This was going to be the ballet post, but it turned into something else entirely
I was thinking this morning about how, without my really noticing it, Mermaid Girl has turned a corner in her life, and we have also. Our lives as parents are no longer primarily about ensuring her survival in the world and her basic physical needs. You know, like eating, getting dressed, not falling off high things. She takes care of a lot of that herself.
I mean, yeah, financially she's dependent on us and will be for a long, long time. And emotionally she still needs us. And she can't do her buttons in the back. And like that--she's still a kid, and in this culture kids are (or should be) taken care of. But she knows how to be in the world, she knows who she is, she can walk and talk and grab a piece of cheese out of the fridge and negotiate peace with her friends (sometimes) and notice when something looks dangerous and get away from it. She has opinions, and judgment. She could even cross the street by herself, if we'd let her; she knows all about traffic safety and will lecture us on the topic at the merest opportunity.
So what's left for us to do, aside from doing her braids and cooking over a flame and buying stuff and driving her places?
All the hard parts, it turns out, are what's left.
Like: How much of the rest of her childhood is going to be about us helping her unfold into whatever her spirit wants to be, and how much will be about our passing our values and traditions on to her? They're not mutually exclusive, and of course you want to do both. But what about when they come into conflict? There are only so many hours in a day, after all. If she goes to Hebrew school (my heritage) and learns an instrument (RW's values) and does dance or gymnastics (her own desire and talent) she will be a very busy girl throughout her elementary school years.
And didn't I once, long ago, once upon a time, bemoan the overscheduled youth of today and vow that my child would have ample time for daydreaming and futzing around? Isn't that a value too? What should go, then, to make room for it?
Or how about this one: What should education be about? Being nurtured and learning compassion? Getting to know lots of different kinds of kids? Being creative and using your own initiative? Getting lots of intellectual stimulation and being exposed to a rich variety of ideas and disciplines? Well, all of them, of course. And it's not hypothetical: these four sets of qualities pretty much represent the strongest points, respectively, of the four schools we're looking at most seriously for Mermaid Girl for next year and possibly the next six years.
I've written about this before, but now we've toured all the schools and talked with lots of parents and teachers and seen lots of classrooms in action. We've examined the hell out of the school district web site. I've read mission statements and brochures, watched slide shows, viewed class projects on the walls, scrutinized class schedules. I've seen how kids act in the halls and on the playground. I've made charts and lists: one school has swimming lessons, one has a chorus; one has a great gym teacher, one has a stupendous library (and I should know).
(Important parenthetical aside: All four schools, incidentally, are propped up by strong PTAs made up of educated, committed parents with surpluses of time and money. The wrongness of the need for that is a rant for another time, but I don't even have to write it because Jo Spanglemonkey has written some kickass posts about the same issue in her town. Read them all!)
RW and I both keep having to check ourselves for whether we're picking a school based on what we would want or what Mermaid Girl will thrive in. We each have visceral attachments to schools that echo our own school experiences: RW has a warm spot for the Groovy Alternative School, even though on close examination their educational focus seems a little fuzzy.
For my part, I'm pulled towards our neighborhood school, the only one in our cluster where white students are actually a minority (they have some kind of special permission to bus kids from the South End). I love that it really is diverse, there are Somali girls in headscarves and kids whose parents don't speak English and middle-class African-American kids and poor kids andwhite kids with liberal yuppie gay parents (like ours) and, well, everybody. When I think about the social environment I want for her, that's it, in large part because that was the the way my school was (and that is also a whole other post for a whole other time).
But when it comes to the official educational aspect, the Neighborhood School doesn't stand up as well--I don't care so much about test scores, but in the kind of work on the walls and the way the teachers talk about what they do and the precariousness of the kids' focus. And on balance the much-less-diverse, not-very-alternative Smartypants Yuppie school gets my vote every time. Is that because I'm a liberal hypocrite at heart? Or because that's really where Mermaid Girl would thrive the most? How can I possibly know? All I can do is take my best guess.
When I wrote about all this earlier, several people commented that Mermaid Girl will do well and be happy and learn wherever she goes. And I do think that's true. We are very lucky: all the schools in our cluster are really good, in different ways. But the point is that we have to choose, we have to put something down first. And the process of making that decision turns out to be about us as much as about her, about our vision of her childhood.
It's like this: There's what Mermaid Girl wants, right here, right now. But she's only four, we don't make life decisions for her based on what she thinks she wants at the moment. Then there's the vision we have of the sort of Platonic Perfect Childhood, wherever that comes from: movies, parenting books, the zeitgeist, whatever. Then there's what we want for her based on our own lives and ideals, which might not be the same thing as the PPC, or the same thing for me and for RW. Then there's what we would choose for her if we focused on what Mimi Smartypants calls her small flame of personhood, the her in her, as distinct from what we think she should learn or value. And each of those is important, in different ways, at different times.
So all this angst isn't just, or even mostly, about kindergarten: it's that kindergarten is the first major decision we've had to make while keeping all those factors in mind. It's that kindergarten choice is the beginning of what parenting is going to be like for the next ten or fifteen years.
After that, Mermaid Girl gets to try to balance all those factors for herself. Good luck to her, I say!