Nervous about kids starting school? 10 things to remember

As I’ve mentioned a million times, we have tried nearly every form of schooling that is out there. The biggest change was going from home school to the classroom. Lots of adjustments, in our habits and our attitudes! Here are ten things we learned the hard way.

(Please note: this post is intended to help parents who have some trepidation about starting their kids out in school. All of the “lessons” in it come directly from my own family’s experience, and are not intended to mock, belittle, or stereotype anyone. If you insist on assuming that my motives are foul, just remember what they say: “assume” makes an “e” out of you and your, um, ass. Or something.)

1. A kid who is old enough to go to school is old enough to pack his own lunch. He’s also more likely to eat food he chose than food you chose for him; and food that gets eaten is always more nutritious than food that doesn’t get eaten, no matter what it is. However, an adult must inspect these lunches regularly to make sure they have more nutritional content than the bag in which they are packed. No, checking how heavy the bag is does not count.

2. Teachers do not want tea lights or magnets or paperweights or wreaths or adorably decorated clothes pins. They want gift cards to office and craft supply stores, or to Starbucks, and they want boxes of tissues and Clorox wipes. Or, they would settle for an involved parent. They would probably prefer an involved parent.

3. Being a Catholic means you’re going to be different, and kids need to learn, sooner or later, that it’s not the end of the world to be different. If your kids are going to be in an environment where they are the only Catholics around, they need to have constant reminders (in word and in deed) that Christians are bearers of Good News, not bearers of hostility and smugness.  Also, If you are a serious practicing Catholic, you’re just as likely to stand out in a typical Catholic school as you are to stand out in a secular school.  The wearin’ of the plaid is not a guarantee of an excellent faith formation and a wholesome environment, so pay attention.

4. Skip the personal bottles of hand sanitizer to be used every time your snowflakes come into contact with the outside world. We actually got sicker when I tried hard to sterilize everything, because kids do need to be exposed to some germs. Try and remind them to wash their hands before they eat, but just resign yourself to some sniffles and pukies, and get on with your life. But don’t let them share hats or hairbrushes! Trust LICE me LICE on LICE this LICE one. (If they do get lice, that’s not the end of the world, either.)

5. Most teachers are not the enemy. We’ve run across a few teachers who genuinely don’t like or understand kids, and sometimes a situation really is unendurable, and you need to switch teachers or even switch schools.  But generally, if a teacher is in the classroom, it’s because he wants to do right by your kid. So if there is a problem, start by believing that you can at least partially solve it together with the teacher, rather than by believing you need to protect your child from the teacher.  It’s much easier to communicate with someone when you go into it acting like you’re on the same side.

6. If you’re going to believe everything your kid says about what happened in school (“Mrs. Fleishhacker says that she was going to beat me with barbed wire if I didn’t wear matching socks tomorrow!”), then it’s only fair that your kid’s teacher should believe everything your kid says about what happens at home (“Here is my picture of my family eating breakfast! All those whiskey bottles are my mom’s”).

7. Yes, your kids will probably change somewhat when they’re put into a new situation. This is just human, and not necessarily a bad thing.  Be ready and open to embrace positive changes, as well as being on the alert to ferret out bad changes. Do be concerned about a kid whose behavior changes drastically — a cheerful, outgoing kid who becomes very quiet and withdrawn, or a cooperative kid who becomes defiant and obstinate. Some changes are normal when kids are adjusting to a new environment, but if you’re worried, trust your instincts and look into it. There could be any number of things going on: a bad teacher, a good teacher who is approaching your kid the wrong way, a bully, a character defect in your own child, not enough sleep, hunger, or any of dozens of physical, emotional, psychological, or situational problems that don’t have anything to do with school. Most kids go through rough patches at one time or another, so if this happens to your kids, don’t assume he’s lost or ruined or that you’re a failure; but do take it seriously if your kid is consistently unhappy for a long time.

8. A lot of kids crash right after school. It’s partly being tired and hungry, and partly because they’ve been trying really hard to be good all day, and their tanks are empty. If possible, just be grateful it’s not reversed, and do your best to wait it out until the kid matures a bit. Have a snack ready, and be prepared to give even older kids some decompressing time before you expect much out of him after school.

