Monday, April 02, 2007

Getting an education

The polling station for our provincial election last week was located in the gymnasium of the primary school at the end of our street. In the late afternoon, all 3 us went together. As we approached the door, Helena gripped my hand tight and confided in me, "I feel a little bit shy."

I'd explained where we were going and why, but obviously the why of it didn't make a dent in her excitement to be entering this grand — to her eyes — building.

She expressed some confusion once inside, but no real disappointment. She was delighted to discover a row of drinking fountains, all her size.

Those few moments for me, though, caused months' long emotional turmoil to resurface.

No parenting issue had caused me tears like this one, when in fact there is not an issue, no problem to solve, only the facts to deal with.

Helena will not be starting kindergarten in September. Not because she's not ready, or willing; because she's not old enough. And this riles me. Maybe because I was already in junior kindergarten when I was her age now; she will be an academic year behind where I was at her age. Our birthdays are in November, a day apart. But whereas the cutoff for school entry age in my home province is December 31, it is September 30 in the province we live in now.

(I was first made aware of the situation when we set up an education fund soon after Helena's birth; the dates were presented as a matter of fact, but I've puzzled over them ever since.)

(The trusty internet at my fingertips, I've learned children all over the world begin their formal education, grade 1, at, on average, age 6 (which Helena will also be doing).)

Part of me wonders about the different life we'd be leading if we'd stayed put, not moved here when I was pregnant. It pains me that the distance of a 2-hour drive costs Helena an academic year.

It's inevitable: someone will always be oldest and someone will always be youngest in every class, no matter where the entry age dates are fixed. I was one of the youngest. Perhaps this contributed to the perception, mine as well as of others, that I was bright, ambitious. In retrospect, I can't say it served me particularly well — I would've done better to delay university by a year or two, even more. But Helena will be one of the oldest, and it bothers me no end.

There are several other November birthdays in her current daycare class. I find it strange that none of those parents are bothered; they're very matter-of-fact, it's a matter of fact.

It galls me to know that Helena's "cousin" is already nearing the end of her kindergarten year. She is only 14 months older (barely more than a year!) than Helena but scholastically a full 2 years ahead. Pesky cutoff dates.

More than anything, I'm surprised. Simply, I thought she'd be in school by now. This idea has been reinforced in countless ways. I hear about how important early education is, that children are untapped potential, sponges. It's counterintuitive that school should start so late. Of course, the early years are important for emotional and social development too; but I fail to see what difference an additional year at home or in daycare might make for the child who is not, by age, say, 4, already emotionally well adjusted and in a nurturing environment. Daycare, or community activities, is all very well for socialization, but children are fully equipped to be learning more than sharing, dancing, or colouring. There's so much more to gain at this age by going to school.

I don't want to be a pushy mom, a stage mom or hockey dad. I don't think I will be. If anything, I could use a little more pushy in my life, and would do well to set a more assertive example for Helena.

While I think Helena's smarter than your average bear, I don't claim that she's developmentally a year ahead of her daycare peers. There's plenty of time for competitiveness to rear its ugly head on Helena's own shoulder without my interference this early in the game.

But.

I considered filing for a derogation for Helena. Exceptions to the rule can be made, but anecdotally they're very rare (we don't know anybody who knows anybody who's heard of anybody...). The application requires that the child undergo a thorough psychological evaluation. (J-F is dead set against putting Helena through such a process.) It must be shown not only that the child is ready for school, but that the child would suffer unduly by not attending school at an earlier age. Weighed against staying with her peer group in a good daycare (and she would — will — stay happily, not knowing what she's missing), how does one measure the loss?

But.

I can't help but feel I should be doing something more, that Helena should have more, that this is all very wrong.

Junior kindergarten is uncommon here. I am grateful that her daycare is more pedagogically focussed than many.

Private school is not an option (nor is homeschooling). Financial concerns aside, I back the principle of a public school system.

What's driven home hard to me is how desperately I need to step up. Somehow. Helena lately wants me to play school with her, so I do, regularly; we practice printing letters, she's warming up to reading, she has a facility with numbers, basic arithmetic. But I'm a mom, not a teacher; I haven't a clue how to proceed.

For all the good my "early" education did me, I've learned only that "me" in the parenting equation has produced an infinite not-good-enough, a sequence of fuckups.

I'm tired of crying over this. I'm overwhelmed by the irony, that the one most fundamental, to my mind, aspect of a person's life — an education — the thing a parent is most responsible for managing, is the one I feel I have the least control over and most inadequate to provide.

I'm sincerely interested to know your opinions and your experience. What is the school entry age, and the cutoff date, where you live? Do you have any structured learning time with your child, and just how structured is it? When should children start school?
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