Kindergarten teachers through the years have said to anxious parents, "I promise not to believe everything your child says about home, if you don't believe everything the child says about school."
This is an altogether reasonable approach to a difficult situation. So, when our first-born son began kindergarten, his father and I were more than willing to make such a deal. His teacher, however, never suggested this option. On the contrary she told the parents on Orientation Night that she often learned about a student's home by observing the child at play. She told of one boy who repeatedly choked the doll in the housekeeping corner.
"I know," she said, "there are problems in that home." Parents of girls nodded in agreement; parents of boys chewed on their shirt sleeves.
From then on my husband and I accepted kindergarten as the testing ground that it is. The child learns to venture forth alone and to tackle new frontiers of learning; the parent learns humility. It is not easy to be the parent of a kindergartner.
For example, the parent must learn that he or she is no longer the supreme authority. Once the child enters school, the teacher assumes powers that surpass those of the president of the United States and rival those of God. A constant refrain of the kindergarten child is, "But teacher says . . . "
As a result the child believes school rules and procedures should work equally well at home. For several meals we obediently raised our hands before speaking. The act was tedious, but not disruptive until the night the 2-year-old raised the hand holding a spoonful of mashed potatoes.
Lining up to go from room to room was another rule we followed for a short time. One child was the line leader, the other the caboose, with Mom and Dad as coal car and freight. What began as a novelty became an obsession. The children formed lines with their toy cars, their stuffed animals and the good silver. We finally called a halt when we caught them collecting slugs to make a line on the front walk.
By October we knew that kindergarten is no longer the play school of our childhoods. The sand box is gone; there may not be swings on the playground; and the teacher, who was grandmotherly when we were 5, wears designer jeans and braces.
Even the curriculum has changed. Today's kindergartner learns skills and facts. Our son learned to count all the way to 99, which he also learned, is the highest number there is. He learned to say and write the alphabet, except for the elusive letters "ela" and "meno" which he claims come just before the letter "P." During history lessons, he learned about George Washington, our first president, Abraham Lincoln, our Civil War president, and Abraham Lincoln Wood Carver, the famous Southern president who invented peanuts.
The teacher sent a memo home instructing us to reinforce the child's learning. We tried to reinforce and correct. But whenever we questioned his facts, our son countered with, "But teacher says . . . "
Our other assignment was to teach our child how to zip zippers, button buttons and tie shoelaces. Zipping and buttoning were easily mastered, but shoe tying has proved too advanced a skill. I have tied my own shoelaces for a quarter of a century but in the process of teaching my left-handed son how, I even confused myself and had to switch to buckled sandals.
By June the little boy we had sent to school in September had grown 3 inches in height and 3 yards in independence. On the last day of school he said, "I'll miss my teacher. She has a smiley face. And," he added softly, "I think she loves me."
What more could we ask? We let her draw whatever conclusions she wants about our home life and granted her sovereignty over the classroom because she had patience and love for her small charges. Our son is delighted to be in first grade because she taught him that school is "a fun place to be."