On Sunday afternoon, C completed his last page of addition problems and I declared our year of kindergarten at an end. We don’t normally do school on Sundays, but I was determined to finish C’s math book before he went off to Vacation Bible School this week, and a few days of sickness had set us back. We will still keep busy with some workbooks, phonics and handwriting practice, critical thinking exercises, and the normal read-alouds this summer–but putting away the math book was my mental marker that official school was out for the summer. We had finished our literature curriculum earlier this spring, and were already on at least our 3rd time through the handwriting book, so I had been counting down the days until math was finished. I must point out that this reflects my lifelong attitude toward math, and not my son’s. Math is one of his favorite subjects and the kid is good at it. But it will never feel like anything but work to me. I’m thinking that if more practice is needed over the summer, Daddy and his math-loving boy can enjoy that together.

It’s hard for me to believe that we actually have our first year of school under our belts. We did it: glory be. The picture above is of C on one of his first days of kindergarten work, posing proudly with a chalkboard full of handwriting exercises. It’s a little blurry but I adore that special, sparkling grin he gives when he knows he’s done something well. I cherish that aspect of school for him: many things in life are hard to learn, and require repeated correction and redirection. But for him, so far, schoolwork is a place to shine. I can see it doing his little heart good.

My boy has grown this year; I realize it when I sift back through the pictures. His hair has gone from the rock-star length I adore to a shorter cut that suits him better now, and shows off those clear, light-filled gray-green eyes, like seawater pierced with sun. The schoolroom grew and changed this year, too: the blinds came down and were replaced with curtains, bit by bit I added pictures and decorations, and their little clotheslines of artwork filled and filled and filled again.

There were rough patches: I though teaching reading would be the end of me. I clearly remember thinking, when I chose to get my teaching certification for secondary ed, that (among other things) I would not have to herd a rambunctious crowd of little people and I wouldn’t have to teach anyone to read. Having taught middle and high school students since, I am not sure that either of those assumptions was warranted. However, this was my first actual go at sitting down with a child and trying to work the magic of turning letter sounds into words, and I was daunted.

When blends became more complicated, so was he. A stretch of weeks ensued during which I was sure I would never teach this child to read. He was defeated: “It’s too hard. I can’t.” I was defeated. Even games were no help. And then one day, it occurred to me that I could create a game involving his favorite thing in the world: trains. It was embarrassingly simple: every time he read a blend correctly and kept his eyes on the page (no guessing!), we said “Toot! Toot!” and he got a square of colored paper that we called a train car, and he laid it on the floor. As we progressed down the page in his phonics book, his little train grew across the carpet, and when we were finished, he got to play with it. There has probably never been less effort put into a learning strategy. And it worked. We steamed ahead, and eventually left the train game behind altogether and returned to working directly from the book. We have more reading work to do over the summer to make up for the lost time, but I am so pleased to see him reading his little beginner books and beaming with pride. I was afraid that he would learn to hate reading, and I think he is learning to love it. Whatever the pace has to be, I think that is the goal.

Math was another story: every week as we watched the DVD introducing the next lesson, I was amazed at his ability to absorb the instruction. We would work through the first couple of pages together, and after that he was fairly independent (with me there to keep him on task and check his work, of course). He has learned so much this year: he can now add up to 3-digit numbers (that end in 0), subtract, count by 2s and 5s and 10s, solve for an unknown, and tell time on an analog clock. I probably left some skills out of that list, but let’s remember that math is not my strong suit.

We read a lot of books this year–some that were so good we read them again and again, and some that I quietly slid to the bottom of the library pile. But we sat on the couch and enjoyed them together, both boys peering over my shoulders and their sister either playing at our feet or making a ruckus on my lap. We worked on scissor skills and handwriting technique, thorough coloring and thinking exercises; we went through two whole books of Bible stories and coloring pages (I eventually gave up on the coloring pages on the market and made my own); we practiced not being distracted by your siblings (still a work very much in progress); and we played outside, or jumped on the mini trampoline in the basement, as often as we could.

That’s how kindergarten looked at our house. I don’t know what first grade will look like. I firmly believe that educational decisions are distinct for every family and every child–and perhaps, in some cases, every year. We’re not yet sure what will be the best setting for C’s first grade year: it’s the decision looming over our summer. But I am confident that this year of kindergarten at home was good for him, and not because I am the best teacher–but because it was the best place for him, my imperfections notwithstanding.

I find the trap of comparison to be very tempting when it comes to my children. Do his peers have more sight words? Are other little girls this strong-willed? Comparison can be a useful measuring stick, but it can also be like dark blinders for my soul, obscuring my broader view of this child, this mind and body, this pace, this potential, and the time that can be allowed to work these things out. As one who was homeschooled myself, I know that it can also be tempting to take refuge in a notion of superiority–to cushion ourselves from others’ skepticism or our own insecurity by enumerating all the things we can do better. But I think those blinders, too, keep us from seeing the true shades of people and the wildly varied means and purposes of God. As we go forward as parents, I keep hoping we will see clearly what this child needs, and this one, and this one. I hope we will be loyal not to our own ambitions or plans (yes, self, I’m looking at you) but to the little person putting out limbs toward  the shape each was made to have.

Here’s to school: to kindergarten and all the privileged years that follow, opening a mind bit by bit to knowledge and wonder. Keep that sweet, studious face that I love, son. I’m proud of you.

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