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We are at that time of year, as we are so often are, that is filled with milestones and anniversaries. Some of them are good, some bad, all tinged with reminders both subtle and glaring of where we’ve been and where we might someday end up. Last Wednesday was Austin’s kindergarten musical performance, not an obvious cancer milestone in anyone’s life, but filled with significance nonetheless. It should go without saying that there is just something about watching five and six-year-olds go through a song and dance routine, all waving their arms slightly off rhythm, scrunching up their faces and waving to their parents one minute, the perfect image of mature composure the next. All coupled with their eager filing from risers to stage to recite their carefully rehearsed but poorly enunciated lines, and the whole thing is just adorable to the point of tears.
But for us, it also stood in stark contrast to Braedan’s kindergarten musical three short — and very very long — years ago. That day, way more dramatic than this, is described here. And let me tell you, it was not as easy as I made it sound in that rather upbeat review. It was instead filled with a lot of anxious clock-watching, as I wondered if I would yet again break the heart of my elder child in my desperate attempt to keep my younger child alive. So it was with enormous relief that we watched Austin sing his songs and wave his hands and recite his line (inappropriate though it was for a child who can’t pronounce his Rs): “And you would be right, with most of those terms . . . You see, ladies and gentlemen, we are the worms!” with no pending hospital visits, no Sophie’s Choice decision looming in our near future, no fear of what the next day, week, month might hold. Instead, it was all sweetness and pride, worms and snakes, and even Braedan and two other older siblings were invited to provide comic relief in the form of cheesy bat jokes.
Austin on my lap three years ago
Austin last week, ready to perform
Austin on stage, reciting his line
Braedan on stage (far right), reciting his line
And if anyone is really paying attention, you’ll notice that Austin was wearing the same shirt last week that Braedan wore to his kindergarten show. We, of course, went to the Colony for dinner that night but I have no pictures of grilled cheese-induced ecstasy.
But, if you want a real milestone, a truly significant, did-it-again milestone, here it is, hidden in the midst of this post about a school concert . . . Austin had an abdominal ultrasound today. We opted to do it back at Rainbow, even though his new oncologist is at the Clinic, because only this particular radiologist knows what to expect from his crazy misshapen kidney. So we’ll have an additional appointment in a few weeks, with a chest x-ray and labs and a physical, but for now, from today’s scan which looks at his kidney and liver and is the thing that really matters most to us, Austin is three years cancer-free. Yes, that’s right. That’s what I snuck in here at the end of this silly little post. AUSTIN IS THREE YEARS CANCER-FREE. Ka-pow.
You’ve heard it all over the media these past eight days: The teachers in Sandy Hook were heroes. And they were. No doubt about it. But they were also just teachers; they were doing — in a most basic and ordinary sense — what teachers do, all over the country, each and every day.
Teachers support and protect and nurture the children in their care. No matter what. I know, I’ve been there. My first three years of teaching were in an elementary school in the City of Compton, outside of Los Angeles. And while there were many stereotypes about Compton that were proved wrong by my students and their families over those years, it was nonetheless an impoverished city besieged by gang violence. And so, of course, there were shootings. Not school shootings, in the sense we now know them. But shootings right outside our school, that we could hear and, one time, even see. Gun violence that definitely placed me and the eight and nine-year-old children in my care in grave danger.
I learned pretty quickly what to do when the code red alarm would go off. I’d check outside my door and grab any child walking by (which one time caused great stress to the teacher who had allowed a little boy to go to the bathroom right before a shooting) and lock my door. Then we’d sit on the floor on our reading rug, under the windows that lined the back of the classroom, facing a residential street. We were close enough to the windows that if stray bullets came through, they would fly over our heads — or so we hoped. I’d read and sometimes the kids would share their stories of friends and neighbors and cousins who were shot, the way my sons talk about their summer vacations. We’d wait, with no cell phones and not even an intercom or building phone to contact the office (these schools were lacking in so many ways). And after a while, the All Clear bell would sound and we’d go about our day. No heroics, just grown-ups keeping children safe and calm, acting like the teachers they were.
