We were late again this morning. These days, the school secretary just scrawls “LATE” on an orange tardy pass and sends us on our way. She has stopped asking why.
Maybe it’s because DISCOMBOBULATION is too hard to spell, and INEPTITUDE seems rude. Most mornings, my excuses are pretty lousy anyway. We are late because:
- Lizzie forgot to wear shoes.
- I lost Henry’s pants.
- We were watching a really good Barbie movie, and could not pull ourselves away.
Other mornings, our reasons are so distressingly bad that I cannot even say them out loud. We are late because:
- Mom was looking at videos of her Facebook friend’s cat.
- We were playing with snails on the front porch.
- Lizzie woke up with a small fever, but Mom didn’t want to miss yoga so she gave Lizzie Tylenol and that takes at least an hour to kick in.
We’ve tried waking up earlier, and packing lunches the night before, but the outcome is the same. At least twice a week, we scramble madly to get ourselves out the door.
I know the buck stops with me. My kindergartener cannot set the alarm clock. My 2-year-old cannot tell time. I am the only person who can get us there.
But as it turns out, I don’t really want to.
I want us to skip school sometimes. My daughter is five, and some days I would like her back. I want to take her to a 10am showing of Annie, and to see the tigers at the zoo on a Tuesday. I want a day at home just to make things with marshmallows.
My friends tell me that’s what summer vacation is for. But my love for my kiddo is not seasonal. Not everything awesome happens in July and August. You have the weekends, don’t you? Indeed. And so does soccer and church and birthday parties and putting away laundry. Impossibly, our weekends feel busier than our school days.
It would be nice to plant seeds on Wednesday morning, and look for starfish at low tide. I want us to follow those snails on the front porch, and see what they do all day.
It sounds like you should homeschool, people say. But I adore my daughter’s teacher. She does a lovely job. I’m not suggesting that I am better at Math or Spanish, or that I understand everything it takes to teach a child to read.
I am suggesting that, for my five-year-old, 180 days of school is nonsensical.
For high school, I get it. We are preparing them for the work force. Bagging Calculus to watch Project Runway with mom is not a fantastic use of time. But kindergarten? Wouldn’t 150 days suffice? Or how about 92? That, I could handle.
I think it’s great that 180 days of school are available. I just don’t want to be held to that. When my daughter missed her fourth day, we got a letter. I explained that we had been in Ohio for my brother’s wedding and extended the trip to visit my 94-year-old grandma. According to the district, none of these missed days was a “valid, legal absence.”
I can keep my daughter out of school for an illness, religious holiday, or funeral, but not to visit her living great-grandmother ten states away. In an age of nannies, country day camps, and stressed-out working parents, I find it baffling to be chastised for spending more time with my kid. Upon reading the school’s attendance policy, I was further reminded that parents whose children miss too many days can be criminally prosecuted.
Full disclosure: I was once part of this system. I taught for ten years, and have a graduate degree in education. I know school bells were invented to prepare students for factory assembly lines. We take summers off to accommodate a long-since-vanished agrarian economy. And compulsory school attendance came about to elevate the overall education of our citizenry. But when was it decided that our youngest school-aged children should be bound by such rigidity?
Don’t get me wrong. On balance, compulsory education is a good thing. In this country, we have the good fortune to be able to send all of our children to school. The three R’s matter (that’s Reading, [w]Riting, and ‘Rithmatic for those who are keeping track). But there should be room for wonder, creativity, and family. We shouldn’t have to fake smallpox to go visit grandma.
When I was growing up, I was that annoying “perfect attendance” kid. Most years, I did not miss a single day. I got a certificate, and my name was called at the year-end assembly. I was proud of that. Except, looking back, it makes me so very sad. For those nine months of school, I had nowhere better to go.
Schools don’t think kindly of parents like me. There are words for us: ENABLERS. And for our kids: TRUANTS.
I understand the schools’ concerns. They lose state money when kids don’t show. And teachers have a lot of ground to cover. Students playing catch-up slow everyone else down. For some kids, excessive absences can be debilitating. What happens to a child who misses the week when they teach the letter “G”?
I’m willing to chance it.
School is not the only place where learning happens. Can’t we broaden our understanding of what it means to gain an education? I feel like I’m already meeting them half way. I volunteer in my daughter’s classroom. I have monitored reading groups, and timed laps during the jog-a-thon. I stapled paper-plate turkeys to the bulletin board at Thanksgiving. In return, can’t the school trust that time my daughter spends with me is also educational? That gardening, and laughter, and snail-based inquiry all have a place at the table.
Originally published at the New York Observer.