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 Whole Hand

She was one.

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Then, two.

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Next came three.

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Followed by four.

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And, now five.

img_9225It’s Millie’s fifth birthday today. She was once a baby and now she’s not. She’s five.

At five years of age, Millie’s favorite thing in life is stuff. Food also ranks pretty high up there but mostly it’s her “stuff” that she treasures most. It seems like such a distinctly Girl Thing (the boys aren’t like this) but Millie surrounds herself with little odds and ends from every corner and crevice of the house. She fills her bedroom with random cardboard boxes, an array of Lego pieces, torn slips of paper too important to toss, broken toys, extra blankets, costume jewelry, innumerable barrettes and hairbands, bread bag ties, instruction manuals, rocks, flower petals, stuffed animals, American Girl catalogues and an assortment of other flotsam that all takes up valuable real estate in her small space.

I’ve never known a child to be so content surrounded by so much chaos. But, Millie is. And, although we certainly try, I can’t fault her for her belongings. Millie has an incredible imagination and each of her treasures has a place in it. Her mind turns an Amazon delivery box into a three part play and a lowly piece of wobbly furniture becomes a fully stocked writer’s desk. She spends hours upon hours in her bedroom creating a world with all of her special things. Everything makes sense to her even if the rest of us find the accumulation of crap maddening.

Sometimes, when Bob and I check on her at night before heading to bed, we find she has relocated to the floor to sleep; a selection of her favorite items surrounding her head. Sort of like a halo made entirely of junk from the recycling bin. We try to tuck her in the best we can, removing the piece of cutlery from beneath her arm and the produce rubber band from her wrist.

A couple of months ago, I tried to get Millie to tackle her messy bedroom. As I stood there, chastising her for the condition of her room, she looked at me, pointed a finger in my direction and said, “But, Moooo-oooom. This is my fun zone.”

Indeed, Millie. Happy birthday to the biggest fan of fun I’ve ever known.

Spring Break Grab Bag

We were supposed to spend spring break at Legoland in Florida, fulfilling a lifelong dream of Henry’s to vacation with his favorite mini figures. I had booked everything in January, when the infinite possibilities of a brand new year makes one overly optimistic about traveling 950 miles with three children. We were going to surprise the kids, too, in that super fun way where you wake them up and go, “SURPRISE! We’re leaving RIGHT THIS MINUTE for Legoland! In Florida! Now, get dressed, go to the bathroom and let’s spend the next fourteen hours trapped in a car while I yell, SIT ON YOUR HANDS! every fifteen minutes in the general direction of the backseat.”

It was going to be great. So, so great.

However, at some point, Bob and I decided that we didn’t actually WANT to take the kids to Legoland. We didn’t actually WANT to drive all of the way to Florida. The tediousness to enjoyment ratio was out of balance. There just wasn’t anything in it for us. I mean, other than the unadulterated joy and tremendous happiness of our three delightful offspring. And, I’m going to be honest here, sometimes, that’s just not enough incentive.

We canceled our spring break travels and had absolutely zero regrets. Instead, we promised the kids a week full of adventures. I organized some day trips to new and interesting places and planned little excursions and activities I knew they would love to do. All things that were manageable and low commitment and definitely fewer than fourteen hours from our home base.

Stop #1: Library Playdate With Friends

We were supposed to kick off spring break with a trip to the local library in town which my kids find to be a super special treat since I never take them during the school year because they already bring home tons of books every week from their school library which all seem to magically disappear by their due dates and explains why, after a particularly contorted top bunk bed search for a Davy Crockett title, I ended up relegating the library to a summertime/special occasion treat.

However, on library day, they acted like hooligans all morning long and lost their library privileges so we spent the afternoon at a friend’s house where the kids ran and ran and jumped and played and laughed and did not get into trouble for acting like hooligans.

Stop #2: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

For years, we have driven by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, without really realizing that it was there. What’s visible from I-81 is a mounted helicopter and a few tanks in what appears to be someone’s backyard. There’s no large sign or marker to indicate that the site is an actual museum. So, when we decided to make a spring break trip to finally find these tanks we’d passed over and over again, I half expected to take a tour of some super eccentric individual’s collection of military surplus parts.

