Monday, January 01, 2007

About schools and chickens

The question that keeps me up at night these days is Lily and her schooling.

Early on Friday evening the three of us gathered in the living room -- the room least used by Dave and me because the computers are in the other room on the first floor, and the room most used by Lily because it has the TV in it.

Anyway, even though the living room is directly above the furnace and thus the warmest room downstairs, it was still freezing, so we huddled together on the sofa, each with our own throw blanket, to watch the BBC version of The Witch, the Lion, and the Wardrobe.

The movie only confirmed my distaste for the Narnia series. But Lily enjoyed it, particularly Aslan's wonderful fur (there were some nice costumes), which she kept commenting on. Finally she just sighed, and said, completely unself-consciously, "I long to bury my hands in his mane."

Based on my observations, I'd say this is unusual language for someone who just turned eight. Lily is the true writer in the family. Is it reasonable to expect a public school to take on the task of nurturing her talent for language and imagery? Or do I put her in private school? Or do I follow the lead of some Brooklyn friends, recently transplanted to Vermont, which is supplementing public school with riding lessons and a theater class and lots of free time. They have a very bright child, too, who went to an even better school, in some ways, than PS 261. And until I started questioning our experience, at least, they have all been happy with theirs.

Currently, that's what we're doing: Lily is taking skiing and violin and working with clay (yikes! How did that happen? we didn't intend to overschedule). And she can't wait for the library's book group for kids to start up again next Tuesday. "Four weeks away is too long," she said tonight as we drove home from a delicious New Year's Day dinner at Dave's wonderful cousins in Newton.

I have to ask myself if my concerns about and desires for Lily are just my ego talking. A friend who works at a superb private school in Manhattan pointed out that the pressure for our children to succeed and exceed is extraordinary in New York City, but I like to think I've made my peace with those competitive types. I think I had to, or else I'd go crazy. A parent we knew was bragging because her two-year-old son was reading. Really reading, and doing math, too. I, who had always heard how advanced my two-year-old was, felt miserable until my mother, the former second-grade teacher, said, "Lots of kids are smart. But can they use those smarts? Helping them use their brains is the real job." I realized I wanted to help Lily follow her interests and develop new ones, not get an A so I could brag about her on the playground.

It's not that the kids at PS 261 were so erudite, or the teaching so significantly better, although Amherst parents were buzzing this fall because a teacher in another elementary school had gone to Bank Street, hardly a rarity in our Brooklyn public school. It's just that there was so much to do, intellectually, not to mention socially and emotionally. Lily had a half-dozen take-home projects in second grade. Every student in every grade practiced intense, focused writing every day at her school. There was always more to do, more to learn, further she could go. I suspect what she misses most about Brooklyn, other than friends, is the stimulation, and PS 261 was the focal point of that. While she grumbled about homework every night -- and it is nice to have hardly any, here -- she soaked up every bit of noise and grit and emotion she could latch onto. She thrived on it.

I'm sure this is heresy but truly, I could care less if Lily even goes to college, never mind where she goes. Not that she's going to be loafing around mooching off me, mind you. She'll have to get a job and paddle her own canoe and all that. But I believe someone can find meaningful work and be useful to society without going to college, or by going to college when they are older and more focused. Having graduated from Wellesley at 27, I am living proof.

I know Lily will get a good education in Amherst. The high school here is by far the best in the Pioneer Valley, and the top kids go to the Ivies and the Sisters, as well as the excellent public universities, small private colleges, and so on. But I worry that Lily is like I was: She's smart and will do the minimum of what's asked and no more. I am also living proof that if I had had more discipline, either self-imposed or externally, I might have a more intellectually fulfilling life. I'm not complaining, mind you; my childhood and young adult years were complicated, I did the best I could, and today my life is glorious. But sometimes I want more for my child -- if she wants it, that is.

And then I keep coming back to, there are worse things for her than to have an easy, relaxed year here, settling in, making friends, grieving her losses of Brooklyn and PS 261. It has gotten better. Tonight in the car she let me play Wonderwheel by Dan Zanes on the iPod and although she warned me she would cry, I was the one who couldn't choke out the words because of my tears, not her. ("All the best friends that I know are on the wonder wheel...") In this past month she's made a couple of good friends that I think she'll keep even if we move away. One or two more like that and she'll be okay.

She spent Saturday afternoon with one of them, the fourth grader from next door. She's learning how to live in this new strange place. It was bitter cold but the two of them spent the afternoon mucking around in the frozen mud and collecting kindling for their woodstoves -- the family heats almost entirely by wood. Lily had refused to dress warmly, even though Dave, who was helping the father put up some fencing, had warned that it was chilly. Eventually she came back, hands like ice, and I bundled her up with gloves, scarf, and hat.

Later, I looked out my door and there were Lily and her friend herding Rocky the Rooster and his half-dozen hens back to their coop on the other side of the fence. They like to root around in our yard, for some reason. I suppose we have more interesting bugs.

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