The Making of an Outraged Mom

You never think you’re going to become one of those parents—the kind that makes a spectacle at school board meetings and foments dissent at afternoon pickup. But funny things happen the second someone else tries to tell you they know what’s best for your kid.


I’m lucky to live in Concord. My husband and I moved here three years ago, with a toddler possum-swinging on my leg and child number two karate-kicking in my belly. It’s a great area for young families—wonderful parks, museums, and play groups (though the real estate listings never seem to mention the two Superfund sites or the state prison). Like a lot of our neighbors, we picked the town in large part for the schools. My boys will go to an elementary school named after Henry David Thoreau. It reopened recently following a major rebuilding/expansion, and there’s talk of redoing the middle and high schools, too.

Yet as I sat with my butt planted in a cushy folding chair on a frigid winter evening, I wasn’t feeling so lucky. More than a hundred other parents had joined me in the Alcott School auditorium, all of us clutching our packets of PowerPoint printouts. Microphones stood at attention for questions and comments. This was a forum and there was blood in the water.

The school committee members sat tensely in the audience, notebooks and Montblancs at the ready, while teachers braced themselves behind a long conference table at the front. This wasn’t going to be a typical board meeting, with empty-nesters battling families with young kids who want an override to build a billion-dollar high school. No, this was about the evil plan our school leaders had come up with to subject our children to that horror of horrors—full-day kindergarten. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the kids would sit in class an extra three hours, rotting away till 3:10 p.m.; the other days they’d be released at 12:10, as they are now. The school committee was going to vote in a month whether to implement this abomination. We’d all heard about the last time the administration floated full-day K, back in 2000. Plenty of residents didn’t like it then, either, and a vocal parents group had been taking credit ever since for killing the plan.

As the forum got under way, a lot of us parents were pretty sure this whole hearing was just smoke and mirrors, a little hocus-pocus to give us the impression we had some say in the schooling of our children. The mom I’d come with wrote in my notebook: "Who cares what we think? They’re doing it."

Meanwhile, a group calling itself Concord Parents for Kindergarten Options had turned out with 100-plus signatures on a petition for an "optional" full-day plan. If some parents wanted full-day, fine, let them have it. But the CPKO was going to make damn sure a half-day program was offered, too.

The main presentation came to an end, and it was finally time to hear from the moms and dads. Lines formed behind the mikes. The first few comments were thoughtful enough, but the reasoned debate soon gave way to tears, rants, and conspiracy theories. "I don’t feel the public school should tell me I can’t have that time with my child!" a mother howled. I half-expected someone to get up and shout, "This is an outrage. I’m going to home-school my daughter, naked, in the woods!"

Afterward, grownups clustered in cliques outside the school, their breath puffing out in clouds in the cool night air, and stamped Uggs and wingtips to keep the feeling in their toes. There was gossiping, backward glances, and eye rolls. Total middle school, without the zits, but it was understandable in a way. We make great sacrifices for our children—getting knee-deep in the Diaper Genie, for instance, and trying not to keel over from the smell while marveling at how those two master’s degrees are being put to such great use. We sacrifice because we love our kids—and no teacher or public official is going to come in and start telling us what’s best for them.

That’s how I felt back then, anyway.


 

I found out about the school district’s scheming more or less by accident. After picking up my two-year-old from preschool one afternoon, I was in the process of getting my four-year-old—who stood outside his classroom in Julie-the-cruise-director mode, saying hi to everyone passing by—when a mom-friend came out of the Circle Room with her son and dropped the bomb:

"Have you heard about this full-day kindergarten thing?"

My stomach lurched. "What?" And take my baby away?

"Yup, looks like they’re going to it next year."

"What?!" Next year, when my firstborn would be in kindergarten? Turns out they’d already discussed full-day K at one or two school committee meetings.

That’s a warm and fuzzy feeling: my child’s fate being decided, and I didn’t even know about it.

As I would discover, full-day stands at the confluence of several combustible issues, including the debate over structured time for children versus free play, and the competing priorities of working versus at-home parents. There’s also the question of what, in this era of preschool tutoring, where kindergarten is the new first grade, do five-year-olds really need to know…and will half-day kindergarten be the reason my son misses the Ivy cut? Concord was splitting into overlapping factions—from grad degree–toting at-homers to parents who work full time, to moms and dads willing to do anything for an early edge. Then there were those who simply wondered what was actually good for their kids. And my town hasn’t been the only one having this debate. From Belmont, Lexington, and Weston to Brockton, Randolph, and Fall River, Massachusetts is converting to full-day. Nine years ago, just 29 percent of the state’s students attended such programs. Today, 66 percent do. A bill filed last year would make it mandatory for the rest.

