The Red Queen and Mr. Cranky Pants

Emerson recently had her “first grade readiness” assessment at school to see if she would move into the first grade next year.  At her school (as in all Waldorf schools) academics begin in the first grade and are completely absent in kindergarten, so the jump from “Early Childhood” to “The Grades” is a big one.  Also, Emerson will stay with the same teacher and the same group of children (with the exception of children leaving the school or joining the school) from first through eighth grade.  Because of the cohesive nature of the class community, children are not “held back,” so the teachers want to be sure that each child moving into first grade is in the right place.  They look at all applicants, but pay careful attention to the youngest children – those with summer birthdays – like my Emerson.

So in February, Emerson and a classmate went to visit the “Red Queen,” (the assessment is a game, full of little chores, in which the children try and help a queen find water for her parched queendom) and a few weeks later, Matty and I met with her teacher to take stock of our five-year-old.  I’ve known this was coming for a long time, and I’ve always told myself that I didn’t care what the outcome was, as long as Emerson was in the right place.  She’s young for her class, and she is – in many ways – very innocent for her age, and I would trust that these people – her beloved teacher included – would make a careful and true conclusion about where she belongs.  I was excited on the day of the conference.  The wondering was over.  The day had finally come for me to know – with certainty – where my child was headed.

 At least I thought so.  But this is the lesson I need to be reminded of over and over (and over and over and over and over) again.  The one about certainties…

I’ll spare you the details of the conference.  I think I was in shock for the entire first half after hearing “Emerson tested young!…” so I may have missed most of them myself.  Even after preparing myself for over a year to hear this possibility,  it stung.  What is wrong with my child?  My rational side knew the test was not pass/fail.  It’s not about ability or who is the best; it is about finding the right place for a child.  Yet I couldn’t keep these feelings that my child had, in some way, failed out of my head long enough to concentrate on a word her teacher was saying.  Needless to say, it was not what I had expected to hear.  (At our first conference in the fall, Emerson’s teacher said she would be very surprised if Emerson didn’t move on)  But here is another lesson I need reminding of often.  The one about expectations…

We – at least I – left the meeting in a blur of confusion, trying to piece together all we had heard.  She walks on her tiptoes, her startle reflex is not integrated, she has trouble with her mid-line, her dominance is not completely formed.  But the conference ended with things like “this is the drawing of a first-grader!” and “if she were really having problems with her mid-line, she wouldn’t have been able to draw this figure eight so effortlessly…”  I asked the teacher twice – directly – if Emerson would go on to first grade, and she said, the first time, “put in the application for the first grade,” and the second, “she will be in the group moving on.”  I’m sure that she went over many other ways in which Emerson was competent enough to move into the first grade, but my brain was still in its regressive state of fright or flight.  What is wrong with my child? What is wrong with my child? What is wrong with my child?

It got worse when we got home.  Was Emerson ready for first grade?  I started looking at her in a new light.  All of her idiosyncrasies, that before were – to me – just Emerson, were now clues into her development.  And all the while my mind was reeling: Is she too young for first grade?  Are her feet still firmly planted in childhood?  Will she struggle next year?  Is she ready? Will she move on?  I was expecting finality and what I got was limbo.  No, not limbo – purgatory.

And in the middle of this purgatory, we went to the beach to meet someone for the first time who – no doubt in my mind – is little! Say hello to “Mr. Cranky Pants!” (Although this term of endearment could not be more ill fitting.  He is really a mellow little guy…)

There was a surge of new babies born around us lately, but little Eddie is the first one we’ve seen up close thus far, and I was excited to see how the girls were with him.  Ophelia is – always has been – bonkers about babies, and I was sure she would maul him to no end, but I wasn’t so sure about Emerson.  Emerson has never really been a little girl who loved babies.  She didn’t take to dolls as a baby or toddler – she favored her stuffed animals – and only started playing with them because other children at school did.  I thought she would be moderately interested in the baby.

Wrong again.  (Expectations…remember?)

The novelty of a baby was interesting to Ophelia for a few minutes,

but she spent most of her weekend pursuing the dog (or big Eddie).  Emerson, on the other had, was hooked.

She was next to him every minute we were there, taking cues from his mom, making sure his needs were met, making sure he was OK.

I would love to say that after seeing her so attune to another human’s vulnerability, I had a grand revelation and realized, right then and there, she was ready for the first grade – but that didn’t happen.  It was amazing to witness though.  Her response to the baby was more than “he’s a cute little toy and I want to hold him.”  She demonstrated true empathy, selflessness, and love.

Later that day she participated in her bi-yearly television experience and laughed hysterically at Pingu – a show recommended for toddlers.  (I have to admit, I laughed too).

And then we got home and she took care of her own baby, right after she put on her cat suit…

Is Emerson ready for first grade?  We may never really know.  I was at a party recently and a woman told me she had agonized about the same decision for her – now forty-year-old – son.  I thought the point of her story would be that it really doesn’t matter in the long run, but no – she is still wondering if she made the right choice.  (The “son” is question is a well adjusted father of three… although he does have a penchant for racing cars…)

And that brings me to another lesson: the one about figuring out things for myself – not waiting for someone else to give me the answer…

And as an anecdote:

Last year, I put in a kindergarten application to a desirable charter school.  To clarify, it was desirable to everyone except us.  When Matty asked me why I put in an application to a school we weren’t interested in, I told him it would give us options.  What I didn’t tell him, was that there was a little voice in the back of my head screaming how can everyone else be wrong? What I also didn’t tell him, was that it was a cop-out.  It was a way for me to say “we tried, but we didn’t get in.”  I was side-stepping the choice – and any regret that might have surrounded it later on – completely.

And, of course, out of the nearly 100 people coveting a spot in kindergarten, Emerson’s name was pulled in the lottery.  It was like a big thunder clap sent down from the heavens – DECIDE!

But the decision was easy – we know where we wanted Emerson to be the whole time, and it wasn’t at the charter school.  I have no idea how we are going to afford the school we are at forever (the charter school is free!) but I have absolutely no regrets.

Will Emerson go to the first grade next year?  As Matty says, “you be the one to tell her she’s not going to the first grade…”  As for me, I stopped thinking about it after a week’s time.  Emerson is going to see the Red Queen again in May, and this time I’m really excited to hear what her teacher has to say.  I’m happy that we have chosen a school where they feel the need to really know our child – all of her.  I’m happy we have chosen a school that is prepared to meet her individual needs as she moves through the stages of childhood.  I’ll take the information that is given to me and make whatever decision feels right. The choice, like her development, is still flowering.

It can wait.  There’s no rush.

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