Personal Statement

Personal Statement

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Potpourri: State of my Parental Mental State

While the rest of the world was watching the State of the Union address this week, I was mired in indecision and writing standup comedy for an eleven year-old.

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday was the deadline for applying to Fort Worth ISD "Gold Seal Programs of Choice."  These used to be known as "Magnet Schools."  Then someone decided that they should be recharacterized as "Special Interest Programs" - and then the names were changed, yet again, to GSPoC.

Theories for the change(s):

1)  Why use two words when three will do?  Or, even better, let's use FIVE WORDS!

2)  Someone needed to justify their existence within central administration.  I am fairly sure that the same principle is behind the fact that, EVERY FREAKIN' SEMESTER, I am called upon to fill out new parent information cards.  The information required is the same each time; the only variable would appear to be the overall dimensions of the card.  As in, the card at the beginning of the year is letter-sized, then at the semester break we are presented with an index card-sized form, and so on.  There is no box to check for "see the last card, which is attached," because that simply would not do.  You cannot attach a card of one size to a card of another size.  That would just be wrong.  And the card MUST fit the dimensions of the file box . . . as the same is changed from time to time.  Why does the size of the box change?  TO FIT THE CARD.  Are you not following this?   (Friends who are employed by the district:  if, as I suspect, the cards are discarded because the information is inputted into a computerized database, don't tell me.  If you do tell me, the record is right here on the Internet:  your loose lips are what pushed me over the edge, "Michael Douglas in 'Falling Down' style.")

Anywho . . . it's entirely possible that the names were changed just so someone could demonstrate that they actually did something during the school year, justifying continued employment.  But I also have it on good authority that we moved away from "magnet" because it had negative connotations.  What, pray tell, would those negative connotations be?  Well, implicit in the concept of a magnet school is the notion of attracting the best and the brightest.  Wouldn't want to do that, not in our world where every kid's a winner and gets a participant ribbon.  We should definitely put the emphasis on "interest," as opposed to ability, in the interest of keeping the bar low and accessible for everyone.  But, wait:  maintaining interest can be a chore.  Don't want to overtax the kids.  So we'll just ask them to make a one-time "choice."  That's easy enough, right?

Well, you would think.  We went into the process expecting to really like one program, which was different than the program that Connor was favoring.  Then we went on classroom tours . . . and the world turned upside down.  Mom and Dad's choice going in:  underwhelming, on several points.  But strong on others.  Connor's choice:  far better than Mom and Dad expected.  Suddenly, we found ourselves considering what was behind Door #3, for no other reason than we couldn't decide between Doors #1 and 2.

What followed was a prolonged debate about just what the goal of middle school ought to be.  Our options:

Door #1:  The obvious choice if the goal is to enter ninth grade with multiple high school credits under one's belt.  Great math and science programs, engineering and robotics electives:  in other words, right up Connor's alley.  Well, one of his alleys.  Existence of multiple alleys became the primary problem with Door #1:  the kid has math and science geek tendencies, for sure, but he's more than that (as, I expect, are most kids, if you dig beneath the surface - but the dual nature of my child's personality is pretty easy to see).  When we got down to the nitty gritty, Door #1 was fairly one note, offering very little in the way of arts enrichment.

Mom (and son) worried that, if we went behind Door #1, the kid that would emerge three years later would be cemented into the role of engineering geek - whether that was truly him or not.  Mom also remembered from her own childhood the psychological torment of being pigeonholed as "just a smart kid."   It took me a lot of years to become comfortable with the concept that well-rounded was okay - in fact, well-rounded was better.

Door #3 (yes, I'm taking these out of order):  Safe.  Mostly upper middle-class.  Populated by kids who, by and large, look like our kid, which was not the case at his ethnically diverse elementary school and would not be the case at Door #1 (primarily African-American "home school" population) or Door #2 (primarily Hispanic).  But we have never been a fan of ethnically homogeneous, and Connor has reaped tremendous benefits from the mix at his current school, so - next.  Curriculum had some of the features that we liked about Doors #1 and 2, which made it a nice compromise . . . but it just didn't feel like a fit.  Also - full candor here - "mostly upper middle-class" gives me a little bit of heartburn, from the standpoint of one who went to a (very solidly) upper middle-class junior high.  In my experience, preteen kids with the (derived-from-Dad-and-Mom) financial wherewithal to acquire the latest fashions, toys and technology instantly and on demand have a tendency to turn keeping up with the Joneses into a competitive blood sport.  My child is blissfully unaware of many of the hot trends, because, frankly, a lot of his classmates can't afford them.  He is quite happy with his Wii, doesn't think it is his God-given right to also own an Xbox, has not asked for his own Facebook page and long ago gave up on asking for a cell phone.  And we'd kind of like to keep it that way.  Psychic torture is an inevitable part of middle school, but if we could keep it to a minimum, that would be a Godsend.  Really, same issue as the smart kid thing above - another hot button of Mom's, but a valid one, I think.

