Education Reform – Why am I involved?

PARCC Test Prep
PARCC Test Prep given on the third week of Kindergarten.

After the debacle of my first child starting kindergarten last August, she was a shadow of her happy, bouncy self. She was exhausted and weary by mid-September. All this because she started kindergarten in the wrong school. What’s worse though is, while I know I won the lottery with her new school, her old school is only following orders from up high. The district school board and the state of Florida have their hands, pockets (and asses) deep in the system, a system that is crumbling while simultaneously shattering children’s self-esteem, burning out students of every grade, and materials being taught only to suit the answers on a specific test.  Just those 5 weeks in her old school made me so sick to my stomach with stress and anxiety that I was barely able to function. What she was exposed to in her old public school is what every student has to face across the state and it’s unacceptable. Her first week of kindergarten, she came home with an hour of homework every night, photo copies of the PARCC test  for her to fill out, and an ad nauseum regurgitation of letters that rendered homework a complete nightmare every single night. After three weeks of this, I timed her homework. It took one hour and fifteen minutes. I was done. DONE. The next morning, I told her teacher to expect her homework to routinely be returned incomplete. I was not going to subject my child to this at aged 5. The teacher, whose hands are tied thanks to the system, agreed wholeheartedly. Began talking about retiring after she warned me that the homework would only get worse after Christmas due to the EOC (End-of-Course) tests they’ll all face at the end of the year. What? The EOC for kindergarten is another set of tests – yes, I said ‘set’. The EOC for kindergarten comprises of 186 questions over the course of two weeks in May. So kindies all over the state in a public school are working solely towards this test. That’s just for math and english. Doesn’t include the tests for the other subjects!!!! Not only is this bad enough, but the tests counts for nothing for the students. It’s meant as a means of benchmarking the teachers. I happened to talk to my girl’s school principal early this week. He told me that he’s not even sure they’ll bother with the kindie EOC. He knows what his teachers are like. While the final decision hasn’t been made yet for her school (hers is a charter, so they are allowed more freedom than the standard public school), I’m going to have my ear to the ground just in case. Two weeks of testing is bad enough. Two weeks of testing that has zero merit for the child is downright ridiculous.

What time is this?

And this is just the beginning. Currently, all grades have EOC tests, and when you get to 3rd grade, you get to take the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment). Detailed info here. Initially, it doesn’t sound so bad. But then practice tests were sent home and the questions defy logic. For example, take a look at the clock. How are the hands positioned? Which is the hour and which is the minute hand?

Answer this!

Maybe this question is better? What’s the answer??? Anyone? Anyone?  I’ll give you the answer below. When I say “answer,” I really mean I’m giving you the correct answer as designated by the test and by which the students are compared to. Expectations are that 70% of the students will fail this year. Who the hell approves and administers a testing system where 70% are expected to fail?? My hurricane is three years away from having to do the FSA but when the time comes, we know she’ll be opting out. We in no way wish to damage the school’s rating so we will follow very specific guidelines to achieve an NR2 score which will meet the minimum requirement of participation without any repercussions to the school from the district school board. There are so many examples of this test. It’s wrong. Just plainly wrong. So my obligation as a parent is to get involved. I am guilty of prior ignorance on this matter but now that I have a child in the education system, I’m listening. I really don’t like  what I am hearing. No more. I am writing this post because others may also not know about it and the more informed we are, the more we can become active, let voices be heard and stand up for our children. School isn’t school anymore, it’s a testing prep factory. And it’s time for that to end. Oh, and the answer to the question above is B. Did you get it right?

