The Cutoff Kid

A few weeks ago, I was slicing up a pizza for the kids for dinner, Millie by my side watching intently. I sliced it once and Millie piped up, “You made two halves!” I replied, “Very good, Millie.” When I sliced it through once more, Millie said, “Now you made four quarters.” Thinking I would be able to stump her because besting my kids brings me great joy as a parent, I then made two more cuts and asked, “Alright, smartypants. What comes next after four quarters?” Casually, she replied, “Eighths!”

I’m exceptionally bad at math so I was super surprised that she knew the answer which, was probably less an inherit ability to do complex math and more of a working knowledge gained from an iPad app. But still, Millie’s bright.

Millie has always shown an early aptitude for school. And, by “early aptitude,” I basically mean she was preceded in birth order by two boys. Henry and Charlie are both intelligent, eager and highly skilled in many areas but they certainly weren’t demanding to do homework at three years of age or crying unconsolably at four because they didn’t know how to read. Millie was.

Whether Millie’s aptitude is the byproduct of being third in line in succession behind two boys or true, unbridled genius, I can’t yet tell. Regardless, she has always had this Matilda-esque ability to pick up new skills, revel in novel ideas and master concepts that often times leave Bob and I sort of staring at each other, slack-jawed.

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Obviously the work of a genius. Just look at those jazz hands.

I can’t remember exactly when – probably at some point when I was researching schools during our move to Northern Virginia – I came across the Virginia regulation that mandates incoming students must be five years of age on or before September 30 to be accepted into kindergarten. The boys’ birthdays fall nowhere near the cutoff date so I guess I just hadn’t paid attention to the language before but with an October 12 birthdate, Millie would miss kindergarten admission by 12 days. No exceptions, it would seem.

This means, for the past couple of years, as Millie’s abilities have become more apparent, I have absolutely fretted about her kindergarten start. That is the only word to describe my anxiety over when and where and how this would all play out.

There didn’t seem to be any way around the September 30 regulation and, because so many preschool programs also abide by local school system policy, we kept running into it, like a brick wall. When we enrolled Millie in preschool at almost four years of age, she was the oldest in a class of mostly young three-year-olds. She deeply enjoyed the curriculum and we adored her school but her overarching daily complaint was that several of her classmates didn’t “behave,” were always in her face and “annoying” her. It was simply an issue of maturity but I bemoaned the cutoff date responsible for her placement.

As the months marched on towards her fifth birthday, I stopped asking for kindergarten advice when the responses were, “Don’t rush her.” Or, “You should just enjoy this time.” It was hard to explain but in actuality, it wasn’t that I was pushing her, it was that I was trying to keep up with her. There is a huge difference between the two.

Millie was academically and socially ready to be with her peers. She’s been ready. It was endlessly frustrating that twelve days made such a huge difference.

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Wedding anniversary tribute. Missing that pesky silent E.

Everything came to a head this past fall. With a kindergartner ready for kindergarten but no kindergarten to attend, we were left with three options:

  1. More preschool.
  2. Private school.
  3. Homeschool.

My least favorite option was private school. Not only does our rural setting make the getting to and picking up from a traditional private school in the nearest major town logistically impossible, the tone deaf suggestion of, “Well, you could always private school!” consistently enraged me.

While additional preschool would have given me the brief respite I needed from the unrelenting care of three children, I still didn’t feel like it would meet Millie’s needs best. She adored all of the art projects and circle time at her preschool but had been pushing us at home to do more of the work she had seen her brothers doing for school. I knew her preschool wasn’t offering that type of enrichment.

So, in the end, I felt that Millie’s needs could best be met by homeschooling her for kindergarten. Bob concurred. If there wasn’t a spot for her at our school, we’d have to make do at home.

We’ve been making do at our little ad hoc at-home kindergarten since last September. Our curriculum consists of workbook time, artwork time, inappropriate wearing of pajamas all day, occasional coffee with friends, extensive field trips to Target and A LOT of iPad learning-to-read apps. It’s the most relaxed syllabus in kindergarten history. Millie also plays for hours in her room with all of her toys and dolls and little treasures. She’s doing a lot of imagination building this year which, I tell myself when life gets in the way of our schoolwork, is a key component of kindergarten.

I have put zero pressure on myself to accomplish huge things this year with Millie’s education. I’m not a trained teacher so my main goal was to keep her engaged and interested in learning through this odd gap year. I think we’re achieving that goal even if she’s still frustrated that she can’t yet read Little House on the Prairie.

There are some states that address cutoff kids with Transitional Kindergarten programs to help fill just such a gap year. Targeted specifically at children that fall in the months right around that cutoff date, they offer classroom experience with less rigorous curriculums. Something like this would have been ideal for Millie.

But, we had to settle for our dining room table instead.

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And, as much as I’m sure Bob would prefer to stop talking about it, the dilemma over Millie’s education isn’t over quite yet. We have additional decisions to make this fall about whether to place her in kindergarten again or test her into first grade.

Even if she is academically and emotionally ready to rejoin her peers in first grade, I have serious reservations about her being the youngest in her class as she advances through middle and high school. Since “redshirting” kindergartners has become more commonplace, Millie could potentially be starting high school with kids that are much older. Not to mention, entering college at 17. I quickly run off the rails with what-ifs.

My concern isn’t without precedent since I lived this exact scenario. I tested into kindergarten at four years of age and was successful throughout middle and high school but burned out spectacularly my freshman year of college. I rebounded but have wondered, as I’ve walked this path with Millie, if having an extra year under my belt would have made a difference down the educational line.

