Category Archives: school


Today is Mabel’s last day of first grade. She did not deign to pose for a photograph.


She bought her own chocolate croissant at the farmer’s market yesterday morning. Not even with me standing beside her: she left us sitting on the hill and headed off to the bakery booth by herself, a five-dollar bill flapping in her hand. I don’t know if she was polite, but she got what she went for and brought us back the change. She wrote thank-you cards to three of her teachers last night, with minimal prompting from me and no dictation required. They weren’t exactly individualised, but they were quite nice and very neat.

She made a poster for her brother’s lemonade stand, but then she quit the job because he wouldn’t give her any free samples. You need to negotiate your terms of employment up front, I told her. But I told her he needs to learn some managerial skills too.


She builds houses and towers and spawns wolves and ocelots in Minecraft, she wheedles me into putting more games for her to play on my Kindle Fire, she can quote The Princess Bride at an apposite moment.

She still draws while she watches tv, piles and piles of papery people with varying expressions and colourful clothes. She still puts her babies to bed under blankets, and makes families of puppies and little tableaux of Playmobil figures or plastic dinosaurs. She still wants someone to stay with her until she falls asleep.


She is still completely unreasonable quite often, but she does it with such minxy insouciance that half the time we have to laugh. “Miss Unreasonable-Pants,” I called her the other night, and she spent the next five minutes narrating an argument between the two legs of her unreasonable pants.

She’s seven and a half. When did she get so big?



This morning Mabel had planned to walk to school on her own, with a friend from a few doors over. The friend, a year younger but much braver, was all for it. Mabel had been enthusiastic, but I wasn’t surprised when, last night, she started having second thoughts. On Friday, I had belatedly and panickingly wondered if she even knew how to safely cross a road (things you might forget to tell your not-firstborn), so I went over the importance of making sure a driver sees you even if they appear to have stopped. I’d done the job a little too well, though, and now she was worried about the roads, and the cars. (There are a few small roads to cross on the pleasant and suburban half-mile trot to school. The last is actually an exit from the school, but the big yellow buses come out there with their drivers seated way up high where they’re hard to see.)

Mabel often worries about things at night that are no problem at all the following morning (don’t we all?), but this morning she was adamant that she still wanted me to go with them after all. The friend, who appeared at our side door on the dot of 8:40 as planned, was a little disappointed, but I promised to hang back and let them pretend they were walking alone. Two sets of bare legs, not yet summer-bronzed, preceded me to school – Mabel’s skirt much shorter than I had thought; maybe it should be relegated to weekend use; where did those extra three inches of leg above her knee come from, I wondered – two smooth-haired heads turned towards each other with giggles and assertions all the way there, explanations of the project poster Mabel was carrying, declarations of a nonsense game where they were in higher grades, were each other, had funny names. Mabel looked back to make sure I was still there every few minutes, though.

I don’t really want to stop walking her to school, though I do want her to walk herself home (with some friends) next year because that will make my life a little easier. I have to push her a little, bolster her confidence and give her the tools she needs without making her too scared to venture forth with my talk of what could go wrong – she comes up with the worst-case scenario all too easily by herself.

She can rise to the occasion perfectly well, and she will.

Two girls on the sidewalk

Not today’s picture, but t’will do.

First grade, third year

Dash and Mabel in the airport

Three years and three days ago

It’s December 14th and I have a first-grader again, just like three years ago.

I remember picking Dash up from school on this day in 2012. I was trying hard not to think about the news that was still coming out, but already terrible, unthinkable, not to be thought of. I remember looking at the faces of the other parents waiting outside the school, wondering if they had also been glued to the news, the radio, the internet, before they left the house to come here. Wondering if I should tell them, in case they didn’t know.

There’s something about bad news. You have to pass it on. Not because you want to make other people miserable, but because it feels dishonest to let them keep going without knowing about it.

I didn’t say anything to anyone. I continued to try not to think about it. I waited for my little boy, my gap-toothed, tousled-haired, inventive, smart, mile-a-minute first-grader to run out the doors so that I could hug him and take him home and give him extra cookies and not tell him why.

I didn’t even know they were first-graders then. The news said they were kindergarteners. That’s okay, I thought, clutching at any straw I could to distance my life from the lives of those who were being torn apart that day. Mine is in first grade. It wouldn’t have been him.

