Life begins at the hop

Bini strikes a pose, complete with an Elvis sneer.  Jones is yawning.
Bini strikes a pose, complete with an Elvis sneer. Jones is yawning.

So, Bini’s elementary school had a sock hop last Friday night. At the beginning of the week, I asked him: Do you want to go? “No way,” he said. I asked a few more times, and I always got the same answer.

This was fine with me. Bini has soccer on Friday afternoons and he’s usually cashed by day’s end. I had my book club on Friday night, and I was looking forward to it.

The first thing Bini said when he got home from school on Friday? “I want to go to the sock hop.”

I wrestled with the whole “you-told-me-repeatedly-that-you-didn’t-want-to-go-Mommy-has-a-life-too” thing, but I knew where it was headed. There are times to be a hard ass — bedtime, eat-your-vegetables time, don’t-flush-the-cat time. But going to a sock hop? Not the time.

My first dance was in middle school, once we’d discovered hormones and how to bogart booze from Dad’s dusty old Canadian Mist bottle. So I was curious: What does an elementary school dance — one with a “Happy Days” theme, no less — look like?

It looks like chaos. Happy chaos. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First up: The outfit. We had to scramble a bit to pull something together, but the 50’s theme was a good device to get him out of sweatpants. He wore jeans, leather boots, a button-down shirt and black shades. “I’ve never seen him get dressed so fast,” said Steve.

The three of us marched up to school in the dark. My son was confident — he had some swagger. But once he got into the gym, which was a sea of tall parents and varying-sized children, he lost a little mojo. He hopped in to do the hokey pokey, but then hurried back to cling to my leg.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, kneeling down.

“I didn’t think it would be like this!” he cried.

“Like what?”

“Dancing!” he wailed.

We were just about the throw in the towel when out of the crowd came Bini’s school BF, Marco. Marco’s face lit up when he saw Bini, and they rushed to each other like two separated sweethearts. Then, they took off, snaking through the dancing kids and socializing parents.

Steve and I tried to track them through the crowd. “Do you see them?” I shouted.

“No — wait, yes! There they are!”

The two ran into a cluster of poodle-skirted girls from their grade. I heard a chorus of female kindergarten voices chorus “Bini!” and “Marco!”

“Oh God,” I said to Steve. “I guess we know our future.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Steve said, shaking his head. “You didn’t tell me Marco looks like A-Rod.”

School is, for many kids, the first real separation from parents. For 30 hours a week, my kid is having experiences and feelings and frustrations that I can’t help him cope with. I try to ask the right questions, but he gets to decide what’s pertinent. That’s OK, but I wonder, and I worry: Is he scared? Are other kids nice to him? Does he feel confident during class? I can discern only so much from the classwork his teacher sends home, and the weekly, glowing reports on his behavior.

Seeing Bini at the sock hop, surrounded by much of the student body, helped me understand who my son is at school, and who he’s becoming. He’s very well liked, and kids gravitate to him. That’s a huge relief. But he’s also overwhelmed at times, and still needs his parents. That’s also a huge relief. The day is coming when he won’t cling to my leg, and when he responds to my well-crafted questions about school with grunts and non-answers. I’m grateful that he still needs me sometimes.

By 7:30, Bini was delirious from the excitement and “The Chicken Dance” and the laps he’d made around the gym. He didn’t come willingly, so Steve scooped him up and we made our exit.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

“No!” he said. “Too much dancing!”

I’ll bet he goes next year, though. And I hope he still wants me there with him.

My son’s kindergarten bromance

Bini’s got a little kindergarten bromance going on with another kid in his class, a kid I’ll call Marco. To hear Bini tell it, Marco is the best football player in his class and the best runner in the whole school. All the boys like him, and all the girls have crushes on him. (Bini has learned what a crush is — “it’s more than like but not as much as love.”)

Every day, we talk about school — how it was, what he did, who he played with at recess. Inevitably, Marco is the leading man, with several other supporting players. Marco knows how to read. Marco can do s’es better than anyone in class. Marco gets to buy lunch every day. Marco gets to stay for after-school care.

Marco, Marco, Marco.

I also hear about other kids. There’s Inesh, who pulls the erasers off all the pencils. And, Angelica, who uses potty words. I envisioned, respectively, a kid who was one step away from mutilating animals and a little girl who was Ke$ha-in-training.