That was not the case. The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center is actually a Smithsonian affiliate, is housed next to an expansive collection of army archives and is on the same campus as the U.S. Army War College at the historic Carlisle Barracks.

The museum tells the story of the U.S. Army’s involvement in conflicts dating back to The Revolutionary War all of the way through to the present “Global War on Terror.” The inside museum tour does a great job of keeping kids’ interest through interactive displays, mini-movies and lots and lots of guns. The walking tour of the grounds is surprisingly expansive with replicas of everything from Civil War cabins to a German bunker. All open for exploration.

This place was such a treat and the kids had a fantastic time. If you’re local enough, I would put this on your summer to-do list. It’s free (donations accepted!), has an on-site cafe, plenty of bathrooms and lots of room to roam. So, very kid-friendly. In addition, there is a DRIVE-THRU Starbucks right around the corner so you can fuel up for the car ride home.

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This GIANT sign obviously not visible from the interstate.

World War I Trench Exhibit

World War I Trench Exhibit

World War II Barrack Tour

World War II Barracks Exhibit

Razor Wire Obstacle Course (I'm thinking of replicating this concept in our backyard.)

Razor Wire Obstacle Course (I’m thinking of replicating this concept in our backyard.)

Stop #3: Target

Because spring break is supposed to be fun for mommy, too. Only, I had three kids with me so it wasn’t fun. At all.

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Travels with her own fairy wings.

Stop #4: Bowling with Friends!

I can’t remember if we’ve ever taken all of the kids bowling before. My memory is clogged full of other important information like, which kid doesn’t like ketchup and who’s out of clean underwear. All I know is that group bowling was not a total disaster as I had absolutely expected it to be. It was really fun! The kids were fully engaged the entire time, only one (1) finger (Millie’s) was smashed at the ball return/shoot and I totally beat the kids to emerge as the big winner which was super satisfying.

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Stop #5: Swimming

Bob was in charge of the swimming portion of spring break and he reported that no one pooped in the pool so, I think, from all appearances, the activity was a grand success.

Stop #6: Antietam National Battlefield

The final stop of our Spring Break Not Legoland Tour was a day trip to Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. I knew of Antietam from assorted history classes, I just didn’t know what really happened there or that this was located only about 30 minutes from our house.

We’ve toured our fair share of battlefields throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania so the details of each tend to blur together in my mind. However, traveling with Bob and Henry to these places is sort of like traveling with my own little history department. They are both so knowledgeable about the American Civil War and were quick to explain exactly what happened. Almost 23,000 persons were killed or wounded in a single day of fighting at Antietam making it the bloodiest day of battle in American history. And, this particular conflict is seen as a lost opportunity by the Union to end the war early when they did not pursue retreating Confederate forces at day’s end. It’s really tremendous to stand there imagining such a destructive scene.

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The battle took place in and around the fields of a few farms in Sharpsburg and the homes still stand today, although one had to be rebuilt after the fighting. While Charlie is most interested in the heavy weaponry used, I really find the little farmhouses to be the most fascinating part of any battlefield tour. Mostly because I simply can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been when a war arrived, quite literally, on your doorstep. There are so many old homes tucked into the nooks and crannies of the mountains around here and I always imagine how scary that would be to see troops emerge over a rise or converge on your front lawn. Something we are unbelievably blessed to have not had to deal with since.

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Through the National Park Service’s Every Kid in a Park program, Henry had a paper pass that he presented for admission to Antietam. The staff at Antietam converted that pass to a special card that he can carry as a 4th grader (through August) that grants him free access to national parks and federal recreational lands throughout the country. I think we’re going to be using it as our guiding compass for summer activities. It’s really a neat program and the parks employees were so great to the kids, handing them trading cards and encouraging their interest in where we were and what we were seeing. They are doing such important preservation work and we should give the National Park Service all the money they need until the end of time forever and ever.

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So, that’s it! Everything we did (and didn’t) do over spring break 2016. Even though Florida was in no way involved, the kids really did have a ball with Henry declaring it the Best! Spring! Break! Ever!

However, out of an overabundance of caution, if you see our kids, please don’t mention that we had the chance to take them to Legoland and didn’t. We’ll get there. Someday. Maybe. (Probably not.)