Sunday, December 18, 2011

Red Shirts for All

A friend recently asked me what was my take on holding children back a year from entering Kindergarten…. (This one’s for you, Stephan.)

Perhaps I should have been held back. Born in August, I was always the smallest, one of the most socially awkward students in my class. I cried every single morning from Kindergarten until third grade, when, I was either finally mature enough to be in school or had a teacher who was so engaging, I forgot to cry. (Thank you, Mr. O’Brien)

I remember, in Kindergarten, my teacher leaning over with me, pleading, “Melissa, if you keep crying, all the other children are going to drown in your tears.”

Another kindergartener had a gentler approach. She put her arm around my shoulders and said, sympathetically, “Don’t cry, honey.”

And in second grade I had a teacher so mean, so incensed by my tears she once hissed at me before we watched a movie, “you better cry through this entire movie. If you don’t, I’ll give you something to cry about.” And boy did I cry. I sobbed. I wailed. It was remarkable that the other children could hear the movie over the din of my blubbering. But when the movie was over she came over to me and said. “I didn’t hear you cry.”

“But I did cry!” I insisted, tears rolling down my face.

“No. You didn’t. You enjoyed the movie like every other rotten child in this room, and now you are going to be punished.” She dug her nails into my scalp, and led me, cackling, over to the chair in the corner, underneath the pencil sharpener. (F*** you, Mrs. Sable)

My friend Emily came over with a fistful of dull pencils, to keep me company and offer her sympathy.

But, because I was academically on par with my peers and an early reader, my parents believed that holding me back would only serve to hold me back, I started kindergarten when I was freshly five.

I’ll say this. At least I got out younger too. I think I’ve finally recovered.

But, it was uncommon to leave children back then. The times, they have a-changed. Now, it’s not only done without hesitation, it’s rampant. So much so there’s a name for it: red-shirting. (Redshirting has its etymological origins in the college practice of delaying an athlete’s participation in sports in order to extend his/her period of eligibility. Traditionally, these students wear a red jersey in scrimmages with the other, actively playing students.) Redshirting became more popular as demands increased for a higher level of school readiness…but in towns like mine, parents will also do it to give their child an edge in sports. So they can be bigger, stronger and more skilled then their no-so-same-aged peers.

To redshirt or not to redshirt? I have pondered this question from the other end of the spectrum—should I push Sophia into school early? Sophia, like anyone born after October 1 in my corner of the world, misses the cut-off date, which means, by the time she’s eligble for Kindergarten she’ll be almost six.

So, if I follow convention, she will start public school having attended my mother’s preschool for four years. How’s that for school readiness?

On the one hand, given the local tendency to hold kids back, she might just find herself on par with her peers—social-emotionally, intellectually, physically, and in actual years. But, in the meanwhile, I wonder if she get bored. Feel unchallenged. Start to act out.

I weigh the options. She’s not a shy child. Oh, she’ll bury her face in my leg for all of 60 seconds before getting thisclose to another child and demanding that he play “sick kitty” with her in our pediatrician’s waiting room: “Okay. Let’s pretend kitty has a banana stuck in her ear. No, a banana stuck in both her ears. No, no no. Wait. A banana stuck in both ears and her heart. And you’re the doctor.” She’s kind of a social vigilante. Forcing strange children to play with her.

Academically, she’s good.

As for maturity. She seems almost too independent for me, pushing me away on the escalator, “I can do this MYSELF mommy.” Ordering me from the back seat to drive, “Mom, the light is green. Just go.” Always walking away without a backwards glance.

I think if I sent her to kindergarten tomorrow, she’d tread water. She’d do what she always does. Try to usurp the teacher.

But on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind keeping her around for one more year. Enjoying this fleeting thing called childhood. Having the luxury of my mother popping into the storage room where I work to say, “Melissa…you’ve got to see this…she pretending she’s a miner… she’s practicing her part for the play…she’s in the kitchen with Marie…she just wrote her name….” Having one more year to play. One more year of freedom. One more year before the demands set in: To sit. To attend. To listen.

And then there’s the research, which says there’s no long term harm, and often short term good in holding kids back. Which makes me wonder: maybe we’re sending our kids to school too soon in general. What’s wrong with another year of childhood, before being swallowed up by the great machine that is school? Maybe everyone could stand to benefit from one more year in the school of life.

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