school daze
14 January 2001
Damian has been in school for two (three day) weeks. So I’ve been in school for two (three day) weeks. It’s been both fascinating and utterly mundane.

I find myself looking at the experience through multifaceted lenses: my own eyes see a small, humble schoolroom, not enough education/stimulation, and parents who have far more money than we do and who seem far more worldly. And for that, I wonder if we made the right choice even though it was practically the only choice in the limited time we had.

But through Damian’s eyes I see a warm teacher, an overwhelming but thrilling tumble of children, piles of enticing new toys and slightly intimidating routines (I have to wash my hands? In that sink? Hey, I don’t need a stool for this sink!) I see the gears turning in his head, I see him finding new paradigms and making new connections. I see him start to get it. And for that, I think we made a great choice.

The routine is utterly simple: the kids show up at nine a.m. in varying states of alertness. Sophia, with her huge eyes and straw colored hair in a bowl cut, looks perpetually baffled that she’s there yet again. Jonathan, with his preternaturally pale blue eyes and the blondest eyelashes, gets a shit-eating grin the moment he walks in the door. Most children enter cautiously, not sure they’re ready to separate from Mommy yet, but they get quickly seduced by a combination of teacher and toys. One morning Damian held my hand and pulled me along the hallway to the classroom, pulled me into the room, marched me around the entire room twice, and then sat down and played with a truck. He was so emphatic about it all: we’re going to school now! Right now! Right here!

There’s an odd synchronicity to the group. Wednesday morning Damian hadn’t eaten breakfast. I figured I’d give him something after we got there. We walked in the door to see Jasper and Sam race past clutching apple slices in their fists. Gabriel meandered by munching on a cracker. I gave Damian a granola bar, which he wolfed down. He fit right in.

In other ways he doesn’t fit in, though. He sits apart, he doesn’t respond when the teacher calls his name; he doesn’t even look up. But sometimes other children come join him. He’ll be flipping pages in a board book, pointing to pictures of fruit and subvocalizing each one, all alone in the book corner. A blink later, the teacher’s sitting there, Damian on her lap and four kids sprawled around her as she reads them all a story. Or he’ll be all alone pushing a car through a Fisher Price garage and in another moment, two other boys sit beside him, peering into the plastic ramps, cars at the ready in their fisted hands. I can tell he’s not quite sure what to make of this, but he doesn’t get up and walk away, which means worlds in Damian-speak.

From free play time, they segue into clean-up time with a little song. The kids all line up at the bathroom door, eager to get their hands washed. Except for Damian, who thinks it’s a form of torture heretofore only known to the denizens of the fifth circle of hell. I’ve seen the teacher usher him into the bathroom and witnessed him sidle back out seconds later when her back was turned. Normally at home I sit him on my lap and dip his hands into a container filled with warm water. I decided to change the routine. I brought a stool into the bathroom, ran warm water in the sink, and let him put his hands under the spray. He did it willingly and told me he was "washing hands." I think he liked seeing a school ritual carried into our home. And a few days later, I saw him come out of the bathroom at school looking slightly perturbed, and I knew he’d grudgingly allowed his hands to be washed.

Miriam, the main teacher, then says "circle time!" and the kids plop down in a neat line against the wall. Always the same configuration, too. Even the new kids; they’ve all found their places in the group. Well, except Damian. (Are you surprised?) He sometimes comes over, sometimes doesn’t. Usually he’s still in cling-to-Mom mode and sits on my lap feigning disinterest as Miriam wiggles a frog puppet, sings songs, and holds up a series of circles with expressive faces drawn on them. The kids make sad, happy, angry faces along with the circles. I know Damian’s engaged -- he’s still there, isn’t he? -- but he doesn’t want to give that much of himself away.

Then comes snack time. Short tables, miniature chairs, small children eating crackers and drinking juice from dixie cups. I sit back and watch. It’s all remarkably civilized. If they were talking about West Wing and football, I’d think they were officemates taking a coffee break.

Next comes yard time. This needs no explanation. And no coaxing. Nora, the teacher’s assistant, commented the first week that Damian loves the sandbox. She said it means he’s closer to the earth than most people.

One morning on the way back from the yard, a petite redhead named Simone walked up to Damian and put her arm around his shoulders. He didn’t react, which means he didn’t dislike it but was too shy to let her know that. They walked together like that back into the classroom.

The last hour is filled out with more free play, story time, and lunch. Something happens somewhere around yard time: Damian invests in the experience. He’s there without reservation and I can slip away to the teacher’s lounge. I’ve witnessed little bits and pieces. I've already mentioned this one, but I think it's telling: once when story time began, all the other kids gathered around Miriam but Damian sat by the board books, flipping through his own book. I thought about leading him over to the group, decided to stay back. Let him find his own way through this. After about five minutes, he got up and trotted over to the circle of children. Still clutching his board book. He sat and looked from Miriam’s book to his own, gradually focussing more on hers than his.

I think he’s using books as a shield. It makes me think I did too, as a child. Disappear into the world inside the book, that way the world around you isn’t so threatening.

Damian lives inside his own head. He comes by it honestly -- both Dan and I tend to be dreamers. But Dan was sandwiched in the family succession between a brother one year older and another one year younger than him. He couldn’t get away with it as much. And I’ve always felt a tug-of-war between my social butterfly light-up-the-night longing and my stay-at-home-pull-up-the-covers primal urge. So I peek out of my hole, then duck back inside. Damian is energetic, playful, even loud. At home. Out in the world, he retreats behind a book.

That’s why school is important. And this particular school is a non-threatening environment for him to learn a few simple routines, to see the same friendly faces day after day, to hear the other children speak in full sentences and ask for what they want with words.

There are things about the setup that frustrate me. The routine I’ve just described? That’s it except for once a week of "music time" and gym class once a week and a few minutes once a week romping in a school library. It doesn’t feel like enough. I’m not sure he’ll stay there past August -- he’s a bright kid and I would like him to learn about letters in school and have music time that means more than a woman strumming a guitar for fifteen minutes while kids sit on the floor being completely motionless.

But. Is my concern really for him? Or is it for an abstract ideal of what school should be? I would like him to find school stimulating, but the truth is, he does. Jasper, Simone, Tyson, Michael, Gabriel, Elijah, Sophia, Jonathan, Samuel, Ella -- they stimulate him plenty.

Baby steps. Skipping right into school with itty bitty baby steps.

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