9. Remember that you are still in charge of your child’s education. If there’s something they’re not getting at school, you give it to them. If they’re hearing something that’s not true, correct it. If you need someone else’s help to educate your kids, that is not an objective failure on your part!  Remember that they’re still your kids, and you can and must be the primary influence in how they see and respond to the world.

10. You’re not going to get an ideal education in a brick and mortar school. You’re also not going to get an ideal education by home schooling, or by unschooling, or by semi schooling, or co-schooling, or private schooling, or charter schooling, or attending-all-the-conferences-and-working-yourself-into-a-damp-spot-on-the-carpet schooling. Some schools are better than others, but since we are dealing with finite time and human nature, there will always be gaps. Expect this, fill in what you can, and remember that your kids are people, not empty mason jars waiting to be filled up with the perfect combination of ingredients. We’re making people, here, not soup.

***

A version of this essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.

Should you go into debt to get a liberal arts degree?

So if you hear someone telling you that a liberal arts education is a luxury in which only the independently wealthy should indulge, I’ll agree . . . if you mean the kind of education that makes you think of your own brain as an exquisite platter of pâté, to be passed around at parties and admired for its velvety richness. Don’t get that kind of education, no matter how much money you have. The world needs exactly zero of that.

But if you mean the kind of education that gives you the unshakable idea that life is interesting, worth thinking about, worth talking about…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Knowledge should make us humble, not impatient

Check out the epistles, written to Christian communities that had already been catechised: Half of these letters have the very distinct air of a fifth-grade teacher whose class has no idea how to do long division even though they just spent the entire month on it, but darn it, she will go ahead and tell them again because that is what she is here for.

That is what we are all here for. If we know something good, we have to tell it over and over and over again because God knows we needed to hear it more than once ourselves.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: Jaysin Trevino via Flickr  (Creative Commons)

Dear Simcha: Some back-to-school advice

Dear Simcha,

I believe in predictability, order, and routine. The alarm goes off at 6:20. Breakfast is always ready on time. We’re well-stocked with clean clothes, toothpaste, and deodorant. I keep the kids’ shoes in labelled bins and their backpacks on labelled hooks. I give them a ten-minute and a five-minute warning when it’s time to leave. We’ve been doing this exact routine for three weeks, but we are still late every single day, and my children are often partly naked. And they all act like it’s my fault! What is wrong with them?

Signed,
Craves order

Dear Craves,

Well, it is your fault, you know. Don’t you know how important it is to have reasonable expectations?

For instance, you are expecting your children to act like rational human beings, even though the testimony of every mother throughout the course of human history, from the cave matron shooing her hairy little cavebabies off to twig-gathering school to the LuLaRoe’d, overcaffeinated yummy mummy weeping quietly into her suddenly deserted cul-de-sac, can tell you children are lower than the animals.

Animals, at least, respond predictably to stimuli and will act in service of their own self-preservation. Children, on the other hand, can zero in on the least helpful, most self-destructive course of action like a hungry pig after a truffle. Children crave order and predictability. Children are order and predictability’s worst enemy. You must know this.

Still, you have to get out that door. Your only recourse is train your kids to sing out adorably, “Daddy gets us ready every morrrrrrning!” According to the latest research, a kid who turns up wearing a stained leotard, Scooby Doo slippers, and grits in her hair is cute as long as Daddy got her ready.

***

Dear Simcha,

I make a point of serving my kids a balanced breakfast including protein and whole grains every morning. They also bring a full lunch and two snacks, and I keep cheese sticks, almonds, and dried fruit in the car for the ride home. Can you tell me why they are always hungry enough to take actual bites of each other’s arms by the time we pull into the driveway at 3:45?

Signed,
It just don’t add up

Dear It,

Well, I’ll tell you. On that very special day when a brand new baby first opens his eyes on this big, overwhelming world, a tiny fairy comes to him and whispers a very special secret into his ear:

“You’re not going to eat your lunch,” she tells him.

“Never mind why. Just know that it doesn’t matter what your mother packs. It doesn’t matter if she cooks it herself, and you requested it specifically, and it is monogrammed with a special lunch monogrammer purchased at some expense from Hammacher Schlemmer. None of this matters, for, o my child, you are not going to eat it! Your lunch is just there for the ride. It wants to go to school, and it wants to sit on your desk, and then it wants to go home again, to be thrown away completely intact, even unto the granola bar that was produced on machinery that does not also process tree nuts. It is the way of the world, little one. So shall it ever be.”