In the last month of my last year there, I was coaching soccer after school on our asphalt playground. And we heard gunfire. More than I’d ever heard before, so much that I almost thought they were fireworks. I looked about, at the kids running across our “field,” enjoying their last moments of practice, and at the moms with their baby strollers lined up on the wall, ready to walk them home. One nodded at me (she knew the difference between gun shots and fireworks) and I blew the whistle and started to gather up my kids, right when the Code Red alarm sounded. I stood on the ramp to the trailer that served as our library and shooed the moms and the children, strollers and soccer balls, into the door. It was automatic. I didn’t fear for my life, standing out in the open as I was. I simply did my job.
As I stood there waving my arms, “In, in. Faster, let’s go” (in English and Spanish), I looked up over their small heads and saw a guy on a bike racing down the street on the other side of our fence. He was pedaling furiously and looking over his shoulder with his hand at the waistband of his sweatpants . . . where he was holding his gun. It was a bike-by, for crying out loud. And I was close enough to see his face. Suddenly, three guys from a house across the street burst out their door, jumped off the porch and chased after him, on foot. (What exactly they were trying to accomplish is beyond me.) My last kid was whisked through the door and I was safely behind them, though I already knew that the danger had passed.
The next day, the police came to school to record my statement and I easily picked the guy out of a photo line-up. A month later, I was packed up and on the road to San Francisco (not a moment too soon, according to my dad, who’d spent the past three years being nervous for me when I wasn’t nervous for myself). That fall, I received a phone call from the Prosecutor’s Office and they flew me down to LA to testify against this guy in court. A known gang banger, he had threatened a young teenager that morning for telling his friend to say no to gangs. Payback, that very afternoon, was getting shot in the face and leg (thankfully, he did survive). It was the shooter’s third strike and in California, that means you’re out. I was, as you might imagine, a very credible witness, white teacher lady and all. When it was the defense attorney’s turn to cross examine, he mocked me and my story, “Oh, I’m sure you were veeerrryy heroic, standing out there and letting all your students inside before you, while you just calmly surveyed the scene,” and on and on as if I’d embellished my role with undue heroics.
“No,” I told him. “I wasn’t playing the hero. I was doing my job.” What I did that day on that playground was automatic. I didn’t think about it, I did it. When you are a teacher, your students really are your “kids,” and you will do whatever it takes to keep them from harm’s way.
Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, and Mary Sherlach did not intend to be heroes when they walked into work at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. They intended to be teachers.
About this time last year, I wrote a couple of posts about helicopter versus free-range parenting, found here , here and here. There must be something about the start of the school year and the intense focus on rules and safety that brings these issues to the forefront each fall, because I’m at it again. And now, a new term has entered our lexicon, and it’s not a good one: bulldozer parents. No, they’re not knocking you over with stories and Facebook posts about how fabulous their kids are nor are they overtaking everything in their paths with their zealous parenting strategies. They’re called bulldozers because they attempt to clear the paths in front of their children, removing any obstacles, dangers or hardships before allowing their little ones to travel on ahead.
We are doing no one any favors here, people. Kids — shocker here — are actually pretty smart: they can figure stuff out. They can deal with hardship. They can be independent. And they must be forced to, in situations that are relatively safe and relatively risk-free, early in their lives or they’ll never ever be able to do it later when it really matters. If we clear every bump and tree root from our kids’ paths when they’re eight, how on earth are they going to deal with bumps and tree roots and, god forbid, bears, when they’re twenty?
I was talking about this with a friend who works at a local university and she said she’s witnessed college students going in to their professors’ office hours to discuss a paper or grade accompanied by their mothers. Let me repeat that: she has seen college students, legal adults, old enough to fight in wars and vote in elections, who bring mommy along when they need to discuss something difficult with a professor! Hello? How is this person going to have a real job, with angry customers or clients? Or raise their own kids? Or do any of the tough things that are a part of grown-up life?