Last week, I volunteered at Bini’s school for an art class. I was interested to see Marco, and Inesh and Angelica, along with the aforementioned extras. I was ready to size them up, and if they were little menaces, maybe put clay down their shirts.

They all trooped in to the Art & Science room, tiny little people in pigtails and light-up sneakers and Captain America t-shirts. They sat down and started to do the art lesson, and I circled the room, looking for kids that needed assistance. Inesh was struggling to turn his clay into an egg, so I helped him. “Thank you, Bini’s mommy,” he said, with eyes as big and brown and shiny as a puppy’s.

Angelica, of the potty words, finished her clay project early and moved on to the painting portion. When I walked over, she was mixing red and white to get pink. “Nice job with the mixing,” I said. She beamed. Later, when I circled back, she pointed to a flower she’d painted. “I made that for you,” she said.

And then, Marco. He and Bini sat next to each other, making their clay creations and mixing all the paint colors to get a dull brown. He didn’t look like a football phenom or more crushable than my adorable son. He actually seemed to be … quite taken with my boy. Or, at least, the admiration was mutual.

“Bini,” I heard him say more than once. “Watch this.”

Then, two minutes later, Bini would say, “Marco, look what I can do.”

Later, when Bini was at home, I asked him if he wanted to have Marco come over to play. To my surprise, he shrugged. “Sure, I guess.” This was puzzling. Usually, Bini’s on me to set up play dates with his buddies.

It occurred to me that maybe Bini doesn’t yet want his mommy involved in this particular friendship. Marco is the first friend he’s made entirely on his own. I’m not friends with his mother. The two kids didn’t meet at a playgroup when they were 18 months old. And as much as he cherishes his pre-kindergarten friendships, this one is special. I think I get it. Kindergarten is the beginning of my son having a life completely separate from home, and from me. And that’s … OK.

Oh God. I’m becoming THAT mom.

This is six weeks of kindergarten schoolwork. Action figure Yoda for scale.
This is six weeks of kindergarten schoolwork. Action figure Yoda for scale.

I’m losing control over my son. And I don’t like it. 

It all started with the homework. I was incensed — incensed, I tell you! — that my kindergartner had a homework calendar, with assignments every night. No, they’re not being asked to calculate the diameter of a circle. It’s stuff like: Think of five things that start with the letter “M.” Draw those things. Then label them. The teacher has told us that it’s OK to skip these assignments, or for the parent to do part of it. But I was annoyed that it was even a thing. Homework! For kindergartners!

Then, the reading chart. Every month, we get a reading chart with 30 slots, where we are to write in the number of books we read to our child every month. At orientation, one annoying-ass mother raised her hand and said: “What if you read MORE than 30 books in a month?” Oh, I dunno, you pain in the ass. Maybe … attach another sheet? By the way, while we’re at it, let’s just suck all the joy out of reading by making it a chore. Here’s to learning! Hooray!

Then, parent-teacher conferences … on the sixth week of school. The conference, on Monday from 12 to 12:20, was fine. I had to sit in a tiny chair. Bini’s teacher is a terrific lady: gentle, firm, very experienced. She had five neatly organized folders regarding my son. First, she showed me the academic and social goals Bini had set for himself, and her goals for him.

Then, she showed me his assessment test results (assessment test results?) and how to interpret them. We discussed the things he does well, and the things he needs to work on. Apparently, Bini’s involved in some battle of wills with the P.E. teacher, but Bini’s teacher sort of waved that off. In class, he’s super engaged and he participates and he works really hard.

After we’d gone through the five folders, I stacked them up and said, “Well, I have to say I’m a little surprised at how … academic … kindergarten has gotten.” Kindergarten was a long time ago for me, but I’m damn sure we weren’t worrying about writing or phoneme segmentation. We were laying around on beanbags, singing and learning how to line up and not hit each other. We napped.

Bini’s teacher has been teaching for 20 years, and she agreed that kindergarten has gotten a good deal more academic. She didn’t give her opinion on it, but I understand: When the economy tanks, schools get more focused on homework and churning out math and science majors. Art classes are handled by parent volunteers. That’s the deal if you go to a public school, even if it’s a public school in an affluent area. You’re at the whims of whatever wind is blowing through public education at the time.

I’ll be damned if my precious angel turns into a mass-produced student, doomed for the meat grinder.

