the new reading nook
Chapter One: Baba
Our kids changed schools this last year. If you’ve been following along, you know by now that we traveled via the Magic Treehouse to California last Fall only to return five months later after a fierce battle on Mount Tamalpais a la The Titan’s Curse which ended when we decided to give Atlas the world back. Two of our four kids were school-aged when we left Seattle last fall and now three of the four are starting back to school this fall. Our son Liam’s school is an alternative school—or more accurately termed—an option school within a public school system, and our guy Micah will begin kindergarten there as well in just over a month thanks to sibling preference eclipsing the almost 1000 non-sibling preference families jockeying for a coveted kindergarten spot this year.
Liam returned to his same school by some stroke of pure chance or divine intervention when we came back home early this year, falling easily back into his rhythm while vowing to never again leave his friends and the school’s comfort. Our older daughter, Hal, was placed in a different option school when we returned home since Liam’s option school had no openings in her grade and she wasn’t caught up academically enough to send her back to her regular school. And while her option assignment sounded good, to say that the experience was a disaster is an understatement. All of the option schools here have their schtick—something that they strive to be known for—and the school she received assignment to was the school that honors the people of the Northwest tribes. Its webpage explains it as having a Native-focused, social justice teaching, tribal sovereignty curriculum—all things we were excited about given both older kids share a birth father who is Blackfeet Native, but the reality of her short tenure was anything but a “just” experience. She began being bullied by a fellow student on day one; and three weeks later, the bullying ended with my sending of this letter:
And with that, we found our city’s public school resource for homeschool families—a classroom and social environment for homeschooled kids that fuses the best of both classroom and homeschool worlds, is tuition free, and is staffed and run by genuinely nice people. The catch? A parent or responsible adult must to be onsite at all times the enrolled child is in attendance, which can be tough with four young children. But despite the physical location constraints placed on Mimi to sit with Hallie there four days a week, it was the best fit we had found since we left the comfort of her Waldorf school to travel out of state two schools ago and only 6 months earlier, and Hallie settled in there pretty quickly, actually. She made a friend or two, and she buckled down hard, continuing what amounted to a slow walk toward the goals she had sprinted for the whole time we were away and up the point at which she began the homeschool back in Seattle. I am not sure why she slowed her pace so abruptly. Whether it was because she was disheartened that we were home and yet she wasn’t back to her actual school, or if it was just that she was tired of working so hard, we definitely felt the change in her enthusiasm to catch up at that point.
Sprint or stroll, it all paid off for her by the end of the school year. Thanks to her grit, the tutelage and patience of Mimi, and the love and care of some amazing staff and teachers in the two homeschool platforms she was in (Innovation Center of Encinitas in California and Cascade Parent Partnership in Seattle), she tested only slightly below grade level at the end of 2015-2016 school year; the closest she’s ever been to her peers in her entire life. She has confidence reading that she has never enjoyed before now, and even today, a point located to the right of mid-summer on her sundial, she continues to make her way through the piles of books she’s collected over the last few years with an interest that I doubt is transient. And if you were to ask her why she suddenly worked so hard, she would tell you that it was all to return to her home school—Waldorf School—and to her beloved classroom teacher and the room where she works with the specialty teacher she adores.
I’ll say it again: We as parents did not set out to have a private school versus public school social experiment going on in our home and in our children’s educational spectra. In fact, I cannot say with any honesty that we set out to do any particular thing with our kids’ education in the beginning. I knew three amazing sisters who graduated from a Steiner school when I owned a business in Colorado, and I always lightheartedly thought I’d love my kids to be like them if I ever had any. But that was about as far as I got with forethought before the stress and trauma of parenting a neglected and abused child from foster care rocked my world. My child was not like other kids in any way, and I’m not talking about the “all kids are different” kind of different either. I am talking behaviors that aren’t in any parenting books, getting ejected from almost every daycare and preschool in the area before age four (over 10 if anyone is counting), and worries that the child won’t ever be able to attend any school different. I was just happy when a school would agree to consider her in those days, to break it down to the basics. Those were lonely, frustrating and hope-killing days, but even looking back now through my stress reaction vision, I gratefully acknowledge that the Universe held us up. And even though it felt more like a pinball game than support, we seemed to always get bumped back into play just in the nick of time before we could fall into the chasm between the game’s flippers.
We had just returned from our trip into hiding out from the scary man when we got bumped hard enough to send us to Waldorf kindergarten. And, even after factoring in the impact to our family’s economy and the academic foundational schism we created with our Waldorf school education choice and her early brain injury, the artistic development and social and emotional competency which has materialized over seven years in the Waldorf environment is more meaningful to me than any test scores ever could be. That is why I want her to return there now.
