You remember those, right? They still do them. (And if you haven’t seen Spellbound, you are missing out. What a thriller!)
So, Rollie’s school had a spelling bee. I guess all schools have them this time of year and then the finalists go on to County, or state, or whatever. A few weeks beforehand, the principal sent home a note explaining that only 4th and 5th graders would compete in the school-wide spelling bee. First through third graders would have bees in their classroom and the winners from those spelling bees would have the honor of sitting in on the 4th and 5th grade finals. The reason, which I don’t remember exactly now, had something to do with testing, or scheduling, or timing.
I was mad.
God forbid that we let younger children compete against older ones, I thought. Someone might get their damn feelings hurt. Really, i think the only feelings hurt were mine. You see, my kid is a kickass speller.
There. I said it.
My kid is a really, really great speller!
I tend to not talk about it much, because. . . well, we all know how parents are. Playground Wars. Mommy Wars. Blah Blah Blah. Parenting is a fucking battleground of whose parenting techniques are most effective, whose methods create the best citizens, or whose kids are the most intelligent. Some parents put their thoughts out as landmines, others as bombs going off, but it is always there. The comparisons, and the subtle bragging, and the “well, my kid” and the “Oh, my daughter, too!” I am guilty of it too, sometimes.
And I don’t want to be that parent who thinks their kid is perfect, or that does nothing but brag on their kid. That parent is annoying. And sometimes, frankly, I look at their kid and think, “well, he seems pretty average to me.”
So for me to come out and say strongly that my kid is anything but average is really hard for me. I am starting to realize, though, that part of being a good parent is speaking up for your child, and making sure they get what they need.
My kid needs a bit of a challenge. He is in first grade and he reads on about a 4th grade level, and he can spell like a motherfucker.
Take for instance, the day that my sister and i were discussing spelling with him. He had brought home a practice list, and few of the words stumped him. Example: He had trouble with “merry,” because I had not explained to him that you could ask for its usage in a sentence, or the definition, and he assumed it was “marry.” So, Lisa and I, also pretty good spellers in our own right, and definitely word nerds, were telling him about the words that stumped us. Lisa lost a spelling bee on the word “cemetery.” I cannot remember the word that I lost the seventh grade bee on. I do remember I lost to Kenneth Walter. Damn you, Ken! (Yes, it would have been more productive to remember the word and learn to spell it, but I have always been more about holding a grudge.) Instead, i used another example: I failed a ninth grade paper, because I misspelled “separate” in the paper; A paper on the book, A Separate Peace. It was not pretty. A very low moment in my spelling career, one from which the scars will never heal. (I would like to add that I passed the class, and believe that the teacher did the right thing in failing me on the paper. At the time, i wanted to egg her house.)
Rollie could spell both cemetery and separate, without pause. There are many adults who still cannot spell these words.
Now, spelling well does not make one a genius, and any parent worth their salt knows that reading levels out as kids get older – slower readers catch up, etc. Also, it is easier to spell when one has read more and longer books. It is just a matter of having seen the words. The more you read, the more likely you are to be able to spell something, right? Right.
So going back on what I said earlier, I would like to put in the disclaimer that I am not calling my kid a genius, or even highly intelligent. I have never seen a test score from him yet, and have no idea how he will test. He is in the Discovery program, which is the Talented and Gifted of today. (Again, god forbid that the kids who don’t test into a gifted program think that they are not “talented” or “gifted.” No. Better to just give them the message that they are not worthy of “discovery.” I digress. Wait. Let me do it again: “Personal Record Day.” Instead of Field Day, a friend’s school had “Personal Record Day!” Are you fucking kidding me? Digression complete.) So, he’s not stupid. But i have no way of knowing how smart he is. Schools don’t really help you with that too much, as far as I can tell.
I do know he is not perfect. He has trouble controlling his emotions. He can be self-centered, controlling, stubborn, angry, and disrespectful. He still has some trouble sharing, and he gets jealous of others. He has acted out in class to the extent that he has thrown a chair. He got in-school fucking suspension, for God’s sake, for fighting. One of my relatives thinks he needs to see a therapist. (This is ironic, because he is more like that person than anyone else in my family!) There have been a couple of times that I have cried on the phone with my mother or sister, wondering if I am raising a Sociopath. I have no idea whether this fear is normal or not, because I have not done this parenting thing before, and as far as I know, no one else at the bus stop or playground or the coffee shop or Bunco seems to wonder if they are raising sociopaths. It just doesn’t come up very often in polite mommy conversation.
My kid is far from perfect.
Also? He is a shitty artist, he can’t carry a tune, and he looks a little like he is having a seizure when he dances.
But when he is sweet and charming? He is the most perfect child in the world. That, I know, is universal. They win our hearts at birth, and then keep us guessing for, I am guessing, the rest of our lives. His beautiful, warm, laughing brown eyes make my heart hurt and my throat constrict sometimes.
