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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

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Austin on stage, reciting his line

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Braedan on stage (far right), reciting his line

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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.

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 Starting Kindergarten After Battling Childhood Cancer

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.

Still smiling at 3:15

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.

I just spent an hour filling out the paperwork to register Austin for kindergarten, which I will do on Tuesday (finally). Yup, an hour, or mighty close to it. Part of that was due to the fact that they want so many mailed bills as proof of residence and I do most of my bill-paying online. But part of it, of course, was the darned medical history.

The twelve-zillionth question on the green sheet (not to be confused with the blue sheet, the purple sheet or the white sheet) asked, “Has your child ever had any operations or serious illnesses?” After the Yes/No boxes, there was a line with the heading “Explain.” The line was 6 1/2 inches long. Oh, sure, let me just use my microscopic handwriting and explain my child’s three-and-a-half year serious illness in 6 1/2 inches.

So I neatly wrote “Please see attached,” and then proceeded to type up a 370-word addendum.

I’m used to writing and telling Austin’s story, but I’m not used to doing it in a completely dry, emotionless manner. Which is what I did on the addendum (which is why it was *only* 370 words.) I simply started at the beginning with diagnosis, stated each chemo drug and surgery date, each recurrence and radiation treatment, the high blood pressure and the daily meds, the enlarged heart and the old VSD.  No adjectives, no editorializing. And, god, it made me sad. I thought, “Who is this poor child? He sounds downright miserable, like his life’s been nothing but pain and misery.” I wanted to add a sentence or two at the end, like, “But he’s a perfectly regular kid!” but I realized it was irrelevant.  I’ll do that for his actual teachers, who know him already as a perfectly regular kid. This sheet will  sit in some dry, emotionless folder in a file cabinet at the Board of Ed and won’t actually mean anything to anyone anyway.

Because that sheet and those 370 medical words do not come close to representing my child.

Austin’s preschool teaches physics. And geology, biology and chemistry. They also teach astronomy and astrophysics. Human psychology with a special focus on group dynamics. Geometry, measurement, civil engineering, thermal dynamics and heat transfer (melting crayons in an electric skillet) art therapy, art history and just plain art.

There are lots of other things they do, like listening to books, singing songs, rhyming words, counting by fives and tens, gross and fine motor skills, and so on and so forth.

But don’t tell Austin any of this.  He thinks he’s there to play all day long.

And play he does. The focus is entirely child-centered, with the teacher’s plans taking a backseat to whatever the kids come up with. In fact, instead of handing out a weekly calendar letting us know what they’ll be doing each day, she sends out a Friday email, explaining what they did (often very different from what she may have expected them to do). They are exploring, creating and discovering. They work individually, in pairs or large groups, depending on the task. They must plan, lead and follow, confront problems and invent solutions. And there is a lot of trial and error.

In our results-oriented world, where “kindergarten is the new first grade” and everyone is worried about faster, better, higher, this school is an incredible gift to the children attending it. There are no worksheets, no direct instruction, no gentle correction of the backwards 15 a child writes on the board after counting the 14 students in the class. Our society places such pressure on parents, who in turn place such pressure on their kids, to learn more and to learn it earlier. Mozart in the womb, flashcards for babies, reading at age 4. But, in my humble opinion as both a mother and a former teacher, there is no benefit — and certainly no need — to structure the curriculum that way.

When Braedan started kindergarten, he could read just a handful of words: definitely mommy, daddy, Braedan, and Austin, and probably love, stop and grammy.  There were many kids in his class who were far ahead of that and I will admit I had a few brief twinges of worry: Is he behind … before he’s even begun? He’s now halfway through second grade and reads at an almost sixth grade level. And every bit of that he learned in school. Granted, we read a ton in our house and we constantly discuss what we read and do, all of which builds vocabulary and understanding, which in turn lays the foundation for a strong reader. But I never taught him to read. That’s what school is for, and I don’t mean preschool. Heck, I would be okay if they didn’t teach reading until first grade and let kindergarten be all play and discovery too, especially for the kids who don’t have the advantage of a high quality preschool experience. But, at least in our public schools with their intense focus on meeting state standards, the curriculum has been pushed down to the point where Braedan learned the words rhombus and trapezoid at age 5. I will never forget his kindergarten homework assignment to play “I Spy” with shapes in our kitchen and I’m saying things like, “I spy a circle” (the clock on the wall), and Braedan says, “I spy a trapezoid.” There I was scanning the room, thinking trapezoid, trapezoid, you’ve got this, Krissy and finally my eyes settled on the perfectly trapezoidal backs of our island stools. “A ha!”

He no doubt benefited from the foundation of his preschool, where he gained independence and confidence in his abilities, without ever hearing the word “phonics.”  I trust Austin is benefiting as well and I am so thankful that Mark and I chose to give him this extra year. He is learning the most important skills a five-year-old could learn. All through play.