But I am only one of several decision makers in this scenario. At this very moment, we await the answer to whether Waldorf school will even take her back this fall or if she will remain in the homeschool environment for the next three years. She was tested there when we returned home this spring, and her increased abilities were apparent; but her classroom teacher remains unsure as to whether she can support Hallie in the main lesson environment.
Chapter Two: Mimi
Baba sounds sure that the Waldorf school is the place for Hallie. As to whether Hallie finds community and safety in the walls of that school, however, I cannot be certain. I remember the days and weeks and years when Hallie would come home and cry about the other kids, the fights, and not feeling like there was a good friend network for her. I worry that the Waldorf school has been imbued with a fairy tale quality in her mind, but that in reality, the potential exists for her to be as unhappy there as she could be anywhere at this fragile age and stage in life.
Homeschooling is not a place I ever imagined I would be with my children after having been reared and educated in the public school system either. The responsibility is huge. I do not mind providing augmentation to my kids’ education such as help with homework or providing an alternative or more diverse perspective; and the orchestration of extracurricular experiences sounded almost fun before I started doing it, but it never occurred to be that I would be the actual education. And while the two homeschool platforms our daughter has experienced, ICE and Cascade, furnished a fabulous bridge for people who do want to be a large source of the education provided to their children, the commitment is astounding.
The program in California included more homework than I could have imagined for any child not in high school. The parents of children enrolled in ICE, for example, were required to provide 25% of the educational time and resources for their kids’ education. That meant we spent hours every day at the dining room table doing math and reading homework and completing several in-depth projects. Despite the suffocating amount of work involved for all of us, I believe both Hallie and Liam thrived educationally within that framework. The projects were intensive and brought together all aspects of learning. Gains or no gains, though, I still was not sold on the idea of homeschooling when we left California, but after the experience of Hallie’s public option school was tremendously disheartening, we were kind of out on a limb.
I feel grateful that we were able to find Cascade and enroll Hallie in classes just in the nick of time. It was a fabulous experience with an incredibly caring staff and a good community of supportive parents and kids cradled in a safe environment. It proved to be a place where bullying was not tolerated and everyone recognizes that children have differences. The teachers and special education staff worked hard to create a safe and comfortable learning environment for Hallie, and she benefited from the effort. The school-family counselor, whose job it is to help the students and parents achieve learning goals, worked very hard for Hallie and for me, and always maintained her cheer and good spirit.
I am certainly anything but an extrovert. I would rather hide behind sunglasses and earbuds than socialize with any person, at nearly any time. That said, the families and parents at Cascade are genuinely friendly; and though for me, the experience was somewhat overwhelming because of my true nature to run away from people, it was a great place to be, and perhaps, would be a great place to stay.
And, Cascade is certainly not why Hallie’s education curve plateaued when we returned to Seattle. I think that Hallie’s pace slowed because the coursework changed from the prolific project work and a gazillion packets of more work sent home daily, to something more manageable; and so in contrast, she seemed generally to have slowed down. Further, Hallie treated the classroom space at Cascade as an independent place for her rather than a collaborative education space for her teachers, herself and me, as it is designed to be. Her reading is what truly improved when we came back home, and that was definitely owing to the time she spent in the school library at Cascade. The librarian there is integral to class supply ordering and family support, and she really seemed to enjoy watching Hallie’s enthusiasm for reading bloom, and encouraged her.
So, here is where the hammer falls: I worry about sending Hallie back to the Waldorf school when, for six years, that setting was unable to encourage and foster an obvious love of reading which now exists in her. I also worry about sending Hallie back to the Waldorf school for fear she may just slide back into dysfunctional classroom habits and not be able to lateralize her new skills and educational competence to an old setting. On the whole, instructors have stated that Hallie is fabulous in classes as long as she is doing what she wants to do; but also clear from all of the teacher reviews we have received through the years for Hallie, is that she is driven to stubbornly support her personal beliefs in how certain things are done, and simply refuses to consider that she might be wrong. Also, she became accustomed to high amounts of self-regulation and liberties at the Waldorf school; and as a result, would miss the forest for the trees such as focusing on the art work in her self-made instructional materials while completely neglecting the written aspect of the assignment.
I worry that she is internally driven to pine for the Waldorf school as she is pining now with the same homemade lantern walk lights in her eyes she had for the lower grades but that now she will find that it is not what she remembers or had hoped for. I worry that Hallie will stagnate educationally without the push she has experienced this year from the educators and parents who have been highly involved in her learning, and I worry that she will fall back into her old ways and more staunchly fight the need for the extra help she requires.
