Parenting & Playwriting

School Jitters

This post is the eighth column of a regular series on Parenting & Playwriting. Find the previous columns here. Here’s what my advice column will offer you: a place to ask questions and share grievances about juggling life as theater artists and as parents. Here’s what my advice column will not offer you: much actual advice you can use. For those of you masochists longing for some truly crappy advice, email me at dctrieschmann@gmail.com or tweet me @ctrieschmann.

Dear Catherine, My friends tell me that juggling parenthood and writing gets easier once the kids start school. Has this been true in your experience?

 

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A couple of weeks ago, I woke Lizzie up, fed her Cheerios and juice, affixed a bow to the top of her head (I'm sorry, people, but I'm from Georgia, where we dress children in monogrammed pinafores and adorn them with bows and buckles, and that goes for the girls, too), and walked her to school for her first day of kindergarten.

Even with Laura still at home, I had a very productive day. Between the toddler's nap and our part-time babysitter, I started to feel, for the first time in a long time, fully human, capable of taking on entire projects and finishing them. I wrote an eight hundred word essay; I read a book for research; I rewrote swaths of dialogue.

At 3pm, I walked Lizzie home from school and asked her about her day. She told me of waiting in line to use the bathroom, waiting in line to go to the computer room, and waiting in line for the bell to ring for recess. She told me of sitting by herself at recess and having twenty minutes to eat her lunch in silence. When we got home, I opened her backpack, and a ream of worksheets fluttered to the floor. I determined right then and there to homeschool my child. I want many things for my child, but having a beautiful education is near the top of the list. I want her to go on nature walks where she names flora and fauna and presses petals lovingly between wax sheets of paper. I want her to memorize Emily Dickinson, study Breugal, and choreograph modern dances while chanting Langston Hughes. I want her to finger-paint, learn calligraphy, study maps, sing songs in Spanish, bake bread, play violin, polish rocks, write sonnets, and learn her multiplication tables while practicing plies. None of this is going to happen at our public school, a very good school, by the way, a model school with a young, vibrant teacher, the kind of kindergarten teacher Beverly Clearly would give Ramona, but a school, like most public schools, with limited resources and too many kids in each classroom, and too much emphasis on standardized testing with a state-mandated curriculum from a state that's repeatedly contested the teaching of evolution, under the leadership of a Governor who thinks the arts have as much value as a chia pet and whose vision for education in my state fills me with dread and loathing. I am very angry with him. I am very angry with my Governor. I am very angry with Governor Sam Brownback. I wish Mr. Brownback would take his educational agenda to another state, perhaps one in the former Soviet Union, like Latvia.

 

 And it occurs to me: I'm not volunteering at my child's school because it "makes a difference," nor am I doing it because Sam Brownback makes me crazy, although he does. I'm doing it because I can't bear to leave Lizzie to the care of other people all day long, right when she's on the cusp of not needing me at all.

 


But alas, I'm not going to homeschool my child. I lack the time, the talent, and frankly, the discipline. Lizzie would end up writing dirty limericks and making homemade instruments and never learn a lick of math. I wouldn't fill out the proper paperwork, the state would intervene, and my child would be sent back to public school anyway. Homeschooling is not an option.

And so I've done what parents have done throughout time in order to pretend they have some semblance of control over the hours their children spend in public institutions: I'm volunteering in the classroom. So far, this volunteerism has done nothing but cut deeply into my writing time and confirm my underlying misanthropy. I find the other volunteers aggressive and presumptuous. Basically only parents who think they know more than the teacher volunteer, making them a uniquely arrogant bunch, which is, of course, why I fit in perfectly.

Worse than the parents, however, are the children themselves. I'm not an expert in child development, but many of the kindergarteners have weirdly large heads for their bodies, making them clumsy and imbalanced, likely to topple over at a moment's notice. They shoot snot onto their worksheets and laugh at things that by no objective measure are funny. My child, of course, is perfection. But I don't spend any time with my child when I volunteer; I am stuck with the snot-flinging aliens.