Red Alert! Red Alert!!

warning-parentMy 6-year old hurricane has mentioned a boy in her class a few times. It’s always been in the context of how he was messing around in class and causing trouble. Last night, we were talking about the after-school clubs that her school has. Students can sign up for free to these activities (yoga, fit for fun, art, horticulture, music, reading, drama, poetry, science, lego, etc.) but since we were late to the school year, all the clubs were full. For some odd reason, I pulled up the club list last night and was asking her what she wanted to do next year. She calls out a bunch and when I get to one particular club, she says she wants to do that one because X is in it. I’m a little confused. He does sit at her team table in school (the students are grouped into teams of 4-5 in the classroom) and I’ve previously commented to my husband that of course she’s sitting with the troublemaker. She would be drawn to that excitement like a bee to honey.

I take the conversation last night in my stride. Nothing stands out since I know the students will be all mixed up next year. Then my husband drops the bombshell. Apparently, she told my husband while I was away that she kissed this boy. Whhhhhhhaaaaaat? Now when the f**k did this happen? And why didn’t I know about it immediately? Then he tells me that another time, he kissed her. I have no doubt that the kiss is probably equal to how she kisses our dog but still. STOP THIS!!!! I can’t say a word to her about it, because she’s exactly like me. I know if I make a big deal out of it, she’ll zone in on it faster than an interstellar comet. I’m already having a very hard time knowing that her next birthday means she’ll be 7. That just seems so . . . so . . .  not a little girl. Six means she’s still little but for some reason, 7 isn’t that little at all. Now this!

I know I’m overreacting. This just threw me a curveball because she’s never,ever, ever been interested in boys before. I’m praying that’s still the case and that I’m just reading too much into it.

Yeah, that’s it. I’m just reading too much into it. Denial works well for me.

In Four Short Days….

unnamedI had another stretch of time without my kids (see here for why). The calmness and freedom that ensues that alone time is great. This time it was almost two full weeks which is a very long time for a kid. However, due to the circumstances of my departure, I wasn’t thinking too much about them. I was enveloped in the moment at hand. They did great when I was away after Christmas, but signs of trouble were showing. Two days before leaving to return back to the United States, I got an email from the 6-yr old hurricane’s teacher that my girl hit a teacher twice in school. Whhhhhaaaaaattttt? I about died on the spot and was really confused. This was way out of character for her.  Aside from the immediate scare that she would get kicked out of the one darn school I was happy with, I was stunned to hear my girl had lashed out. And then, reality hit me and I knew I needed to be home ASAP. It actually made leaving the motherland a little easier. The oldest of my two was resorting to violence to work out her feelings and lashing out at those around her. She’s never done that before, but we’ve also never been in this situation before where I’ve had to disappear for a long time (to a child) with 10hrs notice.

Two days later, I walked through my airport and was literally tackled to the ground by the force of the hugs and love showered on me. I stayed on that floor for a few minutes, just hugging and kissing my two little terrors that encompass my heart, silently acknowledging to myself how lucky I am. But so began damage control.

I had a talk with her teacher the next morning and I am truly grateful that they were completely understanding of what happened, how hard my absence had been on her. When I first left to rush back to Ireland, I emailed her teacher to let her know what was going on. She was appreciative for the heads up and she told me that the tornado had been out of character all of the past week. Very little was made of her incident. It was recorded and she was given two conducts points, but nothing else was to happen. Phew. OK.

Not unexpectedly, the 3-year old mental patient is a mess. He’s been sick with a cough and snotty nose for a couple weeks now. We can’t seem to get rid of it, despite all attempts. Mind you, I’ve had the same thing for a month so I guess we have to let it run its course. But add to that my absence and I’ve had a little boy who has been a bit of a nightmare since my return. Basically, he’s now releasing all that pent up anguish and confusion that surrounded him for two weeks. We didn’t have this when I got back from South Africa, but that was for 10 days, hubby only had to work for three of those and Grandad was here most of that time, keeping them company. So a very different kettle of fish than the past two weeks. Either way, it’s all manageable and I’ll let that run its course too. Once he is confident that the old routine is back and isn’t stressed that I might disappear again, he’ll be back to his old cuddly self.

