My mom was a single parent, essentially, living 4 hours from my father. I spent a considerable amount of time in day care, with babysitters, some family, for most of my early childhood. I remember very fondly the sweet Montessori school she sent me to when I was 3 & 4, run by the Dominican Sisters & a bit of a drive for her. I remember learning how the calendar worked in 1978, when I was four, & the feeling of pride I got from understanding. I remember generally gazing over the classroom & being proud of the sense of order that there was, with everything having a place, & knowing there were still discoveries for me to make. I felt comfortable with my teachers as well as my peers; I had a sense of community. This was a primary reason in me wanting to send MiniMe to Montessori, & I know she found her experience to be as satisfying as mine.
When we moved into the City, 3 blocks from the very house my mom grew up in, I was to go to the same elementary school as she did. On the first day of kindergarten I had an awful experience I remember very vividly almost 30 years later. The teacher was going over the alphabet, probably to get a sense of where we, the students, were in our understanding. I was bored. I reached over another student to grab a Little Golden Book, opened it, & read quietly to myself. The teacher scolded me for not participating with the group. I told her, "I already know that, though. I've never read this book before." She mocked me. She ended up bringing me up to the front of the class, where she was standing & all the other students were sitting in front of her on the floor. She didn't believe that I could read, so she literally dared me to read the book aloud. I knew that she expected me to fail, which was something I hadn't really experienced before. I read, slowly, but certainly. The kids in the class didn't seem to understand that what I was doing was a positive thing. All they understood was that the teacher was mocking me. The fact that I could read was irrelevant. I was disobedient. I did not conform. I was to be punished. I was to be mocked.
I went home that day & cried more than I had when my Brittany, Missy, had run away. I was beside myself. I didn't understand. Thankfully, my mother understood exactly. In fact, she had even endured the cruelty of the same kindergarten teacher herself as a child. She made an appointment with the principal of the school & I did not go back until after we met with Mr. Castle.
When we met with him I remember he & my mom explained to me that I would be given some questions on paper & I was to just do as best as I could. There was no right or wrong answers, they just wanted to see how much I understood. I remember rows & columns of words that were somehow related. I had to circle some things, or underline them, or simply read them aloud. I was comfortable. I didn't feel like I had on that first day of kindergarten & was relieved.
The decision was made to just put me in first grade at 5 years old. I remember my teacher, Ms. Shirley, who used phonics before they were very popular. She used to put words on stars around the ceiling & we would take turns reading them aloud as she pointed to them with her pointer. I was not afraid to succeed or be proud.
I remember in 2nd grade I left the rest of my regular class for a few hours a week & went to the library with other kids from other classrooms. We did special projects where we got new markers, new books, & it was there that I first heard that I was gifted. In the 4th grade, my best friend, Rachel Hernandez, & I were moved out of the same class as our other friend, Ramona Castro. Ramona's mom tried to get her moved into our class, but they wouldn't let her. I remember how mad Ramona was at us, but we didn't understand why the grown ups did what they did. Rachel & I were put into a 'split' classroom, where there were about another 8 students our age, 4th graders, but the rest of the class were 5th graders. My mom made the decision to put me in private school before I got to junior high because she was a juvenile social worker, she knew too much, & she didn't want me to be 10 years old going to school with pregnant girls.
When I was older & we moved out of the City into a more affluent suburb, I had a hard time. I was the girl from a broken home with the wrong clothes. I had a hard time adjusting socially & because of that my grades suffered initially. Eventually, I grew into high school, but while I did have a few close friends, I was behind socially. When my classmates turned 16 & got cars, my parents tried to compensate by buying me a moped. I didn't turn 16 until the summer before my senior year. I started college when I was just 17, and I wasn't very street smart. I had a hard time in college because I didn't know what to do with myself. For the first time in my life, I had to study, & I didn't know how.
I have been thinking about this a lot because MiniMe is going to four in a few short weeks & she is eligible for the Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program, which covers a big portion of the cost of her to be in certain pre-school settings starting in the fall. (You know, the fall, when I'm due to have another rugrat to suck up my time as well as my breastmilk) She is desperately in need of being with some sort of a peer group, as we live in a seriously unbalanced population. She was used to being in group care from 9 weeks old until just last summer, so she is incredibly social. But the choices for schools here are, well, let's just say that the state of Florida is currently ranked #49 in the country for quality of education.
In raising MiniMe thus far, we have cultivated a love of learning in her that is nearly unquenchable. She is caught between wanting to be an astronaut, a violinist, a veterinarian, a scientist, and a dancer. The library is like a fantasy to her, where any question she has can be explored. She has asked for Gray's Anatomy (the book) for her birthday because she is fascinated with what is going on in there. I love to hear her questions, as they are already so thoughtful, it is possible to have an intelligent conversation with her. I am afraid, however.
I feel as if there is a choice where you have to cross a boundary, & I feel I am upon its' precipice. As we have let MiniMe's desires lead her, she knows all of the planets in the solar system, but does not recognize each letter of the alphabet. She can tell you what a gardenia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, plumbago, & bromeliad are, how banyan trees grow from the top down, but she cannot grasp why twenty-ten is not a number.
We have chosen to send her to the local Catholic school because, well, we are, & this is the first year they are participating in the VPK program. Another part of my rationale is that if we are still here (God forbid) for the following school year & cannot get her into the arts magnet elementary, at least we would have the option of keeping her at the Catholic school as it goes through 8th grade, & we would be able to provide her some sort of continuity. I am worried, however, that they will squelch our passionate girl.
I remember, sitting in Calculus class, & being irate with the teacher. I could not grasp the concept & was trying to get him to help me visualize what the concept was. He lost patience with me & told me to just follow the directions. It was the first class I ever failed. This rutabaga cannot just follow processes very well without understanding how the process related to something tangible. I learned math in Montessori, which uses a series of manipulative beads to illustrate the concepts. I realized that while I was given a firm foundation of loving to learn, a gift of having things taught to me in a way that I fully understood them, I never learned to just memorize for the sake of memorization. What a waste, I thought, of my time & my thoughts.
The Catholic school expects MiniMe to be able to write her name when she starts in August, & I am expected to teach her this. I'm annoyed. This is yet another fine example of where No Child Left Behind has gotten us; children must learn how to test well. We both have such better things to do with our time. When she decides she wants or needs to know this, she will, & it will take her all of a half hour at most. But to force her to sit, at not quite 4 years old, & learn this thing that someone else has decided she needs to know, I don't know if I can do it. Part of the reason I think the Catholic school would be good for her is because I don't want her to be in Calculus class one day & be in that place that I was. I want her to know how to study. But at the same time, I hear Yeats, whom I share a birthday with saying, "Education is not a filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire."
I know she is smart. I don't care if someone thinks she's gifted; in fact, I hope no one ever labels her as such. It's an awful kind of pressure. I'm more worried about squelching that little flame. It is so beautiful, it lights up my days.