And I owe it to him to make sure that he learns and has the opportunity to excel at what he enjoys and gravitates toward. Don’t I? Is it any less honorable to fight for my gifted child to have opportunities, attention, and appropriate lessons and curriculum, than for the mom of an Autistic child or a dyslexic child, or a child with some handicap to fight for her child to get the resources that he or she needs?
Shouldn’t the needs of all of those children be met?
And I have to be honest. I have had my reservations about how well the public schools are doing for children. I held those back, though. I chose my house based on the schools my kids would go to, picking schools that are rated highly, and that have high parental involvement. I thought, I am going to send my kid to public school and he is going to do great. How could he not, if I am involved, and i have a good relationship with his teachers, and I stay on top of things, and stay informed.
You know what? It is my third year with R. at his elementary school. He had two great years, Pre-K and K. Those teachers were great. His K teacher was probably the best teacher he will ever have. She was amazing. She made sure that he (and the other advanced kids in the class – and there are a good number of them in this class) was challenged, busy, motivated. He didn’t have any trouble with any of the curriculum. He did great.
I was more than happy with him not being forced to learn things that were hard for him, with easy homework, with him just being allowed to be a kid, and learn how to perform in a social setting.
I thought, okay, first grade will start to challenge him. They will realize that some of these kids learned the stuff in this curriculum a year, or two, or even three years ago, and they will alter the lessons appropriately.
That has not happened.
Sure, when parents complained that the homework was too easy, they created a second tier of homework for the more advanced kids. Rollie doesn’t study the words on his homework, even the “challenging” words. He reads it over once, and makes an A on the test.
Am I happy my kid is making As and not struggling? Well, yeah. But when I asked my kid’s teacher how he is doing academically, if he is struggling with anything, her reply was, “He is meeting standards!” She said this with a smile on her face, as if I should be as happy as she is. I was not, because how well I am doing as a parent is not tied to standards. I understand that her paycheck is. I sympathize with that.
But wouldn’t a great teacher realize that I don’t just want my kid to “meet standards?” I was tempted to ask her, “But what is he learning?” For the most part, he has learned all of this already. I did not ask her that.
So, we continue to feed him books that are more challenging, at home. He continues to whip through his Accelerated Reading and Lit Guild books, which he has to reread for the tests many times, because he already read the books, but doesn’t remember them at all, because he read them when he was four. But you have to finish the “first grade” level lists to move on to the higher lists. I told him, “this is just how school is sometimes. You just have to do some stuff that is busy work, and you have to finish it to get the grade. Part of life is doing things you don’t want to do, and learning to knock them out is a life skill.”
We continue to let him play computer games that do more difficult lessons in math and language. It can’t hurt, i think, but what if it is just creating a bigger gap between him and “the standard?” Not that I am going to stop enriching his life, but at what point does the school start challenging him more? He goes to school with a good night’s sleep, a full belly, ready to learn, and then he has eight hours of learning “standard curriculum.”
Are those eight hours just a waste? No, he is learning some valuable lessons where he is weaker, in his interpersonal relationships. But wouldn’t it be cool if he was really, truly, feeding his brain? Learning to fail at things? Then learning how to do them better a second time?
And that is why, when I read that bit about the Spelling Bee, i was immediately mad. They have the framework for a competition, based on a skill, where kids are allowed to excel, move on to the next level, test the waters, see how well they can do, push themselves to be the best they can be! To learn to be a humble and modest winner, or a gracious loser! Would it really have taken that much extra time or work to let four kids from each grade move on to the next level? The framework was already there!
I was mad, and I didn’t even know if my kid would win the spelling bee in his class. I knew he had a good chance at it, but that there were a number of other really advanced readers, and that a spelling bee can be a complete crap shoot. All it takes is one word you have never come across before to stump you and knock you out.
And part of me? Part of me thought that my kid losing a spelling bee would be a better lesson for him than winning one.
He didn’t lose. He won.
He won his class Spelling Bee. (Not his grade. They didn’t get to see who the best speller in the first grade would be.) And the next day, he and the winners from the other first, second, and third grade classes sat and watched the 4th and 5th graders compete in the school Spelling Bee. There are four first grade classes. Probably the same number for the other grades. So, there sit about twelve kids who excel at spelling. Who probably wondered if they could have gone on to win the whole thing. (Doubtful, but who knows?)
Twelve kids who were not even given a chance to try. Twelve kids sidelined. Why? I just don’t understand how the school could let this opportunity pass these kids by. (MY KID! – make no mistake about it – I am mad for MY kid most of all! That’s my job!)
And that sucks. And it is just a symptom of a much larger problem that we have in education. We are allowing standards and curriculum to drag these kids down, just as if we had tied a cement block around their necks and dumped them in a lake.
And it just plain sucks.
The real question is, what are we – what am I – going to do about it?
Oh. And it goes without saying that if you remember the words that you lost spelling bees on, you gots to post them in the comments. I love spelling bee stories!