My disdain for compulsory schooling is not a secret. History, and a few equally hostile former educators tell us it was originally designed as a system to support the purpose of building a nation comprised of individuals dedicated to docile citizenship with systematic goals such as; to establish reflexive obedience, promote sameness and diagnose social roles by labeling individuals with grades. It is now discriminatory structure where students are required to demonstrate proficiency in obscure information and then segregated into groups based on their ability to robotically regurgitate content narrated to them by teachers who are often too overworked and underpaid to make the type of difference that the romanticized version of themselves set out to make when they initially entered the realm of compulsory schooling. Why then did I decide in my 30’s to return to the system and the torture I described above just to receive a certificate that demonstrates my ability to be a robot? Because I’m a masochist. Or an idealist. Or I am desperate to prove my son and myself that you can accomplish anything at anytime in your life.
Even with the system’s numerous failings I showed up at Omaha Public Schools several weeks ago to register Rinn for kindergarten. While I had some teachers in my formative years whose overall unpleasantness and rigidity were better suited for a job at the DMV, I also had some notably wonderful ones who made me appreciate the process of learning (even if it was geometry) and even though my grandiose sense of adolescent-self might have demonstrated otherwise there are moments and mentors I reflect on fondly. Perhaps the same bittersweet experience await Rinn.
From the outside it more resembles a prison compound than a school; everything is painted a drab-uninspiring grey and the number of windows is negligible but I would rather not be the jerk to judge a book by its cover and it scored a 9 out of 10 from www.greatschools.org so we followed the registration signs to the library. Rinn was escorted to a table to complete what was explained to me as an entrance assessment and I was handed a folder of paperwork to complete that was thick and heavy enough that I could’ve skipped my morning workout. “They’re thorough” I thought.
As I went through the process of writing Rinn’s name and birthday on seven different forms I made an effort to eavesdrop on the dialogue occurring between Rinn and one of two potential Kindergarten teachers he would have come August.
“Put a ring around the letter “i”, she said
“I have an “i” in my name!”, Rinn exclaims.
“Ssshhh” she responded and she actually put her finger to her lips “That’s not what I asked you.”
Excuuuuuse me bitch. Now I’m not a traditional school teacher but I have taught dance at some level for 15-plus years and a substantial number of those students were under the age of 6. I know the struggle; at that age group it’s a lot like herding cats and you spend just as much time tying tiny shoelaces as you do providing actual and veritable dance instruction, but in the process of herding those cats I try not to completely squash their spirit and desire to learn. A much better response would have been: “You do! That’s wonderful you know that. Since you know the letter “i” so well can you now put a circle around it?” Praise the existing knowledge, encourage them to focus on the actual request and preserve learning as a positive experience, see how easy that was?
Immediately after I overhear this calloused exchange, I came across a “Corporal Punishment Permission Form” amongst my pile of papers. There was no way, certainly I was reading this incorrectly, surely they weren’t asking for my consent to “paddle my child” because “rules MUST be followed” and “if rules are broken, consequences will be administered” and that “corporal punishment may be the consequence.” Suddenly that woman’s ill-mannered shush seemed insignificant and I wondered if Rinn was lucky to not have been bent over her knee for failing to promptly circle the letter “i”. My immediate response was to toss my folder of forms into the air as a distraction while Rinn and I made a beeline for the nearest exit but I couldn’t help but imagine that scene from The Handmaid’s Tale where June is trying to elude a band of militants with her daughter but fails to outrun them because the girl is too heavy. At 44 pounds Rinn would severely limit our chances of evading a mob of angry school teachers wielding wooden paddles. I stayed put while I broadcasted my concerns to the social media community like a true millennial.
Eventually Rinn came running over with the teacher in tow and she proceeded to inform me that Rinn passed his assessment and was indeed ready to enter kindergarten. She rambled on about the various areas he needed to work on over the Summer (attentive listening, sitting still, all the usual things that your average 5-year-old is terrible at) but I was too wrapped up in the idea that perhaps some children are actually denied entrance to what is supposed to be the first step in a formal education based on how many times they had to be shushed. How else does a children learn to identify the color blue and count to 20; kindergarten isn’t even required in the state of Arkansas so how exactly are they in a position to turn children away? If a toddler isn’t able to correctly identify and subsequently circle one of the 26 letters of the alphabet or meet any of the other criteria cooked up as a way to categorize our children isn’t it then an educator's job to teach them how to do so, to rectify the problem?
I left confused, angry and sweating. Rinn left wondering when they have free play and where were all the toys. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes thinking I’m a pro-participation-trophy-my-child-is-god's-gift kind of mom that is an advocate for trigger-warnings and overall coddling. I’m not. But I’m also not a mom who is about to give other individuals the right to hit my child while they crush his enthusiasm for learning and for life. I’m no Ghandi but I feel that violence begets violence and in hitting a child you’re teaching them that physical violence is an acceptable response to situations they find disagreeable. One time I jokingly shot Rinn in the back with a nerf gun (spare me the “bad mom” comments, I know) and I spent weeks correcting his takeaway of the situation which was that it’s sometimes acceptable to point guns at other people and the family pets. Do as I say not as I do or as corporal punishment suggests, don’t display violent behavior but hold up, let me punish you with aggressive force.
I simply want my son to have a positive and engaging educational experience where curiosity is encouraged, critical thought is promoted and individuality is valued. I want him to not only learn how to read but to be able to analyze what he has read (whether it be classic literature or a business contract) while appreciating the power of true comprehension. I want him to remain creative, imaginative and authentic while he develops an active consciousness of the world around him and his role in it. And maybe if he has the time, learn how to file taxes, cook a nutritionally balanced meal that doesn’t involve using the microwave, and be capable of cultivating successful interpersonal relationships, both professional and intimate. As much as it pains me to think about it, I want him to understand and respect the idea of sexuality and sex beyond what is taught through misleading sex ed assemblies and textbook diagrams of the penis and the vagina. I want him to practice the ancient art of cursive so that if he’s famous someday he isn’t using a pre-inked signature stamp of his name in Lucida Handwriting to sign t-shirts and groupies decolletage. I want him to recite the quadratic equation to the tune of a “Pop Goes the Weasel” and solve math problems however he damn well chooses because he understands that common-core is a political project based on contested policies and budget cuts.
Unconvinced that any public school will meet my idealistic criteria and reflecting on my own success in completing college courses online, Rinn and I have made the decision to homeschool. Although not entirely as I opted for a virtual academy that still follows the schedule and general level of accountability of traditional brick-and-mortar schools but with the freedom to elaborate on the parts of education I find to be most important. Fingers crossed I have a few years before I tackle the sex ed part and should discipline be necessary I am ready to implement the method my father used in which sass and insubordinate behavior was met with a “drop and give me 50.” That many push-ups gives a kid plenty of time to reflect on what they did that has them doing push-ups in the first place and typically results in the child being too tired to keep on with their bad behavior. I’m speaking from experience of course and the only side effect was that my sister and I were obnoxiously ripped for pre-teen girls.
Am I capable of leading Rinn down the obscenely altruistic educational path like the one I described above? Only time and transcripts from future therapy appointments will tell but I’m choosing to enter this commitment with confidence and conviction. (And the safety net that kindergarten in Arkansas is optional, how can you fail optional? Never mind, don’t answer that.)
As a side note, in my corporal punishment research, particular to that of Arkansas and Omaha Public Schools I learned that they are often recipients of “Beating the Odds” awards. This is irony we simply can not ignore.
Didn't have to go very far for his desk for the 2017-18 school year.