When Steve and I started our family, we were still in graduate school. Having kids while we were working on our dissertations was not in the original plan, but it took a whole lot longer to get to the writing stage of our dissertation than expected.
In Jonah’s first year, we alternated dissertating and baby minding (morning shift for me, afternoon for him). We kept paid work to a minimum in order to finish as quickly as possible; Steve taught one or two classes at the Bronx Community College, and I left my job at the policy center entirely. We survived on WIC checks and help from my folks.
Since we couldn’t afford to go out or have a social life, we spent a lot of our downtime gazing down at our new baby imagining his future, as most new parents do. With (soon to be) PhDs parents, we figured that our blond babe would be a school super star. After all, we had hacked school, so we imagined that we could pass down those tricks to him and the doors to Harvard would open wide. A couple of years later, Ian came along, and we eventually learned that one of the downsides to assorted mating is an increased chance of autism.
As the kids moved through elementary school, Steve and I used our education to help the kids, but not in the way that we expected – the unexpected is a huge theme in my life.
At some point, when Jonah was in middle school, we began to resent the massive presence that school had in our lives. Homework took up whole evenings. Entire weekends were spent on a soccer field or a track field or some other after-school activity. Our kid’s happiness was dependent on his grade on his history exam. Family conversations around the dinner table involved homework, tests, and grades. Forgotten homework would lead to angry conversations. Why were random and, often times, dumb assignments was having an impact on my relationship with my son?
Home schoolers often leave the public school system, because they don’t like the secular or liberal values that are passed onto the kids from the teachers. While the thought of spending years cooped up with my kids gives me hives, I do have a lot of sympathy for those who want to opt out of the system. Because the system is grinding kids up. It makes them jump over arbitrary hoops and assigns marks on their jumping skills. If they were learning worthwhile stuff, okay maybe, but lots of times, the things that were learning was worthless.
Sometimes Jonah would bring home an assignment in social studies on a topic that Steve or I know super well, like the Federalist Papers or the interwar years in Germany. We would have to reteach those topics to Jonah, because we didn’t feel like the teacher knew his/her stuff. Lately, Ian’s been working on some really crappy writing organizer that’s supposed to teach him how to write paragraphs. I write for a living; no professional writers uses that sentence-evidence-sentence-evidence formula.
In the end, we used our education to un-educate our kids. We were forced to offer a counter balance to the dystopian world of the modern teenager. We took both boys to do fun things that had absolutely nothing to do with achievement and winning. We went to museums, because we just like learning about stuff. We went for hikes, where we looked at snakes, and jumped over creeks. We wandered into restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, because eating new foods is fun.
My education did come in handy, when we realized that Ian had autism, and I had to learn a whole bunch of special education laws really quickly, in order to advocate for him in the best way possible. I’ve also “scienced the hell out of” his unique brain, but that’s a story for another day. Mostly we used our educations to show the kids that there is a lot to learn outside of school and that learning new things was awesome and didn’t need a reward.
The heavy shadow of the school building is felt strongest in upper middle class communities like ours. Stress and the heavy demands from school is a form of privilege in a way. But for the kids who are dealing with some toxic cocktails of stress and depression, it’s simply horrible. I know five and six year old kids who are having meltdowns in schools about stress right now. This is child abuse, plain and simple.
Schools are products of their communities, so administrators are ratcheting up expectations and pressure in response to parent demands (and in response to town officials who want high school rankings to maintain real estate value). And communities like ours are scared shitless about the future for their kids. They’re worried that their kids aren’t going to get a ticket on the middle class train without perfect grades and an acceptance letter to a top college. They’re so worried about it that they’ll put themselves in massive debt to pay those private school tuitions, and send their kids to high schools that ruin them emotionally.
So, we pushed back. Not entirely. Our oldest got decent grades and was in a varsity sport, but we resisted school demands enough to be subtly subversive. We decided that it was more important than our kids were sane and happy, rather then they win a perfect SAT score. We tried to not let schools drive our family life. Because schools should be a side dish, not the main course of a family.
Every family should have their own things that make them happy, that define them, that bind each other together. We like art museums and hikes, but for other families, it might mean Mets games or fishing trips or baking. I’m agnostic about those family definitions, as long as it’s not school. We can’t abdicate the joy and the creativity of raising a family to a government bureaucracy that won’t remember your kid’s name next year.
My philosophy? Kids and family first. Schools last, by a lot.