Door #2:  Science and arts magnet.  Nothing specifically to appeal to Connor's engineering bent, but (as he so eloquently put it), "How do I know that I won't want to be a biochemist, since I've never taken biology or chemistry?  I'm only eleven."  Exactly.  You're only eleven.  And, while Door #1 offers you X number of high school preps (for the record, Door #2 offers X less 1, and they are working on getting the 1 added to their curriculum), who's to say where you'll be in high school?  And do you want to be that far ahead?  Sure, it will free up room to take electives in high school that appeal to your creative side, but if that creative side has already taken a backseat . . . so we're back to the general thesis:  the preteen years are critical, but primarily because that's when your sense of self starts to gel.  And, at the end of the day, Door #2 seemed to be the door to the best breeding ground for a healthy sense of Connor-self.  Sufficient challenge for academic Connor, plus room to be "creative Connor" (and a curriculum that says, "Hey, it's great to be creative!  Even better to be creative and smart!  And here are things that you can do with those skills in the future!").  Watching the kids in the classrooms, I could easily see my kid there - working on group projects, excitedly dissecting frogs and cow eyeballs, participating in exercises that blended art with math and English, all in a setting that just immediately said "home" to me.  It said home to Connor, too.  And - after Dad got over his own middle school baggage (his fundamental issue with his schooling - not enough preparation for high school and college in the early years) - we had a consensus.

But it took us a long time - and a lot of waffling and navel-gazing - to get there.

Meanwhile, Connor had to write the essay that was part of his application packet.  The topic was accessible enough:  "What advice would you give a new student at your school?"  However, Big Kid was feeling contrary (and, as we learned a day later, was coming down with a stomach bug to boot).  "Mom, I'm just not a very good creative writer."  Yeah, right.  We brainstormed some ideas, and finally he hit on one that stuck:  a list of recommendations focusing on urban school legends, designed to scare an incoming student, with the last item on the list to read:  "Don't take my advice above, or yourself, too seriously.  Everything will be fine.  The teachers and students are there to help you with your transition, so don't let the fear get the best of you.  And, yes, I do intend to take my own advice with me to sixth grade."

Then the fun began:

"Ooh, how about this one?  'Don't be afraid to go to the school nurse.  She's nice, even if she is a zombie, and the only word she knows is "BRAAAAAAIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNSSSS!"'"

Other items on the list:

Standardized tests are scarier than the most awful thing to come out of the dark recesses of R. L. Stine's imagination.

If you fail a standardized test, plan on doing several days in solitary (AKA "the cooler").

The kindergarteners take a field trip to Bass Hall.  Four buses leave; only three come back.

If you see the same girl over and over in the hall, she could be a twin - or a stalker.

Soon the list grew to far exceed the space alotted.  And, as I did dishes and moved about the house attending to various other chores, I was called upon for consults:

Connor:  "How about, 'Watch your back . . . pack, because Joe in third grade is a notorious packswapper'?"

Me:  "Packnapper."

Connor.  "Ooh.  Yeah, that's funnier.  How about, 'Sweatshirts make excellent drool pillows . . . and weapons'?"

Me:  "Umm, maybe too controversial?  What about 'pillow or slingshot'?  A little more specific, and silly versus threatening?"

This continued, until finally I suggested that maybe, just maybe, we had hit upon a new talent show concept:  fifth-grade standup comic.  Connor was all over it:

"Do you think that they'd let me put a stool upfront?  With a glass on it, holding water tinted brown and some ice cubes?"

Yes, it's possible that the child has walked through the master bedroom while Mom and Dad were watching Ron White.

Glad that, at the end of the day, we were laughing after what turned out to be an exhaustive examination of Mom and Dad's middle school scars and our fears and hopes for our child's future.  Hopefully we made the right choice; if not, we'll make adjustments.  In the end, these things seem to work themselves out.


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