Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kindergarten Readiness


When Timothy was four, we were told that our eldest son was “not kindergarten ready,” but we didn’t believe it. In fact, we were incredulous for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that Timothy, with a mid-October birthday, was young for his class, he was tall and had an extensive vocabulary (according to his pediatrician). He seemed creative, responsive, and outgoing. Perhaps too outgoing for the perfect little Berkeley, California nursery school he attended. Outgoing enough to cross the line into what his teachers thought was more like the selfishly, anti-social behavior of a three-year-old; definitely not kindergarten ready.

We moved back east that year and trusting our own judgement over the dire warnings of the professional educators, enrolled Timothy in kindergarten, where he immediately learned to read, add, and function at an advanced level in the classroom. This past weekend he graduated from Yale University with distinction and received half-dozen prizes, including one of the five college-wide prizes awarded to undergraduates. 

Not Kindergarten ready? The phrase seems to have more to do with the readiness of teachers and administrators to accept the full range of challenges that a classroom full of children from diverse backgrounds presents. There are obviously children who thrive in school and others who fail. We praise the former and humiliate the latter, but it is difficult to categorize with any sort of consistency those who will advance to the highest levels of achievement and self-esteem or their opposites. Again, Timothy is a case in point.

In eighth grade, now at his second “Montessori School” (which I put in quotes because one Montessori School is as different from another as one student can be from another), Timothy again ran up against the anti-social behavior problem. His teachers found his actions so upsetting that, we were told, they would go home crying at the end of each day. So it was explained to us that for the sake of the teachers and the class, that Timothy would no longer be welcome in the classroom or even on school grounds.

Admittedly, our eighth grader was wonderfully adept at outsmarting his teachers and making them feel as though they had lost control of the entire class. He was not violent nor loud, simply peevish and disagreeable, what used to be called a “smart-aleck,” but in the extreme. By this time, Timothy’s gifts were abundantly clear as a musician, artist, original and analytical thinker, and writer. He was also arguably the worst athlete in his class, the most self-absorbed, the least concerned with conforming, and the most likely to lead his classmates into some new interest like birds, mushrooms, or fort building.

Being thrown out of a Montessori school eighth grade is not good for the self-esteem of the eighth grader. He felt like a failure, was cut off from his friends, and was even black-balled in his application to prep-school for 9th grade admissions. Was this Timothy’s failure or the school’s failure; a failure of teachers and administrators who we trust to recognize and reward talent while knowing how to deal with difficult developmental issues? 

Ah, you might say. He wasn’t kindergarten ready and it came back to bite him. Nonsense, he was bored with work he understood instantly and saw as demeaning. To have held him back a year would only have exacerbated the problem. Given the opportunity to advance rapidly, Timothy thrived. When treated with disrespect, Timothy bridled and rebelled, which to the teacher bent on conformist learning, looked like bad, willful behavior.

So what about high school, how did Timothy survive, thrive, and regain his self-esteem? We couldn’t find a school that seemed to fit with who Timothy was for ninth grade, so we enrolled him in an alternative school for students in the performing arts. At the same time, he was accepted in Juilliard Pre-college as a composer, which allowed him, for the first time, to see that he was not so different from other children—he no longer felt like the weird odd-ball. This had nothing to do with his relative age, his emotional growth, or his innate intelligence. For the first time in school, he got to be who he was, and being true to himself, even before he had developed this advanced sense of self-awareness, was immeasurably more important to his education than the date of his birth.

I realize that my descriptions make Timothy, with all his gifts, eccentricities, and odd and difficult behaviors, sound like something of a freak. For instance, he never finished high school, opting instead for a year of directed study that included weekends at Juilliard, piano studies with a well-known pianist (the pianist arranged for a grant so that Timothy could study with him), literature and french tutorials, classes at the local art association. His year’s independent study culminated in a lecture performance on Ives’ Concord Sonata and American Transcendentalism that was presented at Juilliard.

To most of his former eighth grade colleagues, none of whom attended the performances, I suspect this would have seemed like mighty dull stuff—dry, academic, and certainly not as important as checking off all the items on the assignment rubric so the teacher can figure out how well you completed the work. And he didn’t win any varsity letters. But was happy as a non-conformist—happy to be who he was, happy to have peers and teachers who liked him the way he was and who respected him for what he was.  

Should children be kindergarten ready or should kindergartens be child ready? I think I’ve answered the question.


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