I’ve laughed over the things that can come out of their mouths though. For example, while in carpool lane on Monday afternoon to pick up the 6-year old, my son exclaims “Mom, my penis needs to come out.” Uh… what? He was strapped into a 5-point harness child seat. There is no way that he can maneuver what he wants to achieve.

By Tuesday, I was trying to normalize the routine by taking the boy to the park to meet his best friend. As I unstrapped him outside the park, my phone rang and I heard the dreaded words that it was the school secretary calling about Lilly. My heart sank and I wondered what she had done now. Instead, she told me that Lilly was at the front desk, they suspected she had ringworm, and I needed to collect her. Again, whhhhhaaaattt? Since it’s highly contagious, she wasn’t allowed back into the school until I could provide a doctor’s note confirming with treatment or denying the condition. In the end, the doctor’s office couldn’t work us in, but the nurse was kind enough to let me email her some pics of her arm, and then confirm it was ringworm, assign treatment and email me back a doctor’s note for the school. She definitely was going to miss the next day of school though. So much for the routine. I decided to turn it into a day of fun. We chilled around the house first. No rushing. Then to the park for a few hours, then onto their favorite – the numbers restaurant. Then off to Target to get some frames for the pictures of my aunt. A pretty simple and fun day for the kids and they needed it. The boy is still a little mess, ready to break down at the drop of a hat. That just means he needs lots of extra loving to make him feel good.

Today is Thursday. I’m still delirious from exhaustion and a little vertigo. Despite the eventful four days since I’ve been back, it has highlighted to me how much Mommy is needed. I’m their Mommy. Their well being, emotional and physical, is mostly on me since Daddy works god awful long hours. It’ll be good for me to get back into a routine too. The world turned upside down at the end of January for me and my stress level went through the roof.

So it’s time for us all to get back to normal and while our ‘normal’ can sometimes resemble the Addams Family, it’s still good to us.

Queen of the Fairies.

Long live the Queen. Queen of the fairies, that is.

unnamed (2)I’ve been missing from here, I know. At the end of January, we received the devastating news that my beloved aunt had ovarian cancer. The word “aunt” is so incomplete  because this woman was so much more than my father’s sister, and I’m not sure I can adequately describe what a powerhouse of love, happiness, caring, adventurousness she was. And then she had the audacity to die three weeks after her diagnosis. My sister and I raced across the Atlantic on the first flight when we got the call that things were going very badly. We touched down in Gatwick airport in London, England, desperate to hold her hand one more time. To see that sparkle in her eyes that used to light up a room, to hear her voice again. The minute the wheels touched the ground, I turned on my cell phone (I know, I know, but this was an emergency) and texted my brother that we had touched down. We still had another 6 hours to go before getting to the final destination in Ireland, but I needed to update the family so that we could feel included. The only response back was “call me please.” I turned to my sister, fear gripping my heart, and told her I think she’s gone, I think we’re too late. I called my brother straight away and he asked me where I was. I told him we were still on the plane, and he responded calmly that I should call him when we got off the plane.

Our beautiful aunt Rita.

That’s when the despair really gripped us. The plane couldn’t get to the gate fast enough. We were seated in the back too so we had to wait for everyone to get off. We ran down the gangplank and the second we exited the door, I called him back, only able to say “we’re off the plane” when he answered. And then the worst news in the world was given. This woman I revered, this woman who showed me what love was as a child, had died ten minutes ago. My heart shattered into little pieces in that airport and I sobbed uncontrollably. My sister saw instantly what had happened and I could hear her heart breaking too. It felt wrong that the world didn’t stop spinning. How were all these people walking around me not falling down in grief? Didn’t they realize the universe was incomplete now? How did time continue on because there shouldn’t be a world where that magnificent woman isn’t in it. The only thing I could think was W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues.”

