Friday, September 12, 2014

The Questions About First Grade

A few years ago, my friend started dating an ultra-marathoner - as in, he runs 100 miles at a time and runs shorter, but still insanely long distances on a regular basis. I will call him UltraMarathonMan, even though that's not his real name. My friend tended to date interesting people for short amounts of time. By the time Ed and I had dinner with UltraMarathonMan, a few months AFTER she had started talking about him, I figured he was doomed to the scrap heap soon. If there was anything I wanted to know, I better ask it.

And there was stuff I wanted to know. Questions about how you make your body move for over 24 hours. Do you sleep and run at the same time? What about the other standard body functions? And your feet...what do they look like after that? And what is the end game here? You injure yourself and never run again, or do you just get bored running and decide to do something else? I was interested in UltraMarathonMan in part because I had never even pondered running these distances and it was hard to understand.

It seems that Helen is her own version of UltraMarathonMan to the girls in first grade. Her teacher has been trying to get my attention after school in a subtle way, but after school is possibly the craziest 10 minutes of my life these days. I should describe that another time, but I start hyperventilating just thinking about how much action is contained in those few minutes.

Friday morning was the first chance the teacher and I had to connect, out of earshot of Helen.

Teacher: The other day on the playground, the girls came running up to me and had the following conversation.

Girls: Helen didn't learn anything in Kindergarten!

Teacher: What do you mean?

Girls: All she did was play all day. She didn't learn to read or write or anything!

Helen: Yep. I just played all day.

Now at this point, it strikes me that all the other girls should be saying "Dude, you have the most awesome parents in the universe! We were confined to desks and chairs and were taught rote skills that the research very clearly show have little to no benefit at our age." But instead, the girls are acting as if it is a problem that Helen neither reads nor writes proficiently, and still gets confused between what a 6 and 9 look like.

Teacher: Helen, did you learn how to be a good friend last year?

Helen: Yes!

Teacher: Did you learn how to play and make up games?

Helen: Yes!

Teacher: Then you know exactly what you are supposed to know to be in my class. You all should go play.

Girls: But we are going to teach her. We are going to help  her!

Teacher: No thanks. That's my job. I'll make sure Helen knows everything she needs to know.

I understand the girls are extremely curious about this non-academic Kindergarten class that Helen talks about. To them, she must be UneducatedCrazyGirl. And they've never run in to UneducatedCrazyGirl before, and her background was something that nobody ever talked about before. And they have questions, oh, they have questions.

So, girls, and anyone else who wonders what happened in that Waldorf classroom last year, here we go.

Did you learn anything? What did your classroom look like? What was your teacher like? What did you do all day? And what about the afternoons? Was there a lunch room? Was there recess? What about art? Did you miss out on anything? What is the end game, will you just be the dumbest kid in the class forever?

Answers: Yes. She learned how to deal with other people, she learned conflict resolution skills, she piled blocks, boards, rocks and other objects together in the greatest study of physics performed at the Kindergarten level of all time. She learned how to divide the toys in a fair way, and when she made pretend lunch in her pretend family, she learned that everyone shared in the meal. She learned that time moves in seasons, that the week and year have their own rhythms, and that she was in an extremely safe space. She perfected her finger knitting skills, made a sword, sewed a case for the sword, and like St. Michael, she is ready to conquer her dragons.

The classroom was painted in beautiful pastels. The room was free from distractions on the wall. Where you saw letters, words, and pictures cluttering every space on the walls and even the floor and ceiling sometimes, Helen saw a seasonal wool picture.

The teacher told some of the most beautiful stories she'll ever have the opportunity to hear. Her assistant teacher was as good as having a grandmother in the class, always smiling, always loving. Her teachers would clear space for play, but didn't direct the play. Her teachers were there to help her learn how to get along with everyone in the room, a skill I see adults fail at daily.

Afternoons were spent with her mom or a babysitter. They went to parks, shared a leisurely lunch, went swimming, painted on the sidewalks, made crepes, made yogurt cakes, and read stories. Lots of stories. You will hardly believe the vocabulary she has amassed at this point.

Nope. No lunch room. Snack was shared in a room with two tables, and Pico the gnome sat next to the children. Pico has very sensitive ears, so the children learned not to shout in his presence. Helen had the honor of placing Pico at the table every day. We have our own Pico, because Helen loved that gnome so much.

Officially, no recess. Helen started her day outside on the playground, moved inside for indoor play, and ended the day on the outside playground.

For art, Helen colored once a week and painted once a week. These creations were bound together and represent the only papers Helen brought home all year. I treasure them. All of the creations came from her imagination, and I can see how it changed over the year. She started out mostly working with different colors. Then there was a rainbow phase, a cave phase, a sunshine phase, and more.

Helen didn't miss out on anything she needed. You'll understand by the end of the year.

The end game? She'll rock first grade just like her brother and the other children from her Waldorf school who have gone through her elementary school. She comes with a rich vocabulary, a rich imagination, and she can pay attention better than anyone in the classroom. These things she'll carry with her for her whole life.

This afternoon, I'm going to be sure and talk to Helen about this. I think her best response is "My mom just wanted me to play!", which I think will mean her friends can start thinking of her as Helen, the girl with CrazyMom. I'm tough. I can take it.


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