Your best bet, mom, is to buy a chicken, a goat, or some other non-discerning animal with a great hunger, so at least someone eats all that food. Then, when it’s nice and plump, you can sell it on Craigslist and buy some booze.

***

Dear Simcha,

Wow, you sure do complain a lot about school! It just makes me glad that we home school. So many people believe that home school is going to be hard, but in my experience, a full day of school work can be accomplished in mere minutes a day. I have never met a homeschooler who has regretted their choice or who has found their job difficult.*

Signed,
Just Sayin’

Dear Just:

I may have a public school education, but even I can tell one of two things is going on here. Either (a) You don’t actually home school, but you fully intend to, once you have kids of school age, once you have kids, once you get married to your secret boyfriend, Milo or (b) You do home school, and you do finish in minutes a day, but your kids can’t, like, read. Or add. And the youngest one is nineteen.

I have friends who home school for all sorts of reasons, but not a single damn one who will tell you that it’s always easy. Like every other kind of parenting, including parenting that involves a brick and mortar school, home schooling is sometimes easy and rewarding, sometimes hard and unrewarding, and sometimes easy and unrewarding, and something hard and rewarding. Sometimes it’s some combination of these things within a single hour. So say all my home schooling friends who are not liars.

If you have any choice at all (and not everyone does), you keep on doing it as long as the rewarding part outweighs the hard part. But saying it’s always easy for everyone? That’s just plain . . .

you know what, never mind. I gotta get back to that Craigslist guy about this goat. Baaaaa!
_____
*Actual comment I read on actual Facebook.

Dear Teacher

How I spent my summer vacation

How I spent my summer vacation

Alas. We spent our summer swimming, watching X Files, sucking down gallons and gallons of ramen, eviscerating countless watermelons, making a meticulous survey of the entire lifework of the master cinematographer Chow Yun Fat, and creating various kinds of heartache for your long-suffering soul sister, the public librarian.

Read the rest at the Register.

***

Poetry-ize your house for the summer

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Behold my triumph in a stealth supplemental classical education!  My nine-year-old son, the one affectionately known as “Rat Boy,” came up to me and said, “I really liked that thing you put up, the one about the cows and everything.”  He meant the great G. M. Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty,” which I had printed out, matted on construction paper, and tacked over his gerbil’s tank without comment.

He and his siblings certainly did not want to memorize poems when we were homeschooling!  Boy, did they not want to.   But I’ll be darned if I didn’t  hear my seven-year-old (also known as “Rat Boy.”  What can I say?  They act ratty) muttering, “What the hammer?  What the chain?  In what furnace was thy brain?”  Yes, folks, my boys are reading poetry, and they are enjoying it.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s good to be a decent writer no matter what your profession or vocation; and the best writing comes from people who read a lot, and who have certain ponderous, glorious, melodious phrases steeping in their brains.  It’s good to own these phrases whether we’re consciously thinking of them or not — whether we understand what they mean or not.  So I’m on a poetry rampage these days . . . but a stealthy one.  No nagging, no prodding, no pedantics or pleading.

I just sat down and skimmed through lists of famous poems, picking out my favorites, and printed them out in a large, plain font (it takes forever to write poems out by hand, for some reason).  Then I cut each page down to the size and shape of the poem, rather than leaving them on 8.5×11 paper — I think they look more appealing, less easy to ignore as educational-type stuff, if they’re nonstandard shapes.  Then I matted them on whatever color paper seemed appropriate (again, to make them more decorative and appealing, and less scholarly in appearance), and went around the house tacking them to walls.

I tried to make the placement relevant (“Love (III)” goes under Rublev’s icon of the Trinity; “Dust of Snow” goes next to the window on the side of the house where there are, in fact, crows and trees), but went first for places where I’ve noticed that people tend to hang around staring at the walls already.  Then I didn’t say a word about them, and just waited for the kids to notice.  I think the key was not making a big deal about it — just doing it because I felt like doing it.  No pressure, so they had no motivation to rebel or be difficult.