On a lighter note, I don’t feel like a decision we make with regard to Hallie’s education now will cause her to be irrevocably damaged, though I am pretty sure that Baba does worry about this. Kids are homeschooled, public schooled, and private school educated all the time—and while some do fall into the tragic abyss of lifelong unhappiness, that is not the norm. We are doing the best we can for her and for all four of our kids, and what I think we need to remember is that we always come from the place of trying to give them whatever we can to best meet their needs. And, most importantly, it’s not really up to us at this point anyway. The Waldorf school administration and teachers are making a decision that might make all this hair pulling and nail biting for naught when they ultimately decide that they cannot take Hallie back into the classroom.
Chapter Three: Mr. Roarke and Baba
So, here we sit; two parents—two opinions, and only weeks from the eighth year of the school journey with our kids. We are now seasoned veterans of navigating school systems. We are experienced in public schools and private schools; homeschools and option schools; alternative schools and parochial schools; and we have the data to compare, contrast and conclude based on what we have seen, yet we still cannot make a unified sound decision when it comes to our oldest daughter.
I’ve stated my romanticized notions of what her life will be like if she is allowed to remain in the Waldorf school and can continue to grow in her artistic abilities, social consciousness, and simplistic beauty, and I can also see her doing well and being happy wherever she ends up. But what is right and what is wrong? What if I force the issue of her being in the Waldorf school, and it amounts to nothing more than manipulating her fate inappropriately, and it backfires? What if she is supposed to be in the homeschool platform and I neglect to consider its value? What if she is supposed to be in Waldorf school and I don’t fight hard enough to make her case, and they don’t take her back?
And so continues the free fall into the murky pit of insecurity booby-trapped with the fear of dire consequences for our daughter’s future. And while falling through the dark space, looking for a ledge or a tree branch to grab onto, conspicuously forgettable scenes from the dual incarnations of a television series called Fantasy Island begin to come into focus.
Fantasy Island ran for seven seasons with cultish popularity. Played by actor Ricardo Montalbon, the lead character, Mr. Roarke, was the inscrutable administrator of a mystifying island located in the Pacific Ocean on which guests arrived each week for a price of what would be $200,000 today to have their dreams come true. Every show kicked off with Mr. Roarke explaining the incoming guests’ fantasies to his assistant, Tattoo, and then, with what appeared to be crystal ball insight, he considered the outcomes of each fantasy and the moral retribution necessary for manipulating fate. His pressed white suit and angelic nuance supported the insinuation that Mr. Roarke had magic; but whatever he had, he could use it to conjure any environment necessary to transform fantasies into realities for his guests. Fortunately, Mr. Roarke also knew exactly the right time to step in and save guests from themselves when passion and desire overrode common sense and good judgment. The show was my first realization that there is a yang to every yin and that there will always be something to lose when something is gained. Most importantly, though, Mr. Roarke taught me to be careful what I wish for.
Someone in Televisionland decided to resurrect Fantasy Island more than a decade after the original show ended, and brought in Malcolm McDowell to play Mr. Roarke. And Perhaps because McDowell will forever be linked in my mind with A Clockwork Orange, one of the most disturbing movies ever made, more than just his black suit was darker than Montalbon’s Roarke. McDowell’s Roarke made no attempt to hide the fact that he had supernatural powers, nor did his shape-shifting accomplice, Ariel. And unlike the warm and kind relationship the old Mr. Roarke had with Tattoo, the new Mr. Roarke made it sport to intimidate and harass his help; keeping them in some type of purgatory on the island. Also, in contrast to the painful but bearable lessons doled out by Montalbon’s Roarke, McDowell’s character appeared to revel in the “careful what you wish for” adage. McDowell’s Roarke did grant wishes and fulfill fantasies as Montalbon’s had; however, the whole thing seemed to hurt a lot more on McDowell’s island.
McDowell’s or Roarke’s island, every person who stepped out of the plane there each week had an agenda, whether they knew it or not at the outset. And be it a long lost part of self in need of rediscovery or a chance to make a better decision or be a better person, some time on Fantasy Island always showed guests something they needed to see; painful lesson at no extra charge.
Whichever island our daughter’s metaphorical plane lands on to begin the school journey this fall, my singular hope is that she will land safely in the place farthest away from any Fantasy Island created by the unwitting manipulations of her well-meaning parents. I’ll gladly take the painful lesson if she can be in the place most hers. And when we do finally land there after this arduous mental journey, I’ll be looking out the window for the white-suited Mr. Roarke, Tattoo at his side, to know it is safe to deplane.
~baba and mimi