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Friday was Austin’s last day of preschool. Ever. So, of course, here’s the obligatory playground photo, along with his previous two Last Day photos:

It’s bittersweet to leave St. Paul’s since it’s been such a major part of our lives for the past six years.  Braedan’s first official day of preschool (after a good two weeks of orientation) was September 21, 2006 … the day Austin was born! So, from that moment to this moment and for every insane moment in between, we’ve been members of that school family. It has spanned all of Austin’s life so far and hopefully the entirety of his cancer, start to finish. It was only fitting that he ended two days after being declared officially and most definitely cancer-free.

As I think back over these past few weeks, I am awed, as I have been so many times before, by the kindness and intense emotional investment of all of you. Your tears and your hugs, the very thoughtful gifts (the dragon-slaying StoryPeople print from the Sweeneys and the key chain featuring my double rainbow image from Becky being my top favorites), your messages of hope and sadness, faith and joy, sustained us through this otherwise heartbreaking experience.

Knowing that you’re out there and that you care so deeply about us, about my child whom some of you have never met, means an enormous amount. I regret that I am never able to properly thank you, but know that I feel you and am fully aware of you. I read the name of each “Like” on my Facebook updates with gratitude and satisfaction (and sometimes surprise). In fact, as Mark and I sat out on the porch last Wednesday with our champagne, we both had buzzing phones in our laps, constantly updating one another with the latest messages of love and relief.

I loved that my brother told me that every time he went anywhere on Thursday or Friday, he was greeted with high fives and hugs, random people congratulating him on his nephew’s good health and even shouting it from the side of the road as he drove past. This has been such a community saga in so many ways, as you’ve followed along beside us for all these years, crying with us, wishing with us, celebrating with us.

(And speaking of celebrating with us, we are going to finally throw a big-ass party and everyone is invited. But we must gather our strength first!)

This round, if you can call it that, was interesting because it was the only time in all of our years of cancer that I felt like it was truly unfair, the first time I ever felt like, “Why me? Why us?” I know it sounds crazy that I hadn’t ever said that before, but — as much as I hate childhood cancer and as much as I’ve raged against its presence in our lives — I also know that it exists and someone has to get it. Someone has to hear those dreaded words, “Your child has cancer.” So I always sort of figured, “Why not me?” I saw no reason I should be exempt from being dealt such a hand. I’ve been given so much, am fortunate in so many ways … why shouldn’t this be my thing?

But this last time, I finally felt this just isn’t fair. We have done it. We fought, hard, and we succeeded. Austin does not, did not, deserve to have to fight this battle yet again. It would have been too much. It would have been, for the first time, completely unfair.

As my brother said, it just felt (for lack of a better term) karmically wrong. Like it just shouldn’t be. And, of course, lucky us, it wasn’t. It isn’t.

At the Family Connections benefit a few weeks ago, right in the midst of our darkest days, a friend told me that I so deserve to have the universe treat me with kindness. Of course, we know that the universe just doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people). And suffering is not fairly or evenly distributed. But I agreed with her. I really believed at that moment (and in this moment) that the universe should treat me kindly. That I deserved it.

And most of all, more than anything, that this boy deserved it:

And this (toothless) one too:

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.

OK, this will be my final public mulling over when to send Austin to kindergarten. For a little while at least!

My big issue right now is that I feel like sending him this coming fall is the RIGHT thing to do. Yes, he would still be only four for the first few weeks, but the official deadline is September 30 and he’ll be five by September 30. So unless I have a very good reason, an actual developmental or physical delay, then he should go. (And, amazingly, he doesn’t have any documented or even suspected physical or developmental delays.)

Somebody has to be the youngest kid in the class, so why not Austin? I’m not certain that being the youngest is always a disadvantage anyway. I know plenty of people, both my age and currently in school, who didn’t mind or don’t mind being in that position.  In fact, Braedan had a neighbor friend over the other day who is the youngest boy in his fourth grade class, yet another late September birthday.  I asked him about it and he said he truly doesn’t care. He said he’s smaller than most kids (but not all) and that some who are even younger are bigger so that’s irrelevant. He does extremely well academically and has no problem fitting in with his peers. He said it hasn’t once been an issue for him thus far in his schooling.

When I spoke with his mom, she said that, back when she was making the decision to send him, a concerned friend said, “But don’t you want him to be a leader?” She said, sure she did, but that he was going to be a leader no matter what. He is a leader. Personality does that, not age. Heck, Braedan could have started kindergarten when he was four and it would have been no big deal. Not that he’s some super genius, but he’s always been emotionally mature and quick to make friends and feel at ease in new situations and he would have done just fine.

