Spoiler Alert: There isn’t one.
Right now, I am neck deep in the process of selecting a San Francisco public school for my four-year-old daughter to attend kindergarten next year.
I started the process the necessary full year ahead of time by attending a great SFUSD application process overview led by Parents for Public Schools. I read, took to heart and carried with me all the guidance in great posts like Expanding the Definition of Good: Choosing the Right School for Your Child. I made my list of public schools, and I took the tours. I asked all my questions leaving each school with copious notes and a better, more refined plan.
And yet I still feel like I am going to puke every time I think about kindergarten.
When I was a kid, going to kindergarten meant that when summer time ended that year, I left the house with my older sisters and walked to the school down the street. To get ready, about a week before school started, we bought new shoes from the only department store in town. And that was that. I don’t dare minimize the emotional preparation my mom had to endure sending me off into the world for the first time, but I envy the extra year she got that being an urban mom seems to have snatched from me.
In one week alone, I toured five SFUSD kindergartens. I’d stand in the back of the each classroom day after day, my knees about to give, choking back tears as I imagined my daughter’s tiny body walking all alone down the too-big-for-her hallways. And then all I could see was the beautiful teenage version of her leaning up against her locker scrolling through her iPhone, ignoring the texts from her mother, the only person she ever needed or wanted when she was four.
By the fifth school tour I was in such a heartsick fog, I could barely make it to the car before I had a full meltdown. It was mid-December, and with more schools on my list to tour I decided I was done. I filled out my SFUSD application, ranked my choices, and I put kindergarten to bed.
I am confident I found the right kindergarten for my daughter, Sara, and here’s why.
I did my due diligence.
For weeks, I had coffee every morning with www.SFUSD.edu. I educated myself on all the SFUSD schools and the application process. I toured ten SFUSD schools in total. I even stuck it out when my gut pointed me to the exit sign.
There is no perfect kindergarten.
There is no one way to parent and there is no one way to educate.
Whether traditional or project-based, shared tables or individual desks, kindergarten is about teaching professionals educating my child. I (partly) have to trust that they know more than me about how to prepare Sara for her academic future. For instance, I need to get over the fact that she will eventually spend half her time in the classroom on an iPad or laptop. It’s a new world, one I only peripherally understand, one that I need to (partially) clear the way for.
I cannot protect her from everything, nor should I try.
I made a note from one school tour that read ‘really scary teacher.’ She reminded me of the principal in the movie Uncle Buck. A kid in the class we were observing forgot his book. “That’s twice now this week,” she said to the boy, with a tone dripping with disgust and a ridiculously slow blink heavy with disappointment.
Am I sending Sara to that school? Hell no. But it made me think about the reality of all this. Part of education is learning how to recognize and crave constructive criticism, while parsing out criticism that’s just plain mean-spirited. In this life, Sara will always have an audience and it will be full of varied motives and opinions. Her healthy mind has to be able to filter it, as needed, to grow.
I have to get back to Now.
My heart hurts at the thought of letting Sara go to school everyday, all day. I’ve spent the last four years gingerly hovering around this impeccable human being, trying not to mess her up. Now I have to send her into a world of strangers and believe that she will clear the day unscathed.
Right now so much separates her from the ways of the world. She knows only what is good and kind and true. I get that she has a life full of wonderful experiences ahead of her, but there is no better time in life than being four – other than getting to witness her at this age and remember it this time around.
I plan to go back to school when she does.
I will not park outside her school and wait for her the entire day sobbing over my latte or attempt to hide in her locker or surprise her too often for lunch, but I will be involved. I will understand the forces that are guiding Sara’s education and work to influence them, as I, the parent who best knows and loves her, should.
Until then, I am going back to having a four-year-old girl who is sometimes in preschool and mostly right by my side.