So, even though Bini is doing well, I trudged home feeling like I could do better for my son. That scene from “The Wall” kept playing through my head. You know the one where the kids are wearing scary masks and there’s a meat grinder and the schoolmaster’s yelling about pudding? Well, the scene is copyrighted, so I can’t post it. My mood was dark and my thoughts weren’t terribly rational.

All that day, I comforted myself with vague plans to pull my son out of his excellent public school and put him in an alternative private school where you forage for berries and learn how to chop wood. Like I said. Not terribly rational.

I’ve calmed down since. It helped that I talked to Steve, who said, “I don’t necessarily want to pull our son out of a school because it’s too academic.” Which is Steve-ese for: “Chill out, you psycho.” So, OK. 

Today, it all crystallized. I walked the walk-pool to school; Nora told me about something to do with shoes, and I yelled out for Bini and Timmy to stop running. I ushered them through the big double doors out onto the playground, where they line up. But around the basketball court, Bini turned to me and said, “Mom, you can go now. You don’t need to wait with me.”

Ooof — shot to the solar plexus. “OK, just let me make sure all of you get into line.”

Bini shook his head. “Mom, we do this every day. We’re OK.” He tugged on my pants and I leaned down for a kiss. Then he ran off.

I didn’t leave. I ducked behind a pillar and watched until the bell rang. I couldn’t take my eyes off my son, who alternately joked with his buddies and stood quietly, taking it all in. When the bell rang, the kindergartners shrieked in unison. I fought the urge to wave to Bini as he trooped up the ramp, into his sunny, friendly kindergarten classroom.

Then I turned and walked home. And cried.

In the kindergarten line

We have a “walk pool” in our neighborhood, where the parents trade off who walks the kids to school. This morning, it was my turn.

I’m not sure if there’s a way to keep three kindergartners from running. If anyone knows any tactics, let me know. This morning, my kid and one of the neighbor kids, who I’ll call Timmy, called out “smush!”  and then took turns ramming each other. The blows were, thankfully, blunted by their comically enormous backpacks. While Bini and Timmy smushed, I walked with the little girl from the neighborhood, who I’ll call Nora. I like Nora. Her default facial expression is a split-your-face-happy smile, and she tells long, convoluted stories. This morning, I was listening to Nora and occasionally yelling out “Bini! Timmy! Slow down!”

Nora was telling me about how her brother had broken his arm. When she was finished, I told her about how Steve had torn the webbing between two toes, and had to get stitches. One of the moms overheard. “What a nice story, first thing in the morning,” she said.

Once we got to school, Timmy and Bini ran through the front doors and into the back playground area, where all three full-day kindergarten classes line up in front of a ramp. I love seeing the sea of little kid heads and the handful of parents, like me, clutching reusable coffee mugs and trying not to make eye contact.

This morning, I was trying to keep Bini and Nora (who are in the same class) from smushing each other in line when one of the kids, named Asijia, tapped me on the elbow.

“Excuse me, but this boy wants his mommy.” She pointed to a little boy standing in front of Bini, sniffling. Occasionally, he’d get rammed by Bini and Nora’s smushing.

I knelt down and looked at him. His nose was running and his eyes, behind his glasses, were wet. “What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“I want my mom,” he said, voice quavering.

“What’s your name?”

“Siddharth,” he told me.

“He doesn’t want to be at kindergarten,” said a tall girl, dressed in all pink. “I didn’t want to have full-day kindergarten either, but my mommy said I had to, and it’s fine.”

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Audrey.” She smiled, a gap-toothed grin.

“Siddharth, are you not feeling well?” I asked.

“I was in my mom’s car and I said I didn’t want to go, and she said to go, and I got out and now I want my mom,” he said.

That did sound rough. “You know what, though? Today’s a half day. You get out early. Can you hang in there?” Siddarth turned away, considering.

Audrey put a protective hand on Siddharth’s shoulder. Asijia moved in, too. “We’ll help you, Siddharth. We’ll be your friends.”

“That’s really nice, you guys. Can you tell Mrs. Bailie that Siddharth is having a hard time this morning?” The girls nodded vigorously.

Meantime, my child and Nora, who Bini insists isn’t his friend, were giggling and roughhousing. But when the bell rang, and the class marched forward toward their teacher, Bini fell out of line and grabbed my arm.

“Why were you talking to Siddharth?” he demanded.

“Because he was sad, honey. When someone’s sad, it’s nice to try and cheer them up.”

Bini shook his head. “No. That’s not your job. You’re my mom.” And with that, he swept into the classroom.

Being room mother should be fun.