So anyway, what I’m saying is that Austin being younger than his classmates by eleven months or ten months or nine months is not a worry for me. So what? There’s automatically going to be a range of kids in a class, some with birthdays up to a year behind the others. What does worry me is the other kids who get held back, the June and July and August kids (boys especially) who would be several months beyond six when they started. It’s that awful “everybody’s doing it” problem. I don’t want to hold him back, but I’m afraid I might because everybody’s doing it. I sort of feel like we get screwed by the people who (in my opinion) should send their kids on time but don’t.

Now I know a lot of you have shared your own experiences with me, both here and in private emails, and I don’t want to offend anyone by having asked your opinion and then saying I think what you did is wrong. And I know that everyone thought carefully about their decisions and of course has every right to make whichever choice they want. But maybe that’s my real issue — maybe I wish we didn’t have the choice. If there was one national law with one national deadline and you simply had to send your kid, then this wouldn’t be an issue for any of us.

But of course it is. You can tell that I would really like to send him, but I will continue to think this over and discuss it with Mark and Austin’s teachers and others.  And then, when the time comes, we’ll make the best choice we can and, once we’ve decided, we won’t second guess ourselves and will just live with the consequences. Like we do with all the other decisions we’ve had to make.

A brief diversion from my kindergarten quandary (which I will take up again shortly) to point out that there was a Letter to the Editor in yesterday’s Plain Dealer written by Austin’s oncologist, Dr. Jeff Auletta. He wrote in response to this recent article about a high school dance organized to support St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  Now I obviously think supporting St Jude’s and any other cancer organization is worthy, but I agree with Jeff that there are just as many sick children right here at home who are equally deserving of the community’s dollars.

It’s all sort of ironic because just yesterday Austin’s preschool held its annual Trike-a-Thon to raise money for St. Jude’s. I’ve always been very pleased that the school does this, even before childhood cancer became an integral part of our lives, but now it seems sort of silly — why not create an event to raise money for the kids at Rainbow or the Cleveland Clinic?  Why send it all to Memphis when it can do just as much good here in our own backyard?

Thank you for the many thoughtful comments. A few responses:

I have certainly talked this over with his preschool teacher, but that has still left me hovering between my two choices. She thinks that he is ready both academically and socially for kindergarten. Her concern is the much less predictable “What about when he’s 10 or 12 or 16?” I know he’d be fine academically, at least in the early grades (after that, how can any of us predict?). He’s very bright and, because of watching Breadan master reading, has excellent pre-literacy skills.

His social interactions are another matter entirely. How he acts around others when I’m present is drastically different from how he acts when I’m not present. If I’m there, he’s mommy’s little baby, wanting to be held and hanging on to me as I leave. On the days that I parent help, he refuses to talk to anyone, teacher or classmates. But when he’s on his own, without me, he’s just a normal little kid. Somewhat on the quiet side but he definitely has friends and participates in the group activities in an acceptable way.

So, in that regard, I almost think it would be good for him to start school on time (note I did not say “early,” because next year would not be early) because it would allow him to be his “big” self more often. I wouldn’t be around as much and he wouldn’t sink back into me. But of course (flipside), if he really needs that babying time from me, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t give it to him for as long as I can.

My dad said just yesterday, “Give this child every advantage you possibly can, he deserves it.” And there’s no doubt that if I really believed he would suffer by being the youngest, I would hold him back. But I don’t really believe that he’ll suffer — although I know he might suffer — hence my dilemma.

Mark also thinks we should wait. “Why not?” is his reason. And I do actually have an answer for that. In our district, there is an enormous acheivement gap between the lower income students and the higher income students, one that exists prior to school ever starting. Nearly half of the children in Braedan’s school qualify for free or reduced lunch based on national poverty standards. For those families, you send your child as soon as they’re able, late birthday or not. And I don’t mean to imply that these families use school as free, all-day childcare. But it IS free, all-day, high-quality education and why would they not take advantage of that as soon as possible? Austin will start school with many advantages over (some of) his classmates: he’s been read to every day of his life, he’s been exposed to a great many things, ideas and places, he attends a high quality preschool. I’m not entirely comfortable adding yet another advantage on top of that: an extra year of physical and emotional development. Not that I want to “dumb it down,” but it just seems to create unnecessary inequality.

Now many people have said to me that I shouldn’t sacrifice my own child for the sake of the common good. And again, I wouldn’t do it if I believed he was being sacrificed. But I also think that if everyone puts their own personal interests ahead of the common good, then there is no common good!

Hmmmmm, all this being said, I’ve already registered him in the pre-K class at his preschool for next year. And I will also register him for kindergarten next month, just to give us a little more time to decide. He is not much help in the matter — he claims he wants to go when one particular friend, seven months his senior, goes. But that friend’s parents have yet to decide whether he’ll attend our local public school or another parochial school where they attend church, so that certainly shouldn’t be our deciding factor.