Oh, and they do yoga too.

I’m back and mostly recovered from my recent non-stop campaigning for our local school levy. I was eating, breathing, sleeping CHUH for a few days there, hence my uncharacteristic absence from the blogosphere. But we had a resounding victory here, with the community stepping up and supporting public education despite tough economic times.  The margin of victory was larger than any I remember, a whopping 14 percentage points.  Dare I say the tide is turning for the Heights Schools?

Last night, we hosted an Open House for prospective kindergarten families at Fairfax, of which we are one.  I watched Austin stand up there next to his future classmates, awaiting a turn at the SmartBoard, and I was struck by what a big and capable kid he has become. I’m pretty sure he would have been fine in kindergarten this year, but I have no doubt that we did the right thing giving him one more year of preschool.

I had his first parent-teacher conference of the year this morning and she said he is doing fabulously. Both academically and socially, he is absolutely on target — better than on target: he is thriving.  And it is really a joy to see.

He plays nicely with everyone, boy or girl. He is always engaged in classroom activities (as evidenced by that little tongue sticking out), and especially likes the weekly “challenge.”  He is getting mighty close to reading and has a mathematical mind that blows me away (much like his brother and unlike his mother).

His teacher has created a magical environment where the children believe they are just playing and yet learning is infused into everything they do. Each activity and project is carefully selected to enhance some specific skill, either academic, social or physical. I wish every child could experience this kind of classroom before moving into the big (structured) world of kindergarten.

For Austin, I know that this was a decision we will not regret.

My, what a year can do.

Austin’s last day of preschool last year:

And Austin’s last day of preschool last week:

Which of course brings us back to that pesky old question: Was that his last last day of preschool?

Weeeellll, I don’t think so. I’ve been leaning more and more in the direction of not sending him to kindergarten next year. I’m still not completely positive because I do have moments when I think he should go, but with the exception of my mother (an avid rule follower) and a very few others, everyone has told me not to do it. The most resounding No’s have come from teachers. Not teachers who are saying that Austin himself isn’t ready, but teachers who say that any boy with a borderline birthday isn’t ready.

I guess it comes down to which decision we’d regret more and it seems much more likely that we’d regret sending him and having him struggle as the youngest than holding him and having him be the oldest.

We can register him for kindergarten through August so there’s still a chance he may go, but for now, it’s pre-K for Austin.

Even though he has already mastered a skill that Braedan practiced the entire summer before kindergarten: the monkey bars.

Soooooo, today was kindergarten registration day at Fairfax.

My PTA job doing outreach to the incoming kindergarten families required that I be there for the entire two-and-a-half hour event this evening. I oversaw an art project for the kids who came along with their parents, took families on tours of the building, and answered lots and lots of questions.

But I did not register my own child.

Of course, it’s not too late. I have all summer to register him at the Board of Ed should we change our minds. But for right now, as of this particular day, we will not be sending Austin to kindergarten next year.

Is it the right decision? Who knows. But I do know that it’s not the wrong decision.

You know how once you start thinking hard about something, it seems to pop up everywhere?

Well, this kindergarten things seems to be popping up everywhere. Yesterday, I read this article from a recent Newsweek, which focuses on parents who hold their kids back from kindergarten (often upon the recommendation of the private schools to which they’re applying) in order to give them an advantage over their classmates, particularly when it comes to standardized test scores.  Reading stories like that make me absolutely want to send Austin “early” (on time) because I find it so frustrating that parents constantly push their kids to be the best best best.

Then today I read this (worth your time, I promise), not specifically about kindergarten but just about how we’ve turned childhood into some kind of race, a massive competition between the super-successful and those lagging behind, and about how we should return to a time when kids were allowed to be kids for as long as possible. It made me second guess sending him for a completely new reason, one that only a few people have mentioned thus far. Everyone keeps talking about how holding him back will give him advantages later — in his schooling, in his  social life, in his future. And so much of it smacks of having advantages over others — being the best, the brightest, the oldest.

But this little essay made me think about the advantage of just letting him be a kid, right now, less stress, less structure, fewer expectations, for an entire extra year. Like a freebie. Here, little Austin, you’ve had to do lots of grown-up things already (way too many way too grown-up things; you should hear my four-year-old talk about “bwood pwessure cuffs”), so here, take a break. Stay in preschool, build fantastic vehicles out of popsicle sticks, run on the playground, sing songs and do kiddie yoga, don’t fret your pretty little head about phonemic awareness and SmartBoards and Mandarin Chinese.

I’m not so concerned about my kids having advantages over other kids (although admittedly they do — parents who’ve read to them incessantly since birth being chief among them). But I am certainly all about them enjoying the advantages of well-rounded, old-fashioned childhood — freedom and exploration and creativity and self-expression.

Hmmmm, back to the drawing board.

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