Mandatory? We’ll do anything for our kids—all of us. We take them to gymnastics and Music Together and feed them organic soy butter smoothies, and we’d consider junior Kumon if it helped. But my gut kept telling me no, my boys didn’t need full-day K. Six hours of school was too much for five-year-olds. And I certainly didn’t put my career on hold for three years to have my son in class all day.

Besides, school isn’t the only place you learn. My husband and I have many valuable things to teach our boys. Just last week, we watched in delight as they did the chicken dance while belting out the refrain to "I Wanna Be Sedated."

 

Like a lot of parents in town, I was asked one day to sign the CPKO petition. I sort of knew some of the organizers, and I really felt like signing something. After reading the actual wording, though, I decided to look into the issue a bit more. I called the Department of Education. I put school committee meetings on our Get Fuzzy calendar, in ink. I started talking about full-day kindergarten to everyone I knew.

Jacqui McKenna, a teacher at the Thoreau School who was instrumental in drafting the full-day proposal, stressed that the goal is simply to provide more time for the current workload, not add to it. "Full-day kindergarten needs to stay developmentally appropriate," she said. "We don’t want to do algorithms."

As it is, Concord’s kindergarten curriculum is hardly an exercise in puffery, covering socialization, scientific inquisitiveness, phonetics, and other pre-reading skills. Nonetheless, I came across some parents of toddler-geniuses who questioned the value of additional kindergarten for their Einsteins. In an online posting, one dad explained how his three-year-old
already reads sentences and does math and definitely will not need more time in class. (Intimidating, to say the least, especially when your own four-year-old’s major accomplishment that afternoon was navigating the living room with the kitchen trash can on his head.)

I’d hoped that the literature would provide some guidance, but as you’ve no doubt guessed, it’s inconclusive. Whatever side you support, you can find evidence that proves your brilliance—just as you could probably spend five minutes Web-surfing and find a study concluding that clubbing your head is good for you because it increases the blood flow to your brain. And that’s exactly what you’ll feel like doing after looking at the data. Several reputable studies claim full-day offers all sorts of benefits; another one insists that longer kindergarten days could actually be harmful.

David Elkind, who taught child development for decades at Tufts University, and whose book The Hurried Child has struck a chord with millions of parents over the past 25 years, says full-day has its merits—but done wrong can be detrimental. "People are saying that full-day kindergarten is an educational initiative," he told me. "It’s not an educational initiative. It’s primarily a childcare initiative." I got the point. It wasn’t about education. It was about working parents wanting the childcare benefits of full-day, benefits that at-home parents don’t need. Except in Concord, at least, it turned out that didn’t exactly fit.


As I continued to mull over the full-day plan, rumors were buzzing everywhere that it was essentially a done deal. (Peter Fischelis, the chair of the Concord school committee, all but said as much: "Given the direction of the state, we feel that it’s going to be coming anyway whether we like it or not. We’re trying to be prepared and proactive.") I heard this gossip all around town, even on the sledding hill behind the high school. The debate among the various factions was getting louder, and more personal. Preschool pickup and the children’s section at the library started to get pretty tense, as did innocent visits to Concord Teacakes—let’s just say that awkward silences don’t go well with frosted dinosaur cookies.

Interestingly, though, the "for" and "against" groups didn’t always fall the way you might expect. Brian Maloney and Maia Heymann, for instance, have one son in kindergarten and another who’ll be there next year. A wicker basket on their kitchen table holds flash cards with simple words written on them. Artwork covers the fridge, and their kindergartner has written "A+" in black crayon on several drawings. Both Maloney and Heymann work, so you’d think they would appreciate a longer kindergarten day. You’d be wrong. "I think it’s ridiculous," Maloney said. "At five years old, we shouldn’t be worrying about them being proficient in anything." The couple have a babysitter, rather than send their boys to afternoon programs, so they can have more time at home.

Jennifer Newbold is another parent who doesn’t fit expectations. She and her husband, Stephen, who have boys ages four and two, moved to Concord a few years ago to escape the expensive New York private schools and return to Stephen’s hometown. Newbold, who doesn’t work, considered putting her name on the petition but eventually decided that full-day kindergarten would work for her son and opted not to sign. "They’re not changing the curriculum," she explained. "They’re spreading out the day to make it easier to assimilate the curriculum."

By the time of the next school committee meeting, I was on the fence. That was an uncomfortable place to be, I thought to myself as I oofed into my seat, but not as uncomfortable as that of Peter Fischelis, who sighed when he announced the agenda item: "Our favorite subject—full-day kindergarten."
One naysayer eventually rose to present yet another written demand, signed by seven families vowing to pull their children out at noon each day if the plan were enacted. Still, I was surprised by how few dissenters were there. One of the founders of the CPKO was notably absent. She’d say later that she had moved on, that this whole thing had brought out the worst side of parenting. She had a point.

