything like my time in school, mental health will be glossed over and mentioned in passing in fifth grade so the block can be checked. 

 

America has an ongoing conversation (I unfortunately don’t think it rises to the level of debate) about sex education – how young it should start and what the curriculum should be.  Why isn’t there a great debate to make sure the best emotional education is being taught too?  Why aren’t we as parents demanding that this issue is addressed by the schools, and addressed well.  Sadly, I would guess that most children aren’t learning about it at home either.  These are the hard conversations that we have to have with our kids.  The hardest ones are the most essential.  We owe it to them.

Liebster Nomination

In the blogging world, there’s something called the Liebster Award for new bloggers.  It recognizes people just starting out in a ‘pat on the back’ way.  I have been nominated for it by Celina at QuirkingitOut.com (Thank you!), and as part of that I was given a set of questions to answer.  My answers follow and my nominations for the award follow those.

1. What inspires you?
Most of my blog is about issues my child is dealing with at school, so a great deal of my inspiration comes from watching her. She’s smart and funny, and is just quirky enough to have issues fitting in. It’s wonderful watching her grow, and heartbreaking watching her try and be like others while keeping track of herself. I’m also inspired by what I read. There are some amazing books out there (I’m finishing Most Likely to Succeed right now) and they make me see things differently. My final inspiration, and one of the biggest that I have, is my husband. He challenges what I think and how I see the world. We don’t have a marriage where we always agree on everything, but rather one where we both hold our own. Discussing things with him makes me have to clarify my thoughts and arguments, and not infrequently realize that my original position wasn’t quite right.

2. If you could visit me in Paris, what’s one thing we would have to do?

During Spring Break when I was in tenth grade I visited Paris with my sister. My mom told her to make sure I saw the Musee d’Orsay, but we ran out of time. Instead, she took me to a postcard stand outside the Louvre and showed me postcards of “the 10 best paintings in the Musee.” I was told to tell our parents that we’d actually gone to the museum so they wouldn’t get mad. If I were to visit you in Paris, that’s where we’d go – it’s on my bucket list.

3. What is your biggest goal with your blog?

My blog started as something I was going to write almost as a journal. As I’ve written more and more, that’s changed. Now, I see it as a place to better my writing as I head into graduate school. I’ve also been asked if I’d ever consider publishing a book of essays, and my blog is a place to start collecting them and clarifying what I want to write about. With that said, I still want to keep it a calm place for me to go and reset my head when I’m having a rough day.

4. What is your biggest fear?

My biggest fear has always been failure. Unfortunately, for the first thirty or so years of my life that fear meant that I didn’t do anything. Over the past few years, I’ve started putting myself out there (the fact that I even have a blog is an indication of that) and it’s been interesting where that’s taken me. There are still days where I want to hide, because if I hide from everything I can’t fail at anything.

5. Would you rather be wealthy and stuck in one place, or poor but able to go anywhere?

I would rather travel. The world is a fascinating place and that’s something that all the money in the world can’t teach you if you don’t ever go anywhere. Looking things up on the internet isn’t the same as finding out what the smell of the docks in Charleston, SC is. Pictures are nice, but they don’t do justice to the look of the Mojave Desert when the heat is so bad that it makes everything start to look shaky.

6. Donuts or coffee?

Coffee. You can’t be awake enough to find the donuts if you haven’t had your morning coffee.

7. Most embarrassing moment?

I wore a grey, smocked sweat suit to school one day in second grade. While that should have been embarrassing enough in itself, I spilled spaghetti all over myself at lunch and was made to wear my stained clothes for the rest of the day. I still remember the feeling of spending the day covered in lunch, which wasn’t good to begin with. It was years before I ate spaghetti again.

8. How do you start your day?

I start my day with a 5 am workout – either the rowing machine or abs. I hate to exercise, but I’m determined to get in shape this year. With two kids it’s the only time I can be sure they won’t bother me. That’s followed with coffee (sweet, sweet coffee) and breakfast. Then there’s the insanity of getting a five-year-old to the bus stop with a three-year-old in tow. The most important thing in all of my morning is the hug and kiss from my husband and checking in with each other before the day gets out of hand.

