To Love a Child
Now that Ana’s back to school, I’ve been thinking about community again. Actually, that’s not the only reason. Ana’s school is in the process of getting accredited with the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) and, as a member of the school’s Board, I’m lucky enough to have a front row seat to the process of accreditation.
What does this have to do with Ana? Well…yesterday I went to a meet and greet event which included all of the school’s teachers, the visiting NYSAIS officials and most of my fellow Board members. I was a little nervous because, let’s face it, I don’t get out much these days. But when I walked into the room it felt like I was at a family gathering. The room was filled with people who know and love Ana. They’ve been there to support us not just since Ana got sick, but from the moment Ana walked into the first grade classroom at High Meadow School as a shy 6-year-old – the newcomer that year.
We’d pulled Ana out of public school because she was having a hard time fitting in. It’s a familiar story. She was a window gazer – artistic and musical – who wanted nothing to do with sitting down all day filling out dittos and having her ABC’s drilled into her. At five, she could already read and write. She was bored, but also distracted. She tried really hard to make her teachers happy. She took every harsh word and implied failure to heart. A few months into her first grade year, she’d grown so despondent that she stopped drawing altogether and wrote daily notes to her teacher apologizing for “being bad.”
Back then I didn’t know there were educational choices. I thought, “Well, this is what we’re doing now. Public education. She’ll get through it the way I did.” But what I really wanted was for someone to know my child – I mean, REALLY know her. I wanted them to care about her interests. I wanted them to send her outside a couple of times a day to play in the snow (she wasn’t allowed to touch it at her old school). I was trying to teach Ana to be independent and artistic and confident. I wanted her to embrace the things that made her different and wonderful in MY eyes. All that was and is Ana. But what she learned in public school was the exact opposite of what we were trying to teach her at home. I felt that everything I was trying to do as a parent was being undone each and ever day I sent her to school.
And that wasn’t okay with me. So I did some research – read an amazing book called, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play” by Vivian Gussin Paley, a woman who worked nearly 40 years as a preschool and kindergarten teacher. It reinforced my belief that Ana was desperately bored and needed more frequent breaks. I found High Meadow School by doing a Google search, but not before (briefly) exploring the option of home schooling. I didn’t really think she would end up there. We were broke at the time – private school wasn’t something in the cards, or so I thought. But then I visited the campus, and was struck by all of the children – dressed head to toe in snow gear – playing outside in December. I gazed into the window of the third/fourth grade building (a little barn-like building we call “The Nest”) and saw an entire room full of blocks – BLOCKS! in third and fourth grade! Ana got to play with blocks once a week at her current school – unless she’d been bad – then she lost this free play time.
Things seemed to fall into place after that visit. We couldn’t afford the school, but we scraped the money together for a half-year of tuition and Ana started in January after the winter break. I did some hustling and got a large freelance project which helped carry us through that year. Emily was only three, and I didn’t intend to start her at High Meadow for two years (she ended up starting the next year).
The true meaning of what we were getting with this small, progressive independent school didn’t really hit us until the second or third year because that’s when I recognized how much Ana’s teachers knew her. As Ana moved up from grade to grade to grade, her past teachers continued to watch her grow and change just the way a family member would. The teachers, administration, staff and my fellow parents all KNEW her – as I knew their kids. They were proud of her when she sang her first solo on stage in third grade. I wasn’t the only one who cried when she blew the roof off the Performing Arts Center with her rendition of Adele’s “He Won’t Go” last year. I joined the Board so I could try to contribute something to the school I’ve grown to love. I wanted to meet every single parent, know every single child.
The school is not a separate part of our lives. Its needs are woven into our priorities in the way of family and community. We are a group of people – a congregation of parents, educators, administrators and students – who know each other. There is no walking head down past unfamiliar faces at High Meadow.
When Ana got sick, the magnitude of this treasure revealed itself to me. Imagine a group of 100+ families all reaching out their arms to help lift us up? I’m not religious. I’ve never experienced the power of community before High Meadow. The school is a huge reason our figurative barn didn’t collapse. In the raging monsoon that was Ana’s cancer, these people lined up – side by side with our friends and family – and stacked sand bags around our lives so we wouldn’t drown.
Can you tell I love metaphor?
I remember what I wanted from a school back when Ana was in first grade – to teach her how to love learning, to give her confidence in herself, to have teachers who take the time to know MY child. And that’s exactly what I got. But I also got to to fall in love with other people’s children and realize what it means to be part of a community.
Ana has learned this too – in the support and love she’s gotten from her friends, their parents, her teachers (past and present) and just about every person who works at the school. She wakes up happy and goes to school with enthusiasm. She has learned the value of community much sooner than I did. What can that mean for her future? Only good things, I’m sure.
If you’ve gotten this far – I’ll reward you with a quick health update. Ana went to Columbia today for a check up with Dr. Martinez. She’s doing very well, though she did complain of an ache in her lower right side yesterday so they took a urine sample to rule out a kidney infection. The pain is gone as of tonight. She had three medications eliminated from her arsenal of pills and the prednisone may be reduced again next week. She’ll get labs on Monday. She’s looking forward to being back at school tomorrow.