This post is driven in part by a recent reiteration of a long-standing district rule that states that only 4th and 5th graders can ride their bikes to school. I am working with a certain pro-bike city council person to get the district to change this rule and one of their stated concerns is that people backing out of their driveways in the morning won’t see small kids on their bicycles. Well, I don’t want my kids to get run over on their way to school, but guess what? I told them to look for moving cars in driveways as they ride. Just like we tell them to look for cars before they cross the street. And guess what? They do it!
I want my kids to be happy. And I want them to be successful. And, of course, I want them to be safe. But I also want them to be resilient and independent and to know what to do in difficult situations. And in order to gain those skills, they should have opportunities when they’re young to test themselves in relatively safe situations. If they’re walking to school by themselves and someone gets hurt, they should be able to figure out how to handle it: Is it minor enough that they can just keep walking and deal with it when they arrive at school? Should someone turn around and run back home? Is there a friendly neighbor whose house they can stop at? Figure it out, kids, use your heads and solve the problem.
If there is something they don’t like at school, a rule they believe is unfair . . . figure it out. Write a letter to your principal (our new one welcomes such student input), bring it up with a teacher you trust, organize your friends. Don’t just stand around and whine, . . . do something. If they can do these things now, in elementary or middle school, think of how much more capable they’ll be by the time they have to walk in to office hours (or battle) ten years from now. We may think we are helping them by clearing their paths, but we’re really stunting them and allowing them to enter adulthood completely unprepared.
And none of us want that.
I’m not going to keep harping on the start of the school year (I’ll have other things to harp about soon, I promise!), but here is the link to an article posted on the St. Baldrick’s site last week. Which contains, as Mark pointed out, the best single line description of Austin’s personality to date. Enjoy….
Well, I changed my mind because I know a lot of you don’t ever click on links (I can see these things; the WordPress blogger is all-knowing), so here it is (no copyright laws are violated because I wrote the darn thing):
Starting Kindergarten After Battling Childhood Cancer
August 30, 2012
It’s that time of year again . . . the smell of freshly sharpened pencils in the air, the sound of school buses rolling down the street and the stack of paperwork for parents to fill out each evening. As I sit at my kitchen table completing the blue Who’s Eligible To Pick My Child Up From School form and the goldenrod Emergency Contact form and salmon Photo Release form, I am stopped in my tracks by the green Medical History form.
It’s nothing surprising, just your usual list of vaccinations and set of Yes/No questions: Has your child ever had heart problems? Seizures? Allergies? Surgeries? Kidney problems? Other? And then there’s my favorite: “If yes, please describe,” followed by one-and-a-half single-spaced lines. They actually want me to explain my child’s dramatic and life-threatening three-year illness in less than seven inches of space?
I don’t think so.
So, instead, I neatly write “Please see attached” and proceed to type up a 370-word addendum that describes in dry, emotionless language Austin’s diagnosis with bilateral Wilms tumor at the age of ten months, his four initial abdominal surgeries, his eight months of chemotherapy. Next paragraph includes his relapse, additional surgeries, twelve rounds of radiation, six more months of chemo. Last paragraph details his daily blood pressure medications and the restricted diet he follows due to the fact that he’s lost his entire right kidney and half of his left.
There. Done. Ready to repack his folder and send him off to kindergarten, a milestone we were never sure we’d reach. But nowhere in those myriad school forms did I truly capture my child. Any teacher who sits down to read those sheets would fail miserably to picture Austin in their mind. I can almost guarantee that they would imagine a sad, sickly boy, struggling to keep up with his classmates and opting out of gym class. Scarred and scared, feeble and hesitant.
There is no way they could conjure up the real Austin, the last kid you would ever describe as feeble, cartwheeling across the lawn, executing perfect front flips on the trampoline (or bed or couch), racing around the block on a two-wheel bike. No way would they picture this boy, spunky and clever, both brave and shy, extraordinary in so many ways, and yet so very very ordinary.
But I will let him go, with a heart both heavy and thankful, into the world of big kid school, where he can define himself. And I will know that those completed forms stuck in his backpack are only one tiny part of this truly remarkable boy.
The first day was a success. Both boys came home beaming, happy with their friends and thrilled with their teachers.