9. What do you do when you don’t feel like writing?

When I don’t feel like writing, I read. I love my books and getting lost in them. I read almost exclusively non-fiction, mainly education or politics/history. Usually something I read can tweak my head into finding something to write about.

10. What’s the absolute best thing to watch on Netflix?

I’m a politics and history person, so my go-to is West Wing. It’s brilliantly written and acted. I think I’ve watched the whole series 4 or 5 times.

11. Which of your dreams/goals scares you?

Of everything I want to do, writing a book scares me the most. It’s nerve-wracking to write something and put it out there for other people to read. It’s a strange enough feeling with my blog, but publishing something that could be found on Amazon or in Barnes and Noble terrifies me. Through that fear, though, I can see how amazing it would feel to be able to walk into the store and see my name on something that will get picked up and (hopefully) appreciated by someone I’ll never meet except across my words.

My nominations are:

hardcorehope.com (Rose Fischer)

ourrachblogs.com (Rachel Hawkins)

lifeintheusa.org (Anita Desabhatla)

shutterfliesphotography.wordpress.com (Paige Butler)

 

My questions to them:

  1. What is your favorite book?
  2. What is your favorite place to go to regularly?
  3. What is your favorite food?
  4. What is your dream vacation?
  5. Describe your biggest success…
  6. and your biggest failure.
  7. Who is the most influential person in your life?
  8. What is your happiest memory?
  9. Coffee or tea?
  10. Who was your best teacher and why?
  11. What is your favorite season and why?

 

What Are We Testing

Decades ago, people weren’t subjected to standardized tests to do everything from getting into college to passing third grade. There was an assumption that the best candidates could be determined by looking at a person’s grades and trusting their teachers’ evaluations. Somewhere after WWII that changed. At first, standardized tests were necessary to get into college (SATs, ACTs,) and graduate school (MCATs, LSATs, GREs). Now, it seems like students aren’t allowed to pass anything without going through a round of standardized testing.

One of the big issues with standardized testing is that it can’t test the skills and abilities that students really need in life. It doesn’t matter if I can give some obscure date, but analyzing political rhetoric is a skill that should be taught. It should be taught, but how do you test it? A bubble can be filled out that shows a student knows what date a battle in the French-Indian War took place. There isn’t a bubble test for an analytical mind.

These tests are also taken as individuals; unfortunately for students, the vast majority of adulthood is spent as part of a team. While we’re preparing kids to be judged on what they can do by themselves, the focus on teamwork is lost. Too bad that in a work environment the focus is on how well you work as a team and being overly concerned with your individual abilities is more of a hindrance than a help. It’s yet another thing that we are telling children what will be important for their lives that has little, if anything, to do with what their lives will look like.

My kids will be opted out of testing. The tests don’t have any metric for what I think they need to be able to do in order to flourish in adulthood – critical thinking, ability to analyze, how to work as part of a group. That’s what schooling should be preparing for – adulthood and a career, not a test full of arbitrary information. All the facts in the tests can be googled now. Phones can calculate the quadratic equation, but if someone doesn’t know when or where to use it knowing what it is is irrelevant. Children’s heads and personalities are being shoved full of irrelevant facts, and we wonder why our education system is failing?

Bullies in the Classroom

Problems that children are having in school are a constant source of discussion in mom groups. In one of mine, a mom is concerned because her preschooler’s teacher is bullying the child. She wrote,

Every day when I pick [my daughter] up, her teacher does nothing but bitch about her and tells me that my child is the only one they have problems out of. It’s getting really frustrating! The teacher never specifically says what she is getting in trouble for but informs me that she was ‘bad’ all day every day. My daughter tells me she is bad some days because she knows when she is. Today I asked her if she was good and she said yes the teacher then says, ‘Why do lie to your mom all the time. You know you were awful today’…. If you can’t tell me what my child is doing wrong, then how do I know she is actually misbehaving? This woman was an aide for about 3 years and I’m pretty sure this is her first year as a teacher. She also doesn’t have children. I feel like she just picks on my child because she is independent and she is one to tell you what she thinks… My girl loved school at first and now she hates it. (Emphasis mine)

The child being discussed is four and in a preschool program that is part of the public school. In what world is it ok for a teacher to talk to a child using anything remotely like this language? We send our children to school with ideas of how they are supposed to treat other people. They are told to be nice and thoughtful with their words. They are told to be considerate even if the other person is acting incorrectly. If we wouldn’t allow a child to talk this way, why is it ok for teachers?

