Weeks Five and Six

I think that Powe is going to work out.

It was in the late afternoon, when pianos could be played, when Samson is sleeping, and when you are one and the sister and I am four and the other sister, and you are going to wear the pink dress because you are two and I am the big sister.  It was in between all of this and some of a few other things, that John let us know what is really going on down in Mr. D’s class.

“This school is so much harder than last year,” John announces from a spot next to the train table in the play room. John is not playing  you are the sister, of course.  He is talking, though, or perhaps in spite of the fact that Rosie is the sister and you are two and she is four.

If we were the kind of Southerners who wear white suits and shake pepper into flour to make batter, then we might have said “knock me down with a feather.”  If were the kind of Southerners who unpack little thickburgers in the back seat of a white Tahoe on the way to a 4-A game against Broughton, then we might not have even heard you.

Wait, I do really like those little thick cheeseburgers.  You know, you can get them with lettuce instead of a bun, and they’ll mix the sweet tea with the unsweet tea.  Really, they’ll mix it 7/8ths unsweet if you want. Maybe there should be a new Southerner category, for ones that eat cheeseburgers with lettuce instead of a bun, and drink their gallon of not-very-sweet sweet tea, while they drive to work in their Volvo.  I could be in that category.

But, I was saying that we were paying attention to John. Definitely. We did hear John.

“How could that be,” I think. Because last year we went to the fancy private school with the perfect children who are all so gifted and so creative and so innate within their joy…And this year we are in a classroom with desks and rules and cards and points.

Well, I think the desks and rules and the rest might really be what matters.

– –

Tuesday night is curriculum night. Susie gets a seat early but I come in from work.  There are about 25 adults squatting on blue and orange plastic chairs.  There are six boxes from Domino’s in the back of the room. I smile at the parent who offers me a napkin.  “There’s pepperoni still hot in that box,” she says.

This meeting could not be more different than the previous one.  The first meeting focused on protecting differentiation.  We were a group of parents who met with the expectation that we could speak reason to the system. This one has a sense of anxiety.

I don’t want the pepperoni, though.  You know, it is not healthy to eat greasy pepperoni.  I grab two slices of cheese pizza.  It is really greasy, so I get a few napkins and juice box.  Hey, there’s a blue 18-inch chair over there for me, too!

Once I have settled, I take a look around the room.  There are a lot of tired people here.  About five parents have brought kids. One is screaming in her stroller.  One is crawling over to me.  Two more are underneath a set of four desks. The parents are slumped over against the small chairs, their hands in their laps.  They are staring at the teachers.

Again, I just can’t help but realize that my kid is spending his days with a far more diverse cross-section of the population than either I or my wife ever experience.  This week, I spent my days with policy analysts, housing counselors, and some assets advocates.  Susie spent time at Duke, with the book club, and at church.  This week, John hung out with a group of kids with some different references.  I am willing to bet, for example, that they include at least a few whose parents:

  • never saw any John Hughes movies, even the Breakfast Club
  • did not play Stairway to Heaven during a tape dance in the late 80s
  • lived through a revolution in Central America
  • do not put notes out on the list serv that say “does anyone know a plumber?”

He is going to learn more than writing and how to get points for lunch with the principal.

Our teacher is there with five of his colleagues. Mr. D shines.  I can see that we are very lucky to have him this year.  His spirit is unbroken.  Although the curriculum includes math, as well as a passing reference to social studies and art, the discussion is almost entirely about reading and writing.

Mr. D. holds up a larger sign with five columns and about seven rows. It is the schedule for the week.  “You will be writing for the first thirty minutes of every day,” he says. Next to him, a woman repeats the statement in Spanish.  She is another of the teachers.  At least half of the parents are Latino.

Rainbow writing, he says, teaches lettering by asking children to trace a letter three times with three different colors. Those individual letters can become a word.  Writing dog, for instance, would involve tracing 9 letters.

All students need to be reading at level six, he adds.  Though many were at six by the end of kindergarten, it is clear that a good set of kids have regressed over the summer and need to catch up.

A parent in the back, near the pizza, raises his hand.

“We have plenty of books,” he says. “I read to him plenty. But we can’t get any ‘level five’ books at the library.  There are plenty of kids books, but they are not what this looks like. They are really for us to read to them.  Where can I get these books?

Ms. L. steps up. “We only have a few in our library, and yes, it is true that they do not have leveled readers at the public library.”

It is a sad moment. This is a parent who wants to get his child a book.  We all know what the gap is – he can’t buy a copy of the backyardigans – so his child is going to have to get in line to check out whatever few copies of level five readers are remaining.

It is quiet for a moment.  Then another man raises his hand.

“My son brought home a book,” he says, “and it was just full of some stuff.  Just full of stories about fishes and their guts and…”

Ah.  I know this feeling.  Fish guts.  What could be better to a six-year old boy?  Sensing that the mood has shifted, one of the teachers leans forward, puts her fingertips together, and smiles.  “Didn’t he love it?” she says.

“No,” he says. “It was awful stuff.  Fish guts! Really.  I mean, this was some serious, you know, yech! What kind of books are we going to get?”

In my house, fish guts are very popular.  We can talk about fish guts for a while.  ‘What kind’ would really only be the first question.  Were there any fossils? Any megalodons? Did they have any teeth? Were they dead fish guts, or alive? Did the fish guts come out purple?  Did they? Did they come out PURPLE!!!!  Were any from Russia?  Are you going to make us eat them?

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