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Living With Kids 

I always said I wanted my daughter to go to public school. But I never really knew why. Free is nice. But there were other reasons, reasons I couldn't articulate--something to do with community, democracy, citizenship ...

On the other hand, I was nervous about the quality of Durham Public Schools. I got a good education there, but that was years ago.

When Susannah was 3, too young for public school, we started her in a private Montessori school. When she was in kindergarten, my husband and I began observing in the public schools. We decided to stick with Montessori, so we applied to Morehead Montessori Magnet school. I wasn't really disappointed when Susannah's name wasn't picked in the first lottery. I loved her private school after all.

Then, four days before school started, she got into Morehead. They have so few openings there that we decided to switch while we had the chance. I knew the last-minute change would be bumpy for Susannah. But I was more worried about whether the public school could measure up. At her private school, we had creative teaching unfettered by bureaucracy, a shady playground with playhouses, a close-knit community of like-minded parents, and excellent Spanish, art and music instruction. The one thing I feared above all was that the public school--bound to meet the needs of every child and burdened by state-mandated testing--might somehow crush her natural love of learning. We took Susannah to an open house at Morehead the weekend before school started. Taken with the traditional trappings of a public school, she bubbled, "I can't wait to ride the school bus! And they have a cafeteria! And a media center! It's just like the schools in the Junie B. Jones books!"

The first week did not live up to her expectations. She said, "It was boring." I tried to ignore the small wave of panic in my belly. The second week she reported, "First grade got a lot better today--I got a workplan. It has lots of columns and tells what you have to do every day."

The third week, she hated school and cried in the mornings. She said things that worried me, like, "Everyone was making so much noise today I couldn't finish my work." Or, "We watched Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in music class today." Was it too late to switch back?

That week I started volunteering. (For years I had wanted to volunteer in a public school, but never got around to it. Now suddenly I was motivated.) I spent two hours at a table in the hall, helping some of the first graders with their reading. I was reassured by what I saw in the classroom--children working independently, quietly, happily. I was impressed, too, that those who needed help reading could, in fact, read.

One morning after Susannah had cried desperately before school, I called a new friend whose children attend Morehead. After I'd listed all my worries, I said, "What's hardest for me is giving up control."

When Susannah was in preschool, we always searched out the program that most closely matched our own philosophies. Children were served meals of beans and rice, or yogurt and granola, or if parents sent in lunches, we were encouraged to send wholesome food ("No candy, please!") in reusable containers. There was lots of outside playtime.

Now we were joining a program that reflected the philosophies of the larger community, including things I don't like. Every classroom has a TV. The cafeteria serves hot dogs and Doritos. The children have only 30 minutes outside each day. My friend commiserated. Then she said, "And yet, my children get incredible life lessons going to a public school."

That evening, I began to understand what she meant. At bedtime, Susannah asked me, "Did you know we have handicapped kids at my new school?"

I nodded.

"The teacher said sometimes they will come to our art and music classes, and I don't want them to."

My mind raced.

She asked, "What's that thing called when you see fireworks in your head even if your eyes are closed? It begins with an 'S'."

"Let me go get Daddy," I said. When my husband and I walked in her room together, she greeted us with, "I remembered--it's called seizures. And the teacher said sometimes they might make funny noises if they have seizures, and I don't like that."

My husband said, "Those children have bodies that are different from ours, but they have the same feelings inside. They want people to be nice to them, just like you want people to be nice to you." He reassured her that physical disabilities were not contagious. Susannah relaxed and snuggled under her covers.

The first day of school, she had told me, "There are a lot more dark-skinned kids here than at my other school." A couple of weeks later, she asked, "You know how you can change the color of your hair? Well, can you change the color of your skin?"

"If you get sunburned," I said.

"No, I mean can you change from dark-skinned to light-skinned, or light-skinned to dark-skinned?"

I said I didn't think so. Later she wanted me to fix her hair in tiny braids and put beads in it. I gave her two tiny braids, but I couldn't figure out the beads.

The fourth week, Susannah no longer complained about school. Instead, she greeted me each afternoon with stories of playing horses on the playground, watching the classroom tadpoles grow and writing books with classmates.

The more time I've spent at the school, the more impressed I've been. Susannah has learned what symmetry is, where lava comes from and how to spell "knapsack." She has been in a play about Franklin Roosevelt that a third-grade classmate wrote. Those TVs, I found out, are used only for an occasional educational video. It was a substitute teacher who showed them Willy Wonka.

Now I know why I want her to go to public school: a good education plus life lessons. I can live with Doritos in the cafeteria.

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