Today is a school day in Berkeley... a rainy, end-of-the-week Friday.
My oldest, George, went to his grandmother's house instead of school today.
We pulled him out for the day. It's the end of the week, his teacher is still home recovering from appendicitis, and we felt the little guy needed time with his grandma.
That George is playing hooky, and it feels so good to me, made me reflect on what we are doing when we send our kids to school in this culture.
It's just not natural, let's agree on that.
Maybe in the days when you knew everybody in your village, when all the kids, of wildly different ages, gathered in one of those proverbial red schoolhouses, and a single, familiar teacher taught them lessons -- maybe then it was natural. I imagine that it was a lot like spending the day with your extended family.
But now it is not natural. Our kids go off -- as early as age 2 (George is 3) -- to school settings which can be strikingly impersonal.
Sure they have their teacher, and probably a few assistants too, whom they come to know over the first few weeks. And the walls are covered with construction-paper Thanksgiving turkeys about now, and, say, random photographs of frogs or cities of the world, giving the room a cheerful atmosphere to the rushed parent dropping off his or her kid.
But the depth of our children's relationships with their teachers and their peers is limited by the anonymous, friendly remove which we, as their parents, have with all of these new people in their lives. We don't know any of the stuff that matters about any of these people with whom our child is spending his days! We go to the occasional parent-teacher meeting, or even attend a class picnic one afternoon, or a field trip one morning, but our connection is construction-paper thin, let's face it.
And more than that, our kids often have to contend with a larger, bustling public space in the school, filled with strange kids without names, teachers they do not know, procedures (say, complicated pick-up practices for older kids involving men making announcements over bullhorns and children ushered into waiting zones) which are completley baffling to them.
It's just not natural.
No wonder so many of our kids cry when they have to go to school in the morning. George doesn't do that anymore, and it's a relief. But could you blame him if he did every morning?
On top of this, we have placed George in a bilingual school.
Don't get me wrong -- we love the school, we love his teachers, we love the diverse, international, multilingual community of families with children there. And George seems genuinely happy (although -- horrible, horrible -- still excited to run into our arms and return home at the end of the day). But he is tongue-tied much of the time in class, of course, because 80% of the speaking that goes on is in French.
I hope that we are right to do what we do, sending him off to school so young, five days a week. I hope that it allows for Geoge to learn independence, develop new social skills, experience a variety of influences, not to mention acquire a new language. But some days I worry that we have allowed some impersonal element to come into his life, some anxiety that suggests the world is not as safe as it should be.
Despite the best efforts of everybody involved (most of all his wonderful teacher Olivier, whose name he now pronounces far better than I do), I still worry that maybe a child should, at least until adolescence, remain in the familiar warmth of his or her own family and the family's most intimate friends. Maybe, in terms of ideal development, he or she should stay in the small circle of a clan of hunter/gatherers, which provided the setting for our longest period of evolution.
I'll end with a story, which I think speaks to both the excitement for a child of stepping out in the world, and the confusion it brings. It also will, I hope, resonate with you about your own ambivalence as parents.
It's a true story from a few months ago...
On the night before his first day of school, George hugged me tightly as we came to the end of our last story before bedtime. As I closed the book, he scrambled up over the armrest of the big blue rocker in his room, and gripped me around the neck. I could tell something was on his mind.
"Are you excited about going to your new school tomorrow, George?" I asked, trying to draw him out.
"Yeah," he said with sudden, playful enthusiasm and hugged me even more tightly.
"You'll get to meet a whole bunch of new friends... And your new teacher, Olivier!" I offered.
He looked at me. I sensed that Olivier's name struck him as funny sounding. One of my best friend's name is Oliver, and this French variation caught his attention.
"Olivier is French," I explained. "His name is the French name for Oliver."
"Dad," said George, leaning back and looking me directly in the eyes.
"I only know one word of French."
"Well that's great!" I said. "You'll learn lots more. But don't worry, there's plenty of time."
"I only know one word of French!" he repeated, seeing that I wasn't getting it.
"Okay," I said, wondering what he wanted from me.
"Hola," he said proudly. A smile broke out on his face. "Hola."
I didn't know what to say exactly. So I just hugged him tightly again. We were both nervous, but he would be fine, I knew it in my gut.