As we rode our bikes to the obligatory celebratory dinner at The Colony that evening, I asked Austin about the one boy I’d heard him mention by name. “So, do you think you’ll be friends with Ben?”
“I already AM friends with Ben!” he shouted back. After the bikes were locked and we walked out onto the patio to meet Mark, whose family should be seated at the very next table but Ben’s? The boys squealed and shouted and introduced each other to their families. I definitely think this little friendship is gonna work.
Unfortunately, the start of the school year for kindergartners is dragged out ever so slowly. One third of the kids go on each of the first three days. And because they started on a Thursday and because that Thursday was right before a long weekend, Austin still hasn’t been back! He did wake up in the middle of the night last week and cry about how unfair it was that Braedan got to go the next day and he didn’t. Let’s just hold on to that thought for as long as possible, kiddo. Finally, tomorrow, he’ll have his second day of school.
But school or not, we were all sure to make the most of the last official weekend of summer. Another few days in Chautauqua with friends, spent waterskiing and tubing, hiking the caverns at Panama Rocks and roasting marshmallows well past bedtime.
It has been a good summer indeed.
This child’s road to kindergarten has been littered with eight-hour surgeries and the side effects of chemotherapy. More CT scans in two years than the recommended allowance for an entire childhood. Central lines and blood pressure medications fit for a retiree.
But despite the bumps in the road, the twists and turns and inevitable hills, the outrageous and unexpected detours, this child has reached his destination. The child has, against all odds, started kindergarten:
And it was surprisingly smooth. I’ve gotta admit that for the past few years, this day has loomed large in front of me. If I were a stage actor and needed to make myself cry, all I would have to do is imagine walking out of that building on the first day of school and the tears would start rolling. Honestly, I’ve cried about it many times already as I lie in bed at night just thinking about it. But today was different. We walked, the four of us together, the boys’ backpacks bulging with tissue boxes and Chlorox wipes. Then there was the chaos at school of students and parents trying to find their new teachers before the flag raising. I had one quick moment when a friend asked how I was and I got choked up, before anything significant had even happened. But I hid behind my sunglasses, not wanting to make Austin any more nervous than he was already was.
Into the building we went, down the hallway hand in hand. I left him in his classroom to join the parents for paperwork and Q&A. And that was another moment; I had to go into an empty classroom first and gather myself, right on the verge of a full-blown sob fest. But that too passed, as I was swept up in the mundane tasks of listing emergency contacts and ordering gym shirts. Then another goodbye, this one harder for him than me (but no tears). And that was it. I walked out chatting with parents and friends and headed down the street to my quiet house.
I did it. We did it. He did it. Austin is alive and well, as healthy and normal-looking as any child in that building. He is something we were never sure he’d be: a kindergartener. And next year, he’ll be a first grader. And then second and third. Before I know it, he’ll be a middle schooler. And he’ll graduate from high school and he’ll go on to college.
Because he is alive. And he is well.
He did it.
My almost eight-year-old Braedan is long past the age where I have any control over what he wears for Halloween. Despite my endless suggestions and offers to create something clever and unique, he opted for a packaged costume from Target and went as a Motorcross Racer. Of course, he’s as cute as ever no matter what he wears.
Yesterday, at the end of his school’s parade
Austin, on the other hand, is still young (and impressionable) enough that he actually wants me to make his costume. This year, we settled on a rocket ship/space shuttle which I fashioned out of foamy poster paper. We were both pretty pleased with the results.
Until we got to Braedan’s classroom yesterday afternoon and Austin suddenly refused to put it on. He marched in that whole parade wearing no costume and a scowl on his face, matched only by mine. I was so disappointed that he wouldn’t wear it that I kept harping at him, in my own whiny voice: “This is what you asked for, Austin. This is what you begged me to work on every night.” Next tactic: “Well, I don’t know what you’re gonna wear on Halloween night because I’m not getting you another and nobody wants to give candy to kids without costumes.”
Shockingly, none of my threats or pleas worked. But once we got home, he cheerfully announced that he actually loves his costume and does plan to wear it for trick-or-treating! Huh. He even put it on and let me take some photos.