Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons from Lizard Skin: Throwing in the Towel when the Time is Right

When we brought Aditya home from the hospital as a newborn, I was full of new-mother, hormone-fuelled, big dreams.  I would stare in awe at the little guy's perfect face and think, "I'm going to change the world for you."  And then the chronic sleep deprivation set in.  I couldn't spell my name, let alone change the world.  So by the time his first birthday rolled around I had pared down my to-do list considerably: as a symbol of my devotion, I would simply start by making all of his and his brother's birthday cakes from scratch, starting with the low-sugar, completely organic applesauce muffins that I made the first year.  At his first birthday party, Aditya poked and prodded his muffin, squished it and then pulverized it, and during the process even took a tentative lick or two. The rest ended up as crumbs dusting the floor in a concentric ring around his high chair.  Undaunted, each year, I'd make a cake from scratch.  One year I set the oven on fire. One year I couldn't get the cake out of the cake pan and scraped the sawdust-like material out while I dissolved in frustrated tears. One year I forgot to add oil, resulting in a hard but edible creation, and another year the cake came out perfectly. But the icing on that cake, oh the icing. The home-made, whipped-from-scratch icing had rubbery flecks in it, the largest piece of which had the feel and consistency of lizard skin. Unfortunately I hadn't realized this until I took my first triumphant bite ... and choked up a disgusting little rubber morsel. My mistake?  I had added the gelatin in its solid power form and not pre-dissolved, and it had caked up (pun intended) and congealed in its own little rubbery way throughout the entire batch of icing, which had been, sadly, already spread all over the perfect cake. That was the last year I made cakes from scratch.

Lizard skin from cake icing: my crowning cake-making achievement

Calling it quits when the time is right is a skill.  And now, it's time to call it quits on the Great Homeschooling Adventure.  Its demise was largely brought about by the Berkeley Unified School District (here referred to as BUSD) itself:  after having multiple, desperate conversations with the district office, the Admissions Office, an elementary school's PTA president, and indirect exchanges with a certain school official who seems to be related in some way to Voldemort, it became clear that we nevertheless were going to lose the battle.  The battle was about the fact that as participants of the district's Independent Study program, we were at a significant disadvantage in finding after school enrichment programs for our boys to participate in. We fought the good fight, with the independent study teachers, program director, and one PTA member on our side, but we lost anyway.  The crux of the matter:  I wanted the children to participate in programs with other school children so that they could make new friends, and I also wanted several significant blocks of time away from them so that I could prepare logically constructed homeschooling lessons as well as accomplish some tasks for the amazing little company, Lineagen, that I work for back home.  The best, most straightforward way to achieve this, I thought, was to sign the boys up for after school enrichment programs at the local neighborhood BUSD school, but no. This was not to be done, since the fact that we were homeschooling created a logistical mess for the Unified District powers-that-be.  In the end, since we couldn't beat 'em, we joined 'em, and we're very happy to have, at last, the solution to all our woes.  It turns out, once you get past the Admissions Office and its convoluted processes for school assignments, life can be quite good.

The boys were at first very loathe to try out a new school -- because the one that mom taught was "fun, and easy" -- but by the time we finished the tour of Rosa Parks Elementary School (a public school within the BUSD, but a 20 minute drive from where we live, and with NO parking), they were in love with the idea of going to "real" school again.  I was thrilled that they made new friends on their very first day there (yesterday), and how they both came home bubbling with excitement.

And here's the change in the boys that was so remarkable to me:  my boys had used various behavioral strategies to avoid school work every day when I was teaching them.  Every five minutes, they were whining about something or other, they were too hot or too cold, they needed a snack, they needed a drink, they were fidgeting in their seats, something hurt, something itched, something wasn't comfortable, or they were wandering around the house at a loss for what to do despite the clear instructions and worksheets given them. I was frantic with the thought that, in my presence, they were not capable of displaying the mental focus of a goldfish. And despite my admonitions and (from my point of view) downright inspiring lectures on the value of education and self-discipline, this behavior pattern continued for the three long weeks we homeschooled.  (In retrospect, I understand what was going on and bear no hard feelings: to these boys, the roles of 'mother' and 'teacher' are played by two very different types of people.  One nurtures and loves them and, to some extent, coddles them and caters to their needs. The other teaches them, asks them to do their best, expects discipline and proper behavior, and elicits effort and consistent focus.  They were testing me to to see which of those personae was going to win out during homeschooling, and rightly so.

Switch to our meeting this Monday with the Principal of Rosa Parks, a kind man with a warm smile and an obvious and genuine affection for children.  He ushered our family into his office, where our children took seats without fidgeting, folded their hands, sat quietly, and snapped to attention.  I nearly gaped at my own children,  barely recognizing the well-behaved beings they instantly became. At one point, Rohan sat bolt upright in his seat.  His hand shot in the air.  I gave this bespectacled boy a double-take. Was this the same child, who couldn't sit still for me for five minutes at any given time over the last three weeks, who had been sitting patiently through fifteen minutes of administrative mumbo jumbo, and who was now raising his hand to ask a question?  (Incidentally, his burning question was whether or not kindergarteners got their own desks at this school.  He grinned so hard his dimple showed when he learned that in fact, they did.). Aditya's performance matched Rohan's:  he sat quietly and looked oddly interested in the scintillating topics of school busing routes and the cost of hot lunch. Clearly, these boys were made for public school. We had, at last, come to the right place.  (Of course, it also helps my little geeky heart to know that they are now enrolled in Berkeley's environmental science magnet, which boasts its own lab and dedicated science teacher, wheee!)

So, the Homeschooling Adventure has come to a sudden and bittersweet end.  Bitter for me, since I had entertained fantasies of the three of us having wild adventures in the Bay Area for an entire year, sweet for all of us because the wild adventures were in reality less adventures, and just plain wild:  think of all three of us stumbling around, without direction, hot, cold, itchy, hungry and uncomfortable (by the children's report, any way) at the same time, and just plain lost in academic wilderness.   Sometimes, it's good to know when to stop a thing and cut your losses and move on.  There are some who brilliantly succeed at homeschooling, and I am not one of them.  Just as there are some who make the most scrumptious, moist, made-for-heaven cakes from scratch, there are those of us who don't. It doesn't mean we love our children any less, it simply means we need to know our limits and accept when our love should be expressed not with offerings of lizard skin, but in some decidedly different way.

So, here we go again:

And once again, the boys seem extremely concerned about the whole proceeding:


  1. Karen, I don't think your two boys could have a better mom. :-)

  2. Berkeley's environmental science magnet school? That sounds wonderful!
    I salute you, Dr. Ho. I am glad that the boys enjoyed their second first day of school. Please give them hugs from all of us!
    PS - I agree with John. :)

  3. Thanks, dear C! Best of all, more time to work on NGLY1