Back to School

Let’s play a little word association — when I say “Back to School,” what do you think of?

Seventeen magazine’s annual homage to cute sweaters, trendy jeans, and must-have boots? The excitement of sniffing new markers? Fall leaves crunching underfoot? New classes, new friends, new beginnings?

Back to school for me is like a phantom limb. I remember so well what that eager anticipation felt like, but it’s been eons since there’s been any delineation of time of year and related sensations. Part of it I can blame on my geographic location (Southern California, where I live, is notorious for year-round good weather and I, the eternal New Englander, yearn for humidity and thunder storms like a wilted flower), but most of it has to do with the reality of modern life.

Like hopped-up gerbils, we and our kids frantically spin the wheel of duty, obligation, and responsibility. We churn like butter, regardless of solstice or season. There’s always a summer reading list, packets to be completed, and standardized test prep joints teasing us like industrious gigolos with lower prices on their summertime packages.

Notice, for example, that I just employed about five different mixed metaphors in three paragraphs. I’m just practicing descriptive writing so when it comes time (i.e., any second) to help my kids with their first writing assignment of the year, I’ll be ready.

Oh, and don’t tell their teachers I help them. While I’m sure it’s perfectly normal to believe that preteens and new teens should be able to write a detailed dissertation, solve math algorithms that even Einstein struggled with, and recount the history of western civilization in five concise paragraphs, I find it impossible to sit on my hands while my middle schoolers wade through hours of homework each night.

My kids go to public school. I know I heard something about no child being left behind, but in my mind, the current zeal for teaching to inane standardized tests and incomprehensible criteria leaves a bunch of kids floundering in the dirt. That is unless you can afford to have at least one parent monitoring homework at all times, a cadre of tutors, and enough Adderall for the whole family to stay focused on the collective assignment of high grades, perfect attendance, and a brilliant future that includes college, post-graduate work, and hopefully a job someday that doesn’t include remembering if the latte you’re preparing was half caf, double soy, or both.

Was it always like this?

I literally have no recollection of having much homework until the latter part of what we used to call junior high school. But I do have a very clear memory of when the shift started to happen. When I was in high school — way back in 1984 — I filled the student representative spot on a K-12 curriculum review committee. All my life I enjoyed art and music classes, creative writing as part of my English education, and “extras” like studying foreign languages (for me, both French and Spanish) starting in 7th grade. But there was a movement afoot, to “bring back the basics,” which to my 18-year old mind sounded like a double secret grown-up code for cut the shit out of the school budget.

Shortly therafter, I went to college, but my three-years-younger brother wasn’t so lucky. I remember his schedule was much different than mine, with frilly things clipped away to include just the steely basics. The movement in our society towards lowering the boom on public education had started. The irony is that while the school day has been cut to the quick, I can’t say so much for nights and weekends, where what can’t be done during the day is squeezed into a seemingly endless stream of homework geared to my children’s success, if not their early ulcers.

I am not against hard work. I embrace it and have even given myself a permanent homework assignment of 1,000 (or so) word essay (aka blog post) weekly on the topic of my choice. Sure I like to write about things that bring me pleasure like camp, male strippers, and my BBFs, but then again, I’m self-grading and keeping myself amused is part of the program. When it comes to my kids, though, I can’t help but wonder about their race to nowhere, and how killing themselves now, before puberty, will get them ahead as adults.

And who’s deciding what those basics are, anyways? My daughter had the word “manufacturing” on a spelling test back in second grade. Not only does it seem excessive, but also it’s a word that isn’t employed so much in the American vernacular anymore.

My kids have been lucky enough to have creative teachers who find ways to take the crushing volume of what needs to be taught and inject it with some fun projects and imaginative assignments to make the learning as enjoyable as possible. But there’s still a mountain to be done, and today’s teachers bear the brunt, spending almost as much time worrying about where their next glue stick is coming from now that school budgets have been whittled to the quick.

Enter the PTA, charged with raising enough money — we’re talking 5-6 figures here, which is not your mama’s bake sale — to offset the cost of our kids’ educations. When I was a kid, my mom only got marginally involved, volunteering at our school library here and there, just to break it up. Nowadays, involved parents are both the lifeblood and the bane of the school experience. But that is a story for another day….

I’m not sure what the answer is to this multiple choice problem of how best to prepare kids today for success in the competitive world they face.  So if you see me jotting notes on my wrist on the way into school, just look the other way and please don’t tell the teacher that I’m cramming for an A in parenting.

Unfortunately, there are no CliffsNotes for that subject.

back to schoolmiddle schoolmotherhoodparentingrace to nowhere