Frankly, I should un-volunteer. I have a bad attitude and resent the time away from my desk. Does the time I spend cutting out triangles and holding up flashcards really make a difference in the educational lives of these children? I suspect not. I'm ready to quit. I am, until one night during a thunderstorm, Lizzie falls asleep in bed beside me. I look over at her long, well-shaped legs and she seems a stranger to me: independent, strong, and self-directed. And it occurs to me: I'm not volunteering at my child's school because it "makes a difference," nor am I doing it because Sam Brownback makes me crazy, although he does. I'm doing it because I can't bear to leave Lizzie to the care of other people all day long, right when she's on the cusp of not needing me at all. God, I already miss her so much. The writing will always be there for me, waiting. Right?

How do you feel about the first day of school? Share with us in the comments!

 

 

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I've never regretted all the hours I put in volunteering at my kids' schools. Or the hours campaigning for school board candidates. Or the hours cheering on the sidelines of the soccer field. What I do regret: feeling guilty and apologetic because I wasn't writing more and wasn't putting Art ahead of everything else that mattered to me. I have just written a blog post on this subject. You can read it here: http://carolslashof.wordpre...

By the way, a parenting tip on the basis of watching/helping my daughters survive the ups and downs of public school education over a period of 16 years: teach your child the art of creative daydreaming, or how to be happy lost in her own thoughts while appearing attentive. A lot of time spent in school is BORING but better to teach your kids how to cultivate their imaginations than drive yourself (and probably them) crazy trying to create the perfect educational environment.

Ok Catherine Trieschmann. You just made me cry. Again. I have begun squirreling away your posts and saving them for a relatively calm moment, when I am settled on the couch, child tucked into bed, with a big glass of wine in my hand. (Much the way I treat my coveted New Yorker magazines.) I cannot begin to describe how cathartic it is to read these columns and know I am not alone out there, struggling to run a theater, struggling to be a decent parent and struggling to not fail miserably on all counts. Please keep 'em coming.....and I hope Lizzie is having fun.

I was homeschooled, and I'm pretty sure that whatever you do, the state isn't going to intervene. (This is not really a good thing, given that my parents have now turned against public school completely. I attended three years of high school and went on to a top-notch LAC, but my youngest siblings, alas, are stuck at home whether or not they want to be.)

I have no idea whether I'll homeschool my kids or not; I know it protects them in some ways and hinders them in others. Socializing with all types of people is important: people who look like you and people who don't, people your age and those younger and older. Public school gets some things right and is a good choice for a lot of students.

But don't sell yourself short - if you can imagine homeschooling as a rich part of your family life, give it a shot. You can join co-ops, sign up for activities, and organize social outings and get-togethers. I'm not a parent yet, so I don't know how homeschooling parents find time to write, but my dad did a lot of the teaching even though he had a full-time job. So maybe you shouldn't dismiss the idea, unless the suggestion horrifies your child, in which case she's better off where she is.

Feel for you, and wish you all the best in this crazy adventure. I stand in awe of what you managed to get done during your daughter's first day of school, with a toddler still at home. My hat is off to you for volunteering. I suspect it will do some good, for your daughter if for no one else. It's nice to have a mom who gives a damn.

My daughter started K this year. She likes it; her experience has been much less Kafkaesque, and even the homework (IN KINDERGARTEN? WHAT??) has not been that bad. Long did I think school would bring on a kind of scheduling nirvana: days upon days alone at home with my computer. First glance at the school calendar punctured that dream bubble. To my horror, they hardly go to school at all. Not a single full week in all of September. Early release days come on thick and fast. So there's all the figuring out alternative child care for the times she doesn't have school. And the added time of two drop-offs, as my youngest continues at the home day care they once attended together. Still, there are those blissful days when I don't have to teach (rush to class from drop-off and split immediately after my office hour to make pick-up), and no class prep or doctor's appointments or catching up on other stuff I haven't done because I was up late making egg salad for next day's lunch--just 5 hours pure uninterrupted writing time. I'm sure I will have one of those days at some point, when things settle down. Though if I ever find my PTO form, I might volunteer.

As usual, I thank you for introducing new levels of terror, complexity, and promise into my somewhat related life. Where would I be without your column? Latvia, likely, where I hear the educational resources are top notch.

You could always rationalize LIzzie's constant queuing as bootcamp for patience, or in a pinch, an intensive on Beckett.