 
‘Teachers’ like the one described above poison the system. I know plenty of wonderful ones in the public school, but it’s the few like this that change a child’s life for the worse. These are the ones that children have to overcome if they’re ever going to succeed in school. The saddest part of that situation is that the child started out loving school, but has already learned that it’s a bad place to be. Not because of coursework or a child that hurts them on the playground, but because an adult has hurt them in the classroom. That’s a much deeper and more difficult pain to overcome.

Children need for school to be a safe space where a love of learning and discovery is fostered. They need to know that if no one else, the adults in charge of them for four to eight hours a day are there to protect them. What they don’t need – the worst thing they can have – is that trust shattered. Public schools could be amazing if it was full of teachers who love what they do and don’t view it as a power-play. A bad curriculum can be overcome with a great teacher, but even the best curriculum can’t save the children in a class with a horrid teacher.

The mom decided to give her child a day off from school today, and is going to have her daughter put in a class with a different teacher. Getting that child out of there is a loving thing for a parent to do. The school’s responsibility extends to all the students. It’s my hope that the teacher won’t be there for much longer. If she is, unfortunately, I foresee another mom in another group whose child is the new target and wondering what to do. Our schools owe our kids better than that.

Excellence not Success

Waiting in the doctor’s office today, my oldest asked what I was reading. When I told her it was Guy Claxton’s What’s the Point of School?, she looked confused. “Mommy, I know what the point of school is. Why do you need to read a book on it? It’s to learn and be patient and to learn to be nice, and respectful and honest, intelligent, and kind. You go to school to learn to be part of a group. That’s the point of school.” (pauses) “Oh! And magic tricks. You can’t learn magic tricks if you don’t go to school.”

Magic tricks aside, she sees school as a place to learn and grow. For her, it’s a shaping environment that will help her in her head, her heart, and her community. This view of school all too often gets lost in the desire to have the ‘best’ students, the ‘hardest’ workers, Ivy-league at the expense of Junior League. Even when we try to mitigate its less than desirable effects, school can too easily become a shaping place for the wrong reasons. Successful students, measured by grades, grow up to be measured by their bank account; the higher the number the better. Shouldn’t it be about something more?

I want excellence for myself and my children. When I was a kid, my grandfather told me that he didn’t care if I was a toll-taker as long as I was the best one I could possibly be. Whatever you do, be excellent at it he told all of his grandchildren. We have, unfortunately, traded in excellence in education for success. The former is intrinsic. It is a state of mind that can be applied to everything one does and becomes part of who we are. It is what schools should teach, what everyone should strive for in everything. The latter depends on others to tell us how we’re doing. It’s extrinsic – without a bank statement or a grade or a job performance it’s hard to tell if it’s been achieved.

Standardized tests are a prime example of this. What they measure has nothing to do with personality, kindness, honesty, or community. Nowhere in her description of school did my daughter mention that the point of school was to learn to take multiple choice tests. The tests measure for the academically successful students, not personal excellence. If we aren’t even bothering to check for those qualities, how can teachers be expected to spend any time developing them in their students. Creativity has to be replaced with cramming to make sure that the school passes the next round of standardization.

So, while learning success at school, she will learn excellence at home. The hope is that the two join together to give her the life that she wants, a well-lived life however she defines it. I want her to have a great education, but I want it to be more than facts. I want it to include experiences and empathy. I want her to understand that the world extends beyond her eyes. I want her to be the best her that she can be. I want her to understand the wonder that is Earth. These are all things that she can’t be tested on, but will make her life richer. I want her to learn magic.