When Ana was six years old and in first grade, all she wanted to do was play. She was a window gazer, a dreamer, a kid that had a hard time sitting still and focusing. She was easily distracted, but just as easily cowed when she was reprimanded by a teacher or other adult. As such, she didn’t have a great experience in public school. She wrote daily notes of apology to her first grade teacher for her behavior that said things like…”I’m sorry I was bad today.” She started dreading school. She stopped drawing. She withdrew.
I threw myself into trying to fix the problem. I tried to work with the school, meet with the teacher and school psychologist and talk to the principal. Ana’s not bad, I would say. Why does she think she’s bad? Terms like ADD began to come up along with hints about medicating her. I didn’t want to medicate her. She could read and write by the end of kindergarten. She was creative, smart, funny and introspective. It didn’t seem like anything was wrong.
So in that obsessive way I have about all things related to my children, I bought a book called A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play by Vivian Gussin Paley. She worked for almost forty years as a preschool and kindergarten teacher and the book is a beautiful illustration of how young children use play (including movement) as a way to learn. The book helped me recognize that the problem wasn’t Ana – it was her environment. I dug deeper and found out she was only getting about 15 minutes of “free play” a day, that she wasn’t allowed to touch the snow at recess, run fast in gym class and would lose precious minutes of free play for breaking rules (like not paying attention). She (and other 6-year-old offenders) would have to sit at a table while the other kids played.
Jim and I pulled her out of this school when she was six and she landed in the place that would be her second home for the next seven and a half years.
It was January when she started and after her first full day she came home with a note requesting we send her in with full winter gear – snow pants, gloves, boots, etc. because there was snow outside – and these kids were expected to play in it! That year she learned about tadpoles and the stages a tree goes through each season. She learned she didn’t have to raise her hand to ask a question, and that it was okay to call the teacher by her first name. She made friends – kids she’s going to graduate with tomorrow.
It has not been easy to keep Ana and Emily in this school. It has come at the expense of a nicer house, regular vacations, decent cars (until I finally had to buy one this year when my 2004 Honda couldn’t get us to the hospital in the snow), and so many other things. We conciously choose this. I laid awake many nights wondering how we could keep the girls in the school (and sometimes I still lose sleep over this). We didn’t put them in a progressive private school to make a statement. We didn’t do it because we hate public education or we wanted her to get into an ivy league college…some day. That’s not what this school is about anyway.
We did it because she needed to go outside and freaking play.
She wanted to play. That was all. And she got this, but she – WE – got so much more. We got an amazing community of parents, teachers and administrators all of whom got to know my children. And we got to know their children. In the early days, when Ana was in first and second grade, there were only about 65 or 70 kids in the entire school (from pre-k through eighth grade.) Ana started drawing again when she started at High Meadow. She learned that playing was part of learning, and that it was okay. She went outside every single day that weather permitted – more than once a day.
They eat their lunches at their desk at High Meadow. As Ana moved up from grade to grade, each classroom became home base. They ate there. They learned there. They hung out there. She even had a fourth grade sleepover in the classroom. She became an avid reader and a critical thinker. They are all critical thinkers – every single one of the nineteen kids that are graduating tomorrow.
Ana got sick the summer before she started sixth grade. She was hospitalized a week before she started school and she remained in the hospital for the entire month of September. During that time, the school community rallied around our family. Two parents that didn’t even know me personally organized a yard sale fundraiser on school grounds that raised thousands of dollars. Another parent, a musician, showed up at my house a week or two into Ana’s hospitalization and handed me over $600 in cash. He had earned it by playing a gig in honor of Ana.
Two boys in Ana’s class organized a daily coffee and bagel station at the school (with the generous help of their parents) and raised over $1000 for Ana in a month! But it wasn’t just money. There was a food caravan which kept us in hot meals, countless offers to help us clean the house, take care of Emily while we were at the hospital, feed our animals, mow our lawn and all kinds of things that ensured our household wouldn’t succumb to complete chaos.
We were held close. We were kept safe. We were loved, steadied and buoyed until we could stand on our own again. The High Meadow Community is still wonderful. We all still love each other’s children and Ana’s class will forever be dear to me. The kids. The parents. The teachers who went through it with us. I will miss you all.
But the eighth graders are ready for high school. Ana is ready. She worked hard to keep up with her peers the year she was extremely sick, and she’s earned her day to shine tomorrow. THANK YOU, to all the teachers, administrators, staff and my fellow parents for being my child’s community.
Thank you for letting her play.