And in terms of Austin’s health, there are reasons that go both ways there too. Obviously, if he were to be on dialysis in this next year, I’d keep him preschool so he could do that in the morning and head to the hospital in the afternoon. No point in enrolling him in kindergarten just to pull him out three days a week. But that doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue right now and hopefully won’t become one (knock on wood). We still expect that he’ll need a transplant at some point in the future but most parents schedule those over summer break (really, like instead of two weeks at camp). And if he’s older, he can easily see a hospital tutor to keep him on grade level. So I can’t make a decision based on such unknowns.

And then there’s my personal motivation, which in truth is only a tiny little piece of this. I remember with incredible clarity sitting in the hospital cafeteria with Mark, picking at my breakfast, two weeks before Austin’s first birthday, while he was beginning an eight-hour surgery. And Mark said to me, as gently as he possibly could, in an effort to prepare me for what might lie ahead (not that you can ever be prepared for such a thing), “Honey, you have to wrap your head around the idea that this child will probably not make it to kindergarten.”

I will not rush it for that reason, I promise, but come hell or high water, this child is making it to kindergarten.

You know, it’s sort of funny because last spring and summer when we were dealing with the enormous burden of deciding whether or not to remove Austin’s kidney — and even back into the previous fall and winter when we were dealing with the same enormous burden — I kept saying how I wished I only had “normal” parenting decisions to make. Normal, average everyday dilemmas to mull.

Well, now I have one and you know it’s stressing me out! Ha, be careful what you wish for, right?

Austin will turn five on September 21. Our school district’s deadline for enrolling children in kindergarten is September 30. My natural inclination is to send him when it’s officially his time, which this coming fall would be. I definitely don’t believe in holding him back for any personal gain — so he’ll be bigger or stronger or smarter than his classmates. That’s just not my perogative as a parent — I lean much more towards that happy middle ground for my kids.

So there’s a big part of me that wants to send him, because I feel it’s the “right” thing to do. But, I do worry that it could add an unnecessary strain to his schooling years.  He would always always be the youngest and might always feel like he was playing catch-up. Because so many other parents are holding their kids back these days — not just those with September birthdays, but with birthdays as far back as June and July — Austin could be as many as fifteen months younger than his classmates. That’s a really big difference, especially when you’re only four and your classmates are already six.

So I find myself super torn, back and forth, back and forth  (just like with that other big decision). It wouldn’t be hard to wait — Austin has another year of preschool he can easily do since he’s not enrolled in the pre-K class this year, so that’s not a factor.

I’m certainly not expecting anyone else to make this decision for us, but would love to hear about your experiences either as parents or as teachers or as the youngest or oldest student you may once have been.  Any insight is welcome.

And believe me, I know that if this is my biggest parenting concern right now, I am very lucky indeed.

What a difference a year makes.  I find myself struck day after day after day by the power of the memories of last year.  Right before Thanksgiving (last Thanksgiving), Austin had an ultrasound that revealed a new spot. New, as in not the same spot we’d been watching and worrying about all fall. So we knew, at that point, we almost, mostly, practically knew what that his cancer was back. But we weren’t quite ready to commit yet, to actually do anything about it.

So we waited, a few more weeks, for a repeat ultrasound.  And that happened on December 7. One year ago tomorrow. And that, well, you can read it here. It was a Monday and then I sent Austin back to school that Tuesday and Wednesday because I knew these would be his last days there for a good long while.  We spent one quick night in the hospital that Thursday for a CT scan and then returned the following Sunday for the next surgery and big pre-Christmas stay.

But it’s that day of school on the 8th that I remember. I dropped him off in his classroom and walked out as he cried for me, held tight in the arms of his teacher. It wasn’t unusual, he cried when I left on most days last year (and many this year). He ends up happy, within mere minutes, so I knew in my head it would be okay. What I felt in my heart was another matter. That walk out was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

One of my closest friends happened to be parent helping in her daughter’s classroom that morning. And I had stopped to see her for big hugs on my way in, but I didn’t want to stop again so I walked out the door and down the path to my car, and I suddenly just lost it. Another mom came walking up, one I know well who had already read the previous night’s update and I just fell into her arms. She was holding a baby bundled in a snowsuit but managed to hold me too. And I sobbed. And I really wanted her to go back in and get my other friend for me, but I couldn’t bear that one minute when I’d be standing out there alone in the snow, while parents who didn’t yet know wandered past me. So she did the job (thanks, Lisa) and I mumbled over and over into her winter coat, “I don’t know if I can do this again. I don’t want to do this again.”

But, boy, did we do it.

On this weekend last year, we chopped down the top of a pine tree here in our new yard and brought it back to our old house to serve as our Christmas tree.  Well, it turned out to be pretty spindly and lopsided and very Charlie Brown-like:

So we made up for it yesterday by buying two trees. One for the living room, which the boys are calling their own because they finally got their wish to have colored (as opposed to my preferred white) lights. And another for the dining room, where I finally got my wish to have a perfectly color-coordinated tree.

Yup, we definitely did it.

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