Leaving No Stone Unturned
This is a long post where I muse aloud, trying to make sense of the conflicting thoughts in my head and heart. If you have no interest in the education system, you may want to skip it. If you do have kids, even if they’re young, it’s worth thinking about these things now, before you get to the place where you need to make a decision. If your kids are older than mine, you may have already made these types of decisions.
I’ll start by saying that we’re lucky: we have a decision to make. I mean that in the sense that we lucked out with having kids in general, but also that they are intelligent, thoughtful human beings who excel in the classroom. But there is so much more that we want for them than admission to the college of their choice.
First they are babies and you worry about what to feed them. You worry about brain development and weight gain. You pepper the pediatrician with questions; you stress over the milestones listed in popular baby books. Then they grow a bit and you worry whether you’re providing them with the right toys, the ones that will develop that part of the brain that can do high level math. You worry about their classes and whether they have enough play dates and whether they’re really playing with other kids or engaging in sideways play beside them.
I’ve learned by this point that the worrying never ends; it just changes in shape with each stage.
Because this is it. This is their foundation, the brain and body on which they’ll build the rest of their life. I mean, what if a choice you make now negatively impacts them in the future? What if Cheetos are found to stunt reading ability or you discover that your child has behavioural issues later in life because you never soothed them with Baby Einstein?
We may worry about different things, but I think all parents worry that we are fucking things up. That we are in charge of raising another human being towards adulthood, and we are accidentally screwing up some piece of it.
We’ve hit that education turning point year, third grade. For those unfamiliar with the American school system, third grade is a transition year where students start getting sorted in categories. GT is code for gifted and talented. (Not, as the Wolvog thought, short for GT Racing, one of his favourite video games. He thought perhaps those initials meant that the teacher had figured out just how much he loves cars.)
In third grade, students have the opportunity to apply to a GT public school. They are specialized programs in the county, usually placed inside a school with lower test scores in order to raise the profile of the general school. In exchange for parents lending their children to another school in order to raise their scores, they are given extras through the program. I know that is a very bitter, very negative way of viewing these programs, but there is a lot to feel bitter and negative about when it comes to these programs. Unless activities can miraculously be scheduled around that school schedule, many programs preclude kids from having the well-rounded life we want them to have outside of academia. They may be with like-minded kids, but those kids don’t live in their neighbourhood making it difficult to continue the friendship outside of school hours. A 45-minute commute is tacked onto both ends of the school day making school pretty much the only thing that happens from Monday through Friday. Admission to these programs means moving from school to school (and new set of kids to new set of kids) every few years, applying and holding your breath over and over again.
Moreover, the school is dangled before parents like a jewel, and as we reach out to touch it, our hand is slapped and we’re reminded that maybe two kids will get in. 30 may apply and two will get in.
I don’t know how I feel about GT schools. Actually, I’m not sure why I said that. I obviously know how I feel: I feel like labeling has just as many drawbacks as it has advantages. That for every kid who feels great about themselves in the moment, that they will also feel the sting of that label in the future when their preciousness is not cherished or recognized. Because it won’t. There will be future endeavours where they will fail because everyone has endeavours where they fail. And kids who have been set up to believe that they are better, smarter, more capable are more likely to suffer from greater hurt and a deeper fall than those who believe that they are no better, no more deserving, no more fantastic than anyone else on this earth. That we all have strengths and weaknesses, and it’s better to stick together in a diverse community.
I know what you’re thinking right now. You’re about to suck in your breath and skip right now to the comment section to tell me about how brilliant your child is, and how they can’t possibly function in a regular classroom. And if they can’t, then the GT school is right for your kid. But my kids can thrive in a regular classroom. They’re happy learners at the moment. They have good friends.
And this is my blog, and right now, we’re talking about my kids. So…
I want my kids to be more than book smart. Book smart I can teach at home. There is nothing they can learn at this point that I can’t teach them better in this one-on-one space after school. I am foolish enough and lucky enough to be able to fit my life around theirs and give them that attention. I know that isn’t usually the case.
What I want them to be is life smart, because life smart is applicable beyond academia or their future career. Life smart will carry them through all their relationships. It will teach them when to stay somewhere and when to leave. It will help them read people (and not just books). It will make them into good spouses should they choose to get married or good parents if they choose to have children. Those are the skills that when applied to problems change a community.
I think that sucking it up and learning to roll with things is part of growing up into an intelligent, wonderful human being. That when we constantly snatch kids out of their current environment, telling them they are ultra special and therefore destined for special spaces, we don’t teach them how to make the best of a bad situation or how to be the change they wish to see. I want my kids to learn to get themselves interested in something, even when it seems overwhelming or dull at first glance. And I want them to learn how to do something well even when it’s boring since all jobs have boring parts. Can you imagine teachers saying to kids, “you know what, I didn’t do your report cards since assessments are boring. I just like the teaching part of teaching.” There are always going to be things we don’t want to do, meetings we don’t want to sit through, and minutiae that bores us. But we learn to slog through. And I guess I want the twins to learn that slog.
I want my kids to love learning. I want them to be almost 40 years old and learning something completely new. I want them to have life-long curiosity. I don’t want them to ever accept the first answer; I want them to be question-asking information seekers. I want them to get as excited about books in their middle age years as they do in their mid-elementary school years.
Those are all the things I want. And I want my kids to have the best childhood filled with amazing opportunities. You see the conundrum. Because it all goes back to those early fears: am I giving my children the best nutrition, am I signing them up for the best classes, am I providing them with the most mind-enriching toys? Do I turn my nose up at those programs just because they’re elite and I don’t think they send a great life message to kids?
Or do I join with the panting masses, hoping that the GT school will give my children the best education possible on our budget? I don’t want to ever look back with regret at the road not taken and say, “crap; I wish we had chosen that path.”
We all want what is best for our kids, and I think all parents need to do what is best for their kids. That may translate as sending them to private school or applying to a GT program. And it may translate as keeping them where they are and doing enrichment outside the school. That’s what we’re still trying to figure out.
Maybe we just need to be our own GT program operating like a bubble within the general population of our local public school. A GT program for two, mostly held during after school hours. Maybe with a program that small, we could do it even better than the main GT program, even if our homespun one comes without the prestige of the formal one.
A case in point: Josh took the ChickieNob downtown to meet Lemony Snicket (fine, Daniel Handler). The GT school also attended the event. The school left at the end of the event in unison after hearing him read. The ChickieNob got to stay and speak to him for a bit, and he signed all her books. Doing it our way resulted in a better experience than if she had been part of the school. Granted, mileage may vary, and what we may be willing to do or can do is different from another family. But again, I’m not making this decision for anyone else. We’re just making it for ourselves, and we’re struggling between a dislike of the system and feeling as if we can’t leave any stone unturned.
And I guess the long answer is that I don’t know. I know how detrimental that GT program will be to our overall happiness as a family — the long commute, the separation from friends, and constant judgment — but I don’t know how beneficial that GT program could be. I guess I’m throwing this out there because I’m looking for any thoughts I haven’t yet considered or your thoughts on the ones I have.
All of this comes to a head with Marjorie Ingall’s excellent article on ethical parenting and schools that Josh sent my way as we debate this out at night. I agree with her wholeheartedly. And wherever we go, I will give that school my 100% to help instill the wonder I want all the kids to have.
The application deadline draws near. I am 99% sold on staying put. Of doing the extras our way. But it’s that 1% that is ruffling my mind, even if the whole thing is a moot point since, you know, it’s all about judgment and gatekeeping. I could go through all of this worrying and in the end, if they don’t get in, there is no choice to make.