Here are the poems I hung up, chosen mostly because they’re fairly short and have wonderful sounds and/or images:

The Tyger” William Blake
Still, Citizen Sparrow” Richard Wilbur
Dust of Snow”  Robert Frost
Spring and Fall” G.M. Hopkins
Love (III)” George Herbert

and here are the ones awaiting colorful matting as soon as I remember where I left the construction paper:

“Thirteen Ways of Looking At a  Blackbird” Wallace Stevens
“When I Was One-and-Twenty” (from A Shropshire Lad) A. E. Housman
“Epistemology” Richard Wilbur
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” William Butler Yeats
“The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” Dylan Thomas
“maggie and milly and molly and may” e. e. cummings
“The Walrus and the Carpenter” Lewis Carroll
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” Robert Frost
“Mock On,  Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau” William Blake
“At the Sea-Side” Robert Lewis Stevenson
“Marginalia” Richard Wilbur
I Knew a Woman” Theodore Roethke

I wanted to put “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” but we have a Lucy, whom we do not want to creep out.  Otherwise, I gave my self full permission to just pick stuff that I happen to like for whatever reason, and didn’t feel obligated to choose Important Works Students Ought To Learn.

Oh, it’s so easy!  I’m very happy about this idea, and I don’t see how it could possibly do any harm.  When we stopped homeschooling, I was very glad to have someone else take over all the work, but felt persistently of blue that the curriculum was a little flat.  Now I feel like I’ve snuck vitamins into all their favorite snacks, and their days are bound to be richer.

Lots of people hang up quotes from saints or favorite authors, and I think this is a great idea, too.  But for now, I’m just pushing sounds and images.  Do you do this at your house?  What’s on your walls?

***

This post originally ran at the Register in 2012.

My Dear Graduates

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For some reason, nobody ever asks me to give the commencement address at their local high school or college. This despite the fact that I promised to wear pantyhose and everything, and to leave the bottle at home. Bunch of anti-Semites.

Anyway, I’m not one to be bitter. I’m not going to let this snubbing gnaw away at me. I’m just going to go ahead and write that speech anyway, and print out several copies of it, and keep them in the diaper bag in the car, next to the Luger PO8 and the farewell note. Because you never, never know!

Here’s what I have to say. Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.

Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!

I’m so, so sorry.

Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?

You know that’s crazy talk, right?

I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.

“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”

And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.

Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.

Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done.  A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.

This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.

Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.

So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking a rum and Coke.

***

(This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.)

Columbia Students Lay Siege to Themselves

falling

So here’s what I say to the Columbia students clutching their carefully cultivated pearls as they face down the hot breath of those terrible, wild gods: you’re damn right it’s not safe. You’re not in control here, not on this playground. You may find yourself climbing too high and too fast, and you may reach out for that rung on the monkey bars only to find that you’re grabbing thin air, and down you will plummet, onto the hot asphalt, or maybe further, down into the underworld, where dark Hades glowers over the fluttering dead.

So what?

Read the rest at the Register. 

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What can Catholic parents learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

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Our kids need us. Most of our teenagers are not in danger of becoming violent jihadists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; but unless we make a deliberate, consistent, sincere effort to live our faith and to make sure that our older kids are well connected with adults who can guide and educate them and answer their questions, and unless we give them many opportunities to practice their faith, then there is little hope that they will still be Catholics when they leave our homes.

 Read the rest at the Register. 

What are you doing for catechism this year?

All right, YOU catechise this, if you’re so smart.

For the older kids, in 7th, 8th, 10th, and 11th grades, I give up. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant to say out loud. What I meant to say is that we haven’t found either EDGE or LifeTeen to be a good match for our family, and every time I try to read something aloud to the kids, or do a pre-packaged curriculum with them, something happens to capsize the whole endeavor.  It’s some combination of the kids being in three different schools, and me and my husband working four different jobs, and the kids having this dumb idea about having social lives, and me falling into a prenatal coma around 6:00 every night, that just makes it difficult to keep up with the diligent inquiry into beginner’s theology that I always imagined enjoying in the soft quiet of evening with my older kids. And no, we can’t do anything in the car. I don’t want to explain why. We just can’t.

Read the rest at the Register.