So like I said, I’m not the same person I was before all this. First, I’ve become a community activist. That was me at a recent school committee meeting, unprepared and uncoiffed but rising to the mike regardless. I don’t remember my exact words because I was too nervous. Something about how having both full- and half-day kindergarten would be bad because it would separate children into different castes: those whose parents work and those whose parents don’t.

I had decided at last that I was not going to sign the petition. Later I would follow up my magnificent school committee performance with a letter to the editor in the Concord Journal, which I’m sure made a huge difference. Soon I’ll be chaining myself to a redwood.

More important, though, I’ve learned that as much as this debate has centered on kindergarten, it’s also been about the perception of control. Parents in town have griped that they weren’t consulted as they were when school officials pushed for full-day kindergarten back in 2000. These refuseniks contend that the administration snubbed them because it learned back then that informed parents can derail an initiative they don’t like. But here’s the thing: The plan fell apart last time not because of parental opposition but because kindergarten teachers opposed it since they wouldn’t receive full retirement benefits—and also because full-day was going to be tuition-based and optional. With those issues since resolved, now it was looking as if full-day kindergarten was going to be a reality. Parents didn’t hold the reins last time, and we still don’t. And you know what? Full-day kindergarten is just the first in a long line of things that we won’t be able to control. Our children will get older and make their own friends and, if you believe the Globe, they might even have a college roommate of the opposite sex. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it.


It’s amazing how a simple thing like kindergarten can go straight to a parent’s heart. The thought of sending my boys off until 3:10 makes me miss them already. It’s hard enough separating the emotional thoughts from the rational ones while in line at Dunkies. It’s almost impossible when it comes to my children. Since having them, I’ve done things I never thought I would—such as go two weeks without shaving my legs, explain the gory details of a cesarean section to a bug-eyed three-year-old, and pick someone else’s nose. All parents want the best for their kids. We’ve made good decisions (rewarding a successful potty trip with an M&M) and bad ones (not rewarding for aim). But what really is best for our children in terms of their first real year of school? As much as I hate to think it, I may not be the right person to answer that question.

Shortly before the school committee’s vote in February, I visited the Thoreau School. I’d come to interview the principal, Rob Colantuono, but it was certainly on my mind that this was where my son would go next year. While I was waiting to see Colantuono, in trotted a tousle-haired boy wearing a rumpled, untucked oxford. An office assistant helped him turn on the intercom. He did the morning announcements, with weather. It was hysterical and adorable. Afterward, I walked the halls and talked to teachers. I called my husband: "I’m so excited for him to go to kindergarten!"

I’m finally okay with the full-day plan. The teachers appear to have the children’s best interests in mind, and anyway, I’ve decided I have to trust them. Still, it’s a scary proposition. I think I know what Jenn Newbold was talking about when she said, "The first time I put him on the bus it’
s going to be hard. But I’m a big girl—I can handle it. They send them back to you at 3:10." I think I’m going to be the crazy mom sprinting after the bus.

I sat in the back on the day of the vote, listening as the school committee discussed the proposal. It quickly became clear how they were going to decide. In the end, there were five ayes and zero nays. Full-day kindergarten had at last come to Concord. The school committee, teachers, and administrators clapped. The superintendent commended everyone who’d worked so hard. It was all a bit too pep-rally for me. I left.

Outside, I ran into a CPKO petitioner. "You missed it," I said. As we stood in the snowy parking lot, another parent drove up, rolled down the window of her SUV, and chatted with other members of the opposition. They’d apparently Googled the assistant superintendent, hoping to dig up a little dirt.
The next day I asked my oldest, "How would you feel about being in kindergarten all day?" Since at age four he was such a reliable source of information.

"I don’t like it," he said, ripping off a piece of Scotch tape and snaking it around a red Matchbox car.

"Why not?" I asked, suddenly alarmed.

"I don’t know," he said immediately without looking up. "I want tacos for dinner."

I bent over to give him a smooch. "No!" he barked, hopping off his chair. I chased him into the living room, bear-hugged him on top of a heap of worn animal puppets, and smothered him with kisses. He finally smiled. I tickled his lower back, and he exploded in giggles and cut a big fart. I laughed so hard that I snorted and tears filled my eyes. And I thought about how he was going to love kindergarten, and learn, and make new friends, and figure out whole new ways to gross me out.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/04/the-making-of-an-outraged-mom/