School may be starting, but that doesn’t mean parents stop teaching

Frida Berrigan's husband Patrick Sheehan reads to their children Rosena (left) and Seamus (right). (WNV / Frida Berrigan)

Frida Berrigan’s husband Patrick Sheehan reads to their children Rosena (left) and Seamus (right). (WNV / Frida Berrigan)

I am in countdown mode. In just one week, Seamus Philip Berrigan Sheehan-Gaumer starts school. That’s right, our three-year-old will matriculate at The Friendship School in Waterford, Connecticut from about 9:30 in the morning until 3 p.m. five days a week. Yikes!

Some days, when he is in full possession of his “No,” I count down gladly, gleefully, with madcap anticipation at all I will be able to accomplish when he decamps. When he snuggles into my lap after a friend’s funeral mass and says “Peace be with you, Mommy,” my heart breaks at the idea that I would delegate any of my parental responsibilities to Ms. This and Mr. That. But, day by day, whether I exult or exude anxiety at how fast we are catapulting towards the beginning of school, I am convinced that Seamus will love school for three-year-olds.

School brings up all sorts of issues for parents. I didn’t go to preschool and so I flash on an image of myself with thick brown braids and a clashing array of plaid sometime in first or second grade, being called “freckled Frida” and having a crushing preoccupation with a boy named Toby Blank.

But it is more than just uncomfortable memories — school is where race, class, culture, gender and politics all clash into one another. It is where our kids are treated like citizens or criminals: Did you know that only about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool are black, but they account for almost half of the students suspended more than once? That is from the Department of Education’s statistics last March. And for what? We are suspending preschool students? Putting black first graders in handcuffs and taking them down to the police station for throwing temper tantrums? A glance at my morning paper drives this home. In New London, middle and high school students are organizing to draw attention to the high suspension and arrest rates among kids of color and are rallying against the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Unlike lots of parents, we had two great choices for Seamus at age three. He was accepted at the Children’s Program at Connecticut College. Tuition for this small, play-based, inclusive program is $7,919.00 for 2015/2016 (or $168.00 a week, which sounds a lot better). We were offered a serious scholarship (pay only $20 a week, a discount of 80 percent, if my public school math holds up). I loved how cozy the school felt, bright and colorful and homemade. Seamus settled right in when we visited, participating in a class of four-year-olds like he was born to go to school. But the Friendship School was pretty great too. Seamus will be one of 520 three, four and five-years-olds learning in a sprawling, modern school thoughtfully designed for little people. There are loads of teachers and aides and supports for kids with physical, emotional or developmental needs. It is really racially and economically diverse, offers transportation and lunch. And it is free!

We chose this option over $20 a week in large part because of the transportation issues (and because $20 a week is still $940 a year, roughly a mortgage payment). We are a one car family and while Patrick is often able to carpool, we imagined a scenario where Patrick needed the car for work — he teaches a healthy relationships curriculum in high schools, some of which start “learning” at 7:19 a.m. — and it is February, no one has plowed their sidewalks and I need to walk Seamus to school with baby Madeline on my back. I was theoretically down with that, but in reality it would end in Seamus not going to school that day.

Anyway, I have been fine(ish) with sending our three-year-old to school. And then, at a book event a few weeks ago, an elderly man gripped my elbow hard and said, “Whatever you do, don’t turn your kids over to the government. Schools are there to train the soldiers to fight the wars.”

At this point, the U.S. military wishes that were true: The armed forces complain about how overweight, tattooed and pierced young people are, and how they can’t pass the basic math and reading tests to qualify for military service. But his remark still hit home. Am I abandoning my impressionable young son to a school system where he will be indoctrinated? I don’t think so. I doubt The Friendship School is going to roll out any anti-evolution or Christian-math curriculums while I am not paying attention. Will he be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance? We can work around that. I never stood for flag time in school.

When I really think about it, these aren’t reasons to not send him to school, these are reasons to ask lots of questions, attend carefully to his questions and take advantage of lots of opportunities for conversation with my three-year-old. My mother-in-law says “all children are home-schooled.” I like that. It is a way of acknowledging that parents don’t stop teaching kids just because they start going to school. I am not relinquishing my responsibility for his education and development by helping him put his little tiny backpack on every morning. And there are ways in which I am excited for his brainwashing. I am looking forward to the socialization that will inspire him to obsessively put away his toys while muttering that terrible “clean up song” under his breath. So, let the backpacks rise and the school bells ring. We are ready!

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