I grew up hearing horror stories about public schools.
Every time we drove past one, my dad would comment on the chainlink fences, the buzzing alarm bells, or the thick small-windowed walls. He would tell us about Mrs. Weinstein, his fourth-grade teacher, who was so nasty as to apparently have burnt a traumatic scar into his memory. He would regale us with the tale of how in elementary school he would ask for a bathroom pass and just scream in the bathroom at the top of his lungs because he was so bored/pent up/overwhelmed by the classroom environment. He would call them “jails for kids” (although my mom would always gently reply that it was hyperbolic to go that far).
My mom didn’t have nearly so many negative things to say, but I knew that she dropped out of high school and worked her way through community college and university to get a master’s in engineering, and considered self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning to be far more valuable and efficient than teacher-dictated, extrinsically-demanded education.
After I met my husband, I learned how he had been bullied through elementary school, to the point of being anxious, angry, depressed, and aggressive as even a young child – his innate friendliness met with rejection, and his self-confidence and self-esteem dealt crushing blows that he still sometimes struggles to overcome.
And so when the supportive, understanding, encouraging women in the special needs ministry at my church encouraged me to seek an evaluation through the public school district, to see if Rondel qualified for any free services, I was apprehensive, wary, and unsure. Now that his evaluation is past and I know that he does qualify – now that the registration and enrollment paperwork sits in front of me on the table – I am still all of those things.
The woman who would be his teacher is, from what I can tell, an energetic, passionate, and intelligent person, who deeply cares about her students and all their unique ways of being (of which there are certainly many in a special ed preschool!). Her classroom and schedule are well-designed, full of all the things young children enjoy and all the activities that strengthen and challenge their developing skills. She even told me that based on my description of Rondel she would ask the OT to do a sensory consult for him in class and potentially give him access to occupational therapy for his sensory difficulties and their emotional sequelae. My concerns do not rest with her, but with the whole philosophy of standardized, forced education in general.
During our IEP meeting, the evaluators kept mentioning that this or that skill would be “necessary for kindergarten next year.” To succeed in kindergarten, Rondel would have to learn to sit and pay attention, to be quiet and listen for the majority of the time, to participate in group activities instead of sitting on the edges doing his own thing, to hold a pencil or crayon with enough finesse to write letters and numbers, to respond to directions, and to speak intelligibly. And critically, he would need to learn all of those things by August. To succeed in life, it will be useful and courteous to know how to sit quietly and pay attention to other people; it will be beneficial for forming friendships to be able to engage in group activities and respond appropriately to social cues; it will be helpful to be able to write and draw, but not necessary in an increasingly technical world; and it will be of great importance to speak so that others can understand, particularly for a child who loves to talk as much as he does! But there wouldn’t be any deadline on his acquisition of those skills. Without the impending shadow of kindergarten hanging over him, there would be no rush for him to develop those abilities in his own way and at his own pace – with the exception of his speech.
And it is because of the integrated speech therapy that I am considering preschool as a viable option for Rondel at this point, despite the negative backstory I have for public schools, and despite my plan to homeschool. No matter where the rest of his life takes him or what learning and education look like for him, he will be able to do better, with less frustration and fewer tears, if he can communicate his needs and ideas with the people around him. I want to give him this opportunity now to learn the skills he will need to do that, while he can still do “school” for only 7.5 hours a weeks instead of being expected to fit his life around an all-day, every-day schedule of external demands and schedules. If he grows in his other areas of weakness along the way (especially in social and sensory areas) – so much the better! One fewer hurdle to overcome later!
And if it triggers his sensory issues to the point where he has increased anxiety and meltdowns, we can pull him out. Trying the system out, in an attempt to help Rondel, does not mean we are tied to it forever – or for any arbitrary length of time, honestly. It is all about what works best for him, at this moment, in this context. If to him it feels like a “jail”, if all he wants to do is run away and scream, if it feels like his heart is being crushed – well, unlike my parents and my husband, he won’t have to stay in that environment for years while it molds his character and personality. For us, it can be just another tool in our toolbox.