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

We sobbed for the next several hours as we transferred to Heathrow airport, waiting for the last flight home. We had missed her. We had missed it. Missed death. I had desperately wanted to be there for her when she died, just as she was there for me all through my life. I had wanted to soothe her, assure her that she was loved as much as she had loved us. She needed to know how much I appreciated her and what she had done. How she had changed my life when we were in the worst of times and made it not only better, she made our time with her magical. My darling aunt was 82 years old when she died, but her secret was that she was really Peter Pan. She loved fairies and butterflies, adventures and discoveries. She never grew up and as children, she was a magnet to us. A magnet of happiness and wonder, security and love. As adults, we appreciated her lack of adultness, watching in awe as she still marvelled at the world, at nature, and was able to still always smile, always give a hug, always touching our hands or arms in a silent gesture of love. No matter what the situation, she was able to see a positive and move forward. Help all those around her and persevere. She worshipped the wonderment of children, and invested heavily in keeping their dreams alive. When my niece was seven years old, she walked up my aunt’s garden with my aunt, and found a fairy house. Still believing in fairies, my aunt encouraged her to write a letter to them and my niece left it in their little house. The next day, my niece checked on that fairy house and saw that, not only had her letter been received, the fairies had written back! That was the woman she was.

11021247_10152808974903860_6053527541749693700_nHer house is covered in pictures and statues of fairies and gnomes since she was an avid gardener. She loved belly dancing, playing the piano, singing, dressing up in costumes, making the most out of life. A woman so wonderful that when she retired, the partner of the firm she worked at (boring accountants no less!) sent out a memo to the entire company announcing her retirement, titling the piece “Greenfingered Bellydancer To Quit.” Click on the picture to see the full memo.

10599472_10152800769328860_4082967285454690520_nI walked through that house last week, Friday to be exact, knowing it was more than likely the last time I’d ever set foot in that house, that the symbol of security and love encompassing my childhood would be gone, knowing that I’d never hear that melodious voice again or see that gleaming smile. My heart broke apart all over again.

However, the oddest thing happened while I was there for her funeral. I learned that she had told our cousin the day before she died, the day before our arrival, that she didn’t want my sister and I to see her “like this,” and while I felt slightly robbed of the opportunity to see her again in person, I understand what she did was completely out of love. Her final, biggest gesture of love was letting herself die.  She let herself slip away into the other world before we arrived so that we could always remember that vibrant, larger-than-life lady. And she was a pure lady. Our family gathered, we shared stories of our aunt and laughed wonderfully. Even in death, she was still making us smile. We laughed, we drank, we reminisced, we connected, we smiled, and only occasionally did we let ourselves mourn because in keeping with her style, one would never be morose.

Last night, I lay in bed thinking about her, and the gift she had given us. Because she was truly a gift. While we had missed her death, we were there for the most important part – her life. We were blessed to be a part of it. And while my heart feels like it’s broken, I realized that she had created that heart, taught it how to love, made it bigger and stronger than anyone else ever could and for that I am truly grateful. In 2002, I wrote her a card thanking her for being so wonderful to me, teaching me how to love and for showing me such love throughout my life. In 2012, I wrote another card to thank her for teaching me how to be a mother, because even though she didn’t have any biological children, she showed me how a mother loves a child. I thanked her, telling her every time she told me I was a good mother, she should know that she and my grandmother were the ones to show me what a good mother was. As I looked through her papers last week, I found both those cards that she had kept forever. I was stunned.

Her heart was far bigger than her tiny little statuesque figure would make you believe. It makes me want to keep her legacy alive. To show my children the love and patience she showed me. To not get caught up in the minor details of daily life and to embrace it instead. As my sister said in her eulogy for my aunt, the journey was as important as the destination. That’s what we are all on, a journey. We can chose how we react, chose how live our lives, chose what is important. We can do it with a smile on our faces and appreciate the simplest of things around us. To not conform to the societal expectations given a certain age, and to simply live life to the fullest. To love unconditionally. To be happy. To appreciate the world around us. Appreciate the people around us. Therein lies the key.

As a friend put it perfectly, everyone needs a Rita in their life. And more importantly, everyone needs to BE a Rita in someone’s life.