Next month, I will drop my firstborn child off at the door of a kindergarten classroom for the first time. After I wave goodbye and bike home alone, we’ll each begin secret lives: I’ll spend my mornings writing stuff for grown-ups, while she makes friends, solves puzzles and gets in trouble in ways I’ll never know.
This is not how I planned it. I intended to homeschool my kids.
I had a miserable time in school myself. I was bored. I didn’t socialize well with my peers. I was too smart and too weird. Rio is, to put it gently, a lot like me. Homeschooling seemed like her ticket to a happier, wilder childhood.
This idea wasn’t a whim for me. I spent last summer taking training courses in Waldorf home education, and the past year building up a small home-based preschool that meets at my house four days a week. I turned our whole house into a de facto classroom. I read thousands of pages of child development books, educational philosophy and memoirs by successful homeschoolers. I wrote articles for homeschooling blogs and magazines.
So last year, we made our home a preschool, and worked at building community. At first there was a lot of enthusiasm among our friends and acquaintances. It seemed like every mom I talked to on the playground was thinking about homeschooling her four-year-old. Everyone at playgroup was concerned about the local public schools. I held a few potlucks for people interested in starting a homeschooling coop, and twenty families showed up.
But one by one, they dropped out. They’d quietly admit they’d enrolled their kids in kindergarten. Sometimes at the child’s request, sometimes because both parents needed to work, sometimes because they realized they just didn’t want to do it. Finally, there were only two or three families left.
I pushed ahead. In January, when our school district started registrations, I watched the deadline coast by. Instead, I called the city to let them know we would not be registering for kindergarten. Rio overheard our conversation.
“Tell me about kindergarten,”Rio said when I hung up the phone. “Maybe I would like to go.”
I told her that every city has schools that anyone who lives in the city can attend, and that these schools start with kindergarten at age five. She asked if I went to kindergarten and I said I had. She wanted to know what it was like. I told her about walking to the end of our long dirt road and getting on the big scary bus.
She stopped me, looking very intensely into my eyes. “Mama. I do not want to know how you got to kindergarten. I want to know what you did when you were there.”
I wracked my brain for specifics. “We learned about what different size coins were worth. We set off model rockets. I had to go to the bathroom by myself with no teacher to help, and it was scary out in the corridor alone. There was recess on a big playground with a colony of prairie dogs living under the swings. Some bigger kids told me I would get in trouble for eating lunch under my favorite tree. I loved that tree, so big and broad and shady.”
“So,” Rio said, “Learning about coins. This happened when you were, what, six?”
“No, when I was five.”
“Oh.” Rio thought for a moment. And then she said this:
“I think I would like to visit a kindergarten one day while I am still four. If I like it, I will go try it for one day after I turn five. And if I like that, I think I’d like to try it for a month. Just to see what they are doing there, and if what they do there works for me, with what I am doing on my own. If it does, I will keep going. But if what they do doesn’t work for me, I’d like to continue homeschooling.”
How do you argue with that?
I didn’t. I talked it over with her dad, who took her to a kindergarten open house the next week. To my immense relief, she found it boring and we planned to homeschool for at least one more year. She thought first grade looked intriguing because the first grade had a class pet. I told her we could decide about first grade when she turned six, and privately planned to buy her an iguana if it would resolve her school envy.
So I forgot about kindergarten and focused on getting out of her way while she learned to swim, to ride a scooter, to mix watercolor paints and to read (a little). Then one June morning, I watched Rio sitting at the table solving a math puzzle with a bowl of smooth round stones. She’d mastered it, and was doing the same problem over and over again with ease.
She wants, she said, to get out of the house more.
“Rio, you’re getting so grown-up,”I said. “Soon we’ll need to get a book of kindergarten math games, because you’ve learned this game so well.”
“Don’t worry about that, Mama,”she said in an off-hand way. “I’ll be going to kindergarten in a few months, and I can learn math there.”
“We’ll be doing kindergarten here,”I explained gently. “That’s what homeschooling means.”
“No, Mama, I am going to school,”she informed me.
She wants, she said, to get out of the house more. She wants her own cohort of friends her age who live nearby. She wants to play different games than I’ve got in my treasure chest. She wants time away from her little sister, to be read a storybook in peace or do a craft without having to wrestle her scissors away from a toddler.
Kindergarten will, almost certainly, meet those needs for her.
And finally, her bottom line reason: “Mama, remember last year, when I wanted to try homeschooling, and then I did try it, and I liked it? Well, now I want to try kindergarten. I like to try new things.”
Of course you do, kid.
“It’s too late to sign up for kindergarten,”I said lamely, a little desperate.
I wasn’t thinking of her, at that moment. I was thinking about telling the homeschooling families I’d carefully nurtured connections with for the past year that we were jumping ship and signing Rio up for kindergarten. I was thinking about the dozens of hours I’d spent poring over Waldorf child development textbooks long after my kids were asleep. I was thinking about saying goodbye to my daughter every morning and not knowing what her days would hold.
I was thinking about going to kindergarten myself, as a mom, and facing my Mommy Imposter Syndrome every morning in the mirror of the other mothers’ neatly brushed hair and coordinated outfits. Of nodding along quietly while they chat about how often they wash their bathroom mirrors and where they shop for kids’ clothes, and hoping no one finds out I dress my kids in whatever I find at clothing swaps. I continue to socialize poorly with my peers, as it turns out.
I discovered, right then and there, that I’m a little afraid of finding out who I am when I’m not covered in baby food and craft glue. What will I use as an excuse to cover my weaknesses – my messes, my lateness, my forgetfulness, my lack of stable employment – when my kids are no longer my sole, all-consuming responsibility? Would I use the yawning void of those kid-free mornings to write, or would I sleep till 11 and then surf YouTube for more videos of Amanda Palmer in antique lingerie?
I saw kindergarten through her eyes, as just one more interesting thing we might do.
Finally, I thought about Rio, and none of it was good: What if the kids don’t like her? What if she cuts her own hair in the girls’ bathroom? What if I let her wear crazy clothes to school and she gets picked on? What if she stops wanting to wear crazy clothes at all?
“Can you just call them and see if they have an opening, Mama?”
Wincing and trying to hide it, I called. Our neighborhood kindergarten was full, but another phone call revealed that the lab school at the university my husband works at had, miraculously, a sudden surprise opening in their kindergarten class.
Could I take it? Should I?
I know just about every homeschooling family goes through a little kindergarten envy, especially with the oldest child. There are a lot of strategies for working around this. I could steer her back towards my idyllic vision of her childhood.
But I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel like Rio was asking to go to school because some of her friends do or because she wanted to ride a bus. Throughout the whole conversation, I felt I was speaking with the “adult inside”, not the winsome four-year-old who wants to fly to Colorado one minute and dig a hole through the earth to Fairy the next. She was calm. She was clear. She made eye contact and used big words. She asked serious questions and listened to the answers. All of my school-based anxiety melted away. There was just me and my awesome kid sitting together talking. I saw kindergarten through her eyes, as just one more interesting thing we might do on the joint venture of her education, akin to yoga class or storytime.
After all my hours of panic and introspection and planning about my kids’ education, here we were at the precipice. Kindergarten vs. Homeschooling. And there was no hypothetical child to protect or decide for. There was Rio, a person I’ve helped grow for the past four-and-a-half years into an ally both smart and wise. It felt as if she took my hand in this talk and said, “Don’t mind the cliff, Mom, we can fly.”
Kindergarten, here we come.