However, holding her back because of her age and not ability is exactly what we’ve been railing against for two years. This is all so confusing. And, the decisions seem so momentous and long-reaching. Wanting to do right by your kids sure is emotionally taxing!

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Millie says this is me. At least I’m smiling?

While there are still moments when I wish this year would have been different for Millie, when I wish she could have joined a classroom that she so badly wanted to be a part of, I’ve mostly treasured our time together. She is an eager learner, game for almost any adventure and, just this week, emptied the dishwasher for the first time all by herself. In summary, she is a superb student.

A Tale of Two Report Cards

School, it is over. Well, almost over. It will be over as soon as I head over to the school this morning and chaperone one (1) kindergarten celebration and one (1) lunchtime pizza party. THEN school is officially over.

When the kids return home with their backpacks full of the desk detritus of the past nine months, I plan on taking their lunch boxes into the back yard and reenacting that one printer scene from Office Space. I am DELIGHTED to no longer have to stuff the same (mediocrely-received) granola bars, cheese sticks and cream cheese bagels into lunch boxes that probably should have had a really good scrubbing sometime around spring break.

With the school year wrapped up, I now officially have a fourth grader, a first grader and a preschooler.

This picture belies all of the fighting over Lego pieces that is about to occur this summer.

Coonskin cap because: LAST DAY! Also, I think it’s pretty evident from this picture that Millie is going to be that one friend in college, the one who always knows where the really good parties are.

Henry had a great year at school. He is an enthusiastic learner and you could almost see his brain growing exponentially as he learned more difficult mathematics, wrote more complicated stories and started reading books with barely any pictures in them. His teacher bemusedly explained that sometime in May, Henry politely grilled her about what eras of history they would be covering for the rest of the term. He was eager to know what he had to look forward to. Outside of some complex social issues (that seem to dramatically increase around this age), Henry thoroughly enjoyed third grade.

Juxtapose Henry’s eagerness to learn about Roman history and requests for additional multiplication worksheets against Charlie’s look of utter devastation when he learns that, “Yes, son, today is a school day.” Imagine his absolute dejection as he, literally, drags his feet towards his backpack.

Charlie is not a fan of formal education.

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Contrary to our hopes, Charlie’s attitude about schooling hasn’t changed much since his pre-k days. He struggled this year to learn the big concepts that kindergarten reinforces and introduces. Reading and writing and vocabulary and telling time and counting money – all of these things took work for him this past year. Work he only grudgingly agreed to do. Charlie would much rather be home, surrounded by his favorite things, playing outside in his favorite places, riding around on his favorite Gator. He completed his school work mostly because he HAD to, not because he WANTED to or had any INTEREST in it.

It’s not a behavior thing for Charlie. He adjusted well at the beginning of the year and seems to get along swimmingly with everyone. It’s just an effort thing. He simply would rather be doing something else entirely.

Since I like to fret about all of the wrong things, I was quick to assume Charlie’s kindergarten performance meant he would be living in our basement well into adulthood. Bob, non-fretter, kind of rolled his eyes in my general direction and stressed repeatedly, “It’s… KINDERGARTEN.” Which, he’s totally right, of course. It’s just kindergarten. But, I wouldn’t be a modern parent if I didn’t place in an inordinate amount of importance on what happens to Charlie when he’s six as a precursor for future success.

Charlie seemed to get with the program towards the end of the last quarter of the school year. He still complained bitterly about having to go to school but his final tests showed marked improvement and effort. Like, he was legitimately trying.

He’s going to have to legitimately try throughout the summer, too. We’re running a bit of a Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good around here. We want to keep the skills he’s acquired sharp through a little summer school. We haven’t told him that yet though, so keep it hush-hush for now.

We also haven’t explained to him that in about ten weeks from now, his half-day of kindergarten turns into a full day of first grade. I anticipate Charlie will have some thoughts about that as well.

And, They’re Off!

Can you feel the excitement in the air? The upward shift in momentum? Are your friends and neighbors in high spirits? Is your Facebook feed clogged with pictures of other people’s kids wearing backpacks? Yes? Well, for good reason because it’s the first day of school! HOORAY!

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Portrait of a Young Man as a third grader. A very, very tall third grader.

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Portrait of a Young Man as a kindergartner. A slightly nervous kindergartner but one who could be swayed towards excitement since he gets to use his camouflage lunchbox and ride a bus. So, this could work out alright. (Also, popped collar because FIRST DAY!)

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Portrait of a two-year-old who is going to be extremely disappointed to discover that she’s not actually going to school.

This morning, Henry started third grade and Charlie started kindergarten. I awoke extra early so I would have an appropriate amount of time to fret about my middle child beginning his academic career. Charlie has never been… enthusiastic about school. He is our kid that loves to be at home, can fill a day with imaginative play and thrives on exploring outside. We’re bracing for when the initial excitement wears off and he realizes he has to attend EVERY SINGLE DAY. Such a drag.

I’m sure it will all be just fine as these things tend to go. I don’t think anyone can accuse Kindergarten curriculum of being especially rigorous or anything. But, I hope this year brings Charlie comfort in the classroom, some new friends and a better understanding of how to function well with others in a group. Mostly, I wish for a love of learning to be awakened in Charlie. We caught a glimpse of his brain making leaps and bounds this past summer. His nature somehow turned more inquisitive than before, suddenly full of questions about the world around him and how it works. So, I’m hoping the timing is just right and this year is one full of new discoveries for our very precious youngest son.

IMG_3355Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and take a nap. A very well-deserved nap.