In big cities across the country, parents spend February anxiously awaiting acceptance letters. Getting into college is a huge deal, right?
But wait, I’m talking about kindergarten. Everyone knows that your child’s kindergarten experience—what school they attend, their age when you send them, and how they perform—makes or breaks them, right? Those Ivy League aspirations you had for junior? They’re being determined right now.
I had never really been concerned about kindergarten. The children learn their letters, numbers, and play with playdough, right? But when it was time for my oldest son to enter kindergarten, we were living in San Francisco, in the thick of the kindergarten-admittance craze. Fortunately, my husband just had one more year in a training program, so we knew we were only making a one-year commitment.
My first thought was to homeschool, but it quickly became clear that my extremely social, strong-willed son needed to be around other children (and really, we had enough issues—“Let’s write our very best ‘e,’ dear!” just didn’t need to be one of them!). The city has a random lottery selection for placement in its public schools, so between being terrified that he would be placed across town and wanting to avoid an extreme ideological bias, we began to look at private schools.
The elite schools were far beyond our reach, so we looked at parochial and church schools, landing on a church-based school that was conveniently located on my husband’s way to work.
We arrived on the first day to discover that in my postpartum fog I had failed to notice the class size during their open house. “Full classes” translated to thirty-two students–in kindergarten! Oh, and he had a twenty-three-year-old first-time teacher. So much for that rocking start to his illustrious academic career.
I’m paying for this? I thought.
Among the excessive number of students, my son was the only white boy. There was one white girl, one black boy, and one boy was an Asian/Caucasian mix. Everyone else was Chinese—many of them first or second-generation immigrants.
Although we had heard the school was academically strong, the kindergarten focus was on jumping through school hoops and improving fine motor skills. Coloring all the objects that start with the “b” sound was not academically stimulating to my son. When we finally started readers at the end of the year, they were not phonics-based and were fairly inane. There was nothing to engage a bright but active little boy.
To her credit, his teacher did her very best. She carefully placed him along the perimeter of the class so that he could stand when he felt too wiggly. And when she handed me incomplete projects (aka coloring pages), she was invariably patient and kind.
We muddled through the year. My son talked about a few friends and was even “engaged” to a girl for a time, but when the class went on their ice skating field trip he hung out with the African American and the half-Asian child. The African American mother confided that they were changing schools, as her son did not fit in “socially,” as she discreetly put it.
We moved over the summer and found a school where both boys quickly bonded with their classmates. Each even had a best friend.
But one day my son overheard his younger brother talking about a friend from church. “I don’t really like him,” he said. “His skin is kind of . . . brown.”
My oldest jumped in before my blood could run cold.
“We aren’t mean to people because of the color of their skin. That’s what the kids in kindergarten did to me. They didn’t like me because I was different. That’s wrong. You don’t do that to him!”
Suddenly the year of “wasted” tuition seemed infinitely valuable. One minority year was an experience that would change my son’s outlook for life. I have no idea what the children said or did—or even if their “meanness” was mainly his own perception. But the experience of being the other—learning to cope with those emotions and translating them into a caring treatment of outsiders —was something I could not teach him.
His kindergarten year taught him things that most of us do not learn in a lifetime. While I would not have left him in that situation, I am thankful that he experienced it. Learning to love others, to reach out, to overcome differences, and to be able to empathize with outsiders are not the usual kindergarten scope and sequence, but now I view that rocky year from a very different perspective. It took awhile for my son to overcome the academic shortcomings of that year, but if I had to do it over again would I place him there? In a heartbeat.