It could have been him. It could have been anyone, but it was twenty first graders and four teachers in Connecticut, in a perfectly nice neighborhood, in a perfectly safe school, where terrible things never happened. Couldn’t possibly happen.

In the three years since, my children have heard about planes that crashed into skyscrapers, about people who have nowhere to live because of war, about shooters in Paris and bad people in other places. They’ve become used to emergency drills in school in case a bad guy ever comes and they have to hide in their classrooms. They think it’s normal; it doesn’t worry them unduly.

I’ve never told them about Sandy Hook.

It was a Friday, three years ago. The following Monday I didn’t have to send my children to school because we were flying to Ireland for Christmas. All the televisions at the airport were showing CNN, a nonstop news update on the victims, the shooter, the guns, what and where and how and why. I sat my two children directly below a pair of TVs, so that they couldn’t see them. I put headphones on their ears and movies on their little screen, and they were oblivious to the repeated words that might have caught their attention: first grade, teachers, elementary school, children, mother, son, dead.

This year I have a first grader again. I sent her to school this morning, just like every morning.

Mabel on a field trip

First grade on the march

Best day ever

Oh happy day.

Seriously. Neither of my children has homework today. It might just possibly be the best day ever.

This morning I had a meeting with Dash’s teachers, because they wanted to talk to me about some observations they’ve made about his reading and his vision.

And after we’d talked about that, and agreed that I should make a new appointment with the eye doctor because the teachers are convinced that a lot of his reading hurdles are still vision-related, I mentioned that homework is always a battle, especially the reading portion of it.

They instantly said “Well, what can we do to fix that? Can he stay on here and do it after school? Can he do it during the day? You should have told us sooner.” I was flabbergasted. I had been meaning to mention it at our parent-teacher meetings next month, but I didn’t seriously think they’d be able to take the burden of the 20 minutes of reading, cornerstone of homework requirement, away. Just like that, they did.

They still want him to do a little homework, for the executive functioning reason of developing a habit of getting out your work, checking what you need to do, and doing something at home. But if he can do the 20 minutes of reading, so much the sticking point for us every night, at school instead, our quality of life will be enormously improved.

This evening was so peaceful. Mabel happens to have no homework this week either, though her homework is not a battleground, but it was just the icing on the cake.

I mean, she still didn’t get out of the bath the first ten times I politely suggested she should, and nobody’s asleep yet, but as evenings go, I’d like more of this sort.

Dash on his new bike

No homework? Time to get up some speed on your new bike.


New school blues (or not)

So, Dash, how’s the new school?

He’s probably sick of being asked, so I’ll synthesize his recent comments for you.

There are lockers, which is probably the most exciting thing.

And desks that have lids, so you keep your stuff inside them. Those are also the most exciting thing.

And on Friday afternoons the school gets together and has races and things, divided into houses just like in Hogwarts, and each house has a chant and a secret handshake and Dash was put in the house he really wanted to be in because it has the coolest symbol. Which is a dragon.

Nothing could be better than a dragon, obviously. The other houses are just sissies, with their eagle and unicorn and whatever the other thing is.

Also, instead of art they have “makers’ class” where they get to make things and use glue guns and saws and other dangerous implements. Dash is now planning to build an extension to his room so he can play his ukulele without annoying us.

Yes, they are learning the ukulele, which is great because Dash already has one. He has been strumming it non stop since Friday afternoon now, and he doesn’t know any chords yet. We are all slowly going insane.

Some of us faster than others, actually.

So those are pretty much the salient points of Dash’s new school. As for reading, well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. They’re still getting to grips with all that.


A little farther away

Dash’s new school is ten miles away. It’s a straight shot around the Beltway, and except for the home-to-school run in the morning, it takes 15 minutes door to door. The morning run to school takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. Maybe longer; we haven’t had a rainy day yet. This commute (no bus, nobody close to carpool with) is clearly going to be one of the less fabulous aspects of the new school, but we knew that. B and I take turns with the morning run, but of course I’m always the lucky candidate for the afternoon pickup. So between our two cars we’re driving 40 extra miles every day, with me spending an hour and a half in the car on a day when I drive him to school as well as back. I can’t wait for next week, when there’s a parent association meeting on Wednesday evening so I get to go over one more time that day.

But driving in good weather, even on a slow road, is fine. We have the radio, for news – educational! – in the morning and music in the afternoon. I can talk myself through some knotty plot holes when I’m on my own; I find talking to myself in the car is very productive, and nobody else knows I’m not on a handsfree phone call, right?

Really, the mental adjustment is about having one child so much farther away from me than I’m used to. It just gives me a tiny niggle when I think about emergencies, or bad weather, or terrible things like, say, for instance, what happened on this day fourteen years ago. I wasn’t even in the country, let alone a parent, then; I worried about my boyfriend but he was safely in Pennsylvania, and not in a field or on a plane. But if we’d lived here, if my kids had been at school that day, we would all have huddled together as soon as we could, to hold what’s dearest closest to our hearts.

In the winter, Dash’s school will follow the decisions of the county next to ours when it comes to late openings and early closings and cancellations. Mabel’s school, of course, just up the road, is in our own county, so they may have different decisions on the same day, in the same weather. And we’ll have to get onto the Beltway in snow or ice or storm to go and get him, or bring him there. (Then again, the Beltway is always the first to be attended to with salt and grit when there’s bad weather. It’s usually the minor roads that are harder to pass.)

I know that if I was held up getting Dash from school, for whatever reason, the friend who picks up Mabel would take her home with them for as long as was needed. I know that we all have mobile phones that allow us to communicate in emergencies (assuming I (a) remember to bring it and (b) remember to charge it). I know that statistically everything will probably be fine. I know that Dash would be looked after if I didn’t make it to the school because I was stuck on the road waiting for the AAA truck. I know that we have two cars, which helps a lot on days like this when the Check Engine light comes on and I ask B if he can bike to work so that I can bring the one car to the garage and still have the other for 3pm pickup time.

But it was nice when they were both a short walk away, all day, and I felt that no matter what happened I could run up the road (panting) and grab my babies and stick them under my wing and keep them safe from every sort of harm.

I suppose the distances are only going to get bigger as they get older, right? This is just the first leap.

New beginnings

It’s done. The book sale is over and both of my children are at school. Summer is over.

Now I have to make good on all those plans and whimsical notions of greatness I fermented over the long hot break. (It’s still hot. Heat index of 100 F forecast today.) So far I’ve thrown out a plethora of pine cones, magnolia seed pod things, sticks, stones, scraps of paper, abandoned art projects, and bits of broken plastic from the family room and the kitchen that I couldn’t seem to muster the energy to move until now.

If I pick up some more things tomorrow, and the next day, by the end of the week I might reach the carpet, and then I can hoover.

Meh. That sounds hard.

Dash headed off to school today. I feel as if today really is the first day of the rest of his life; that’s how much hope and confidence I have in the new school. I think this will change everything. It certainly changes my nice lazy morning routine into a more demanding one, but we’ll roll with that. I’m sure there are advantages to spending almost an hour stuck in traffic every day, when it’s an hour I’d otherwise have merely wasted on sleep.



I forgot to take a first-day-of-school picture, but this was this morning, showing off the ribbons their entries in the photo show won. (Mabel got a first; Dash got a third.) First day of Fourth Grade, then.


Oh, I’m supposed to ask you something. If you’re so inclined, I’d be delighted if you’d click that button over there – the one that says “Vote for Us!” which must be the royal we or something because there’s only one of me, and then select Awfully Chipper, which is handily right at the top of the list, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the alphabet. But only if you want to. No pressure, now.




Neither fish nor fowl


Mabel by a butterfly bush

Wearing my hat, hunting butterflies.

It’s September, but it’s not autumn yet. One child is back at school, the other is still watching Sesame Street in his pyjamas at 10am.

The air is full of the noise of cicadas and crickets and other late-summer sounds that happen in hot countries. I forget that they’re exotic – the sound of summer holidays in France, and wearing a t-shirt and shorts in the dark. We encounter crickets on the basement steps and by the side door, eager to come in and spend some quality time with us any time the rain starts. They’re hard to live with, though, noisy little feckers. We keep a plastic glass and a postcard on the sideboard for regular eviction purposes.

Homework has started, but evenings playing outside aren’t over with yet. It’s hard to drag just one away, or to make them sit down and concentrate as soon as they get home. We stop at the playground on the way back from school and by the time we get home it’s already time to start on dinner.

It’s so hard to settle down. It’s so hard to go to bed. It’s so hard to get to sleep. It’s so hard to snap into routine when one child is still stuck in summer and the other is halfway to Christmas.

Let’s move on.

Mabel holding a large brown praying mantis.

A praying mantis. Mabel is a fan of bugs, big and small.

Dash update – what next?

So as not to bury the lede: Dash is going to a new school next year.

Some time after Christmas I bumped into someone who asked me how he was doing and told me about a great school her daughters go to. It’s specifically for bright kids who have reading difficulties, or similar — just like Dash. I looked it up online, and on a whim I decided to go along to an open house one morning and see what they had to say. Mostly, I thought I might get some guidance, maybe a few names of tutors in my area or ideas about what we should do next.

At the open house, they showed us a video of interviews with students — and oh, the pathos — these sweet, bright, super-articulate children told the camera about how they’d felt stupid, they’d cried over homework, they’d hated school; and now it’s all turned around. As an ad for the school, I have to admit it worked like a charm. I don’t think Dash feels stupid, or hates school; but it may be only a matter of time before that starts to happen, and I’d really rather it didn’t. He’s certainly only getting the great grades he gets thanks to his unlimited time to finish things accommodations, and his school is not able to provide any sort of remediation that’s helping his reading get better. (It’s not their fault. They don’t know what to do with him. And they have a lot of kids to help – kids with bigger problems, who shout louder (literally) and cause more trouble.)

So I applied for this other school, since its application deadline for the year was just coming up. I thought, what the heck, if he gets offered a place, then maybe it’s meant to be. The other element, of course, was the financial one, because private schools like this are not cheap. We’d need to qualify for financial aid as well.

Fourth grade is their intake year, so he had a better chance of getting a place this year than any other, with a whole class (of 10) to fill. Also, not to blow my own trumpet, but I’m pretty good at filling in forms where I get to describe my children. Then they called us up and said that they’d like to invite him in for two days of school, to shadow a student and do some testing and generally see the lie of the land, to see if he was a good fit for them, and them for him.

I hadn’t planned on telling him about it at this early stage, when it was such an uncertain thing, but obviously he couldn’t spend two days there without knowing what it was about, so I did. He really rose to the occasion. I couldn’t have been prouder of him: he took the information on board and went along with a twinge of nerves but an optimistic outlook. I brought him in and dropped him off, and by the time I picked him up at the end of the school day he had made some friends, the teachers knew him by name, and he had had a great time. I think they liked him, too. The second day, he was happy to jump out of the car and head on in.

Since then, he’s been really sanguine about the not-knowing that was driving us crazy. He’d be happy to go there, but he’d also be happy to stay where he is. For all his rigidity in some ways – food, for instance – he’s amazingly flexible when it comes to the bigger picture, and he has a great ability to go with the flow.

He was offered a place, but we still didn’t know about the financial side of things. My laid-back “what will be, will be” attitude was taking a bit of a beating. The more I thought about it, the more I felt we owed it to him to make this happen, no matter how happy he is at the local school and how easy it makes our life to have two kids leaving the house at 8:45 every morning and sauntering up the road to school.

Yesterday we got word that it’s happening. He’s going to the other school. Come September I will be complaining about traffic and early mornings and trying to bilocate (or call in favours) in order to be in two places at the same time for school pickup – but Dash will be somewhere that’s exactly right for him, with teachers who know how reading works and who see how his brain works and who show him tools to get around learning when reading is extra hard, and with friends who have similar challenges. Even if we can only swing it for one year, it’s going to be a good thing.

Dash is excited about having a locker, like in the Arthur cartoons. He’s disappointed he won’t get to play the trombone in fourth grade, which he’d just signed up for (but who knows, maybe the new school has trombones too). Mabel is annoyed that she won’t be able to wave to him in passing in the hallways any more.

I’m relieved. I think this is called doing your best for your children, and if I have to get up early and hit the beltway morning traffic to do it – sure, we’ll give it a go.

Why learning to read is not like training for a 5K

I’m not training for a 5k. But I have done, once, and my husband has trained for more marathons than you can shake a stick at, so I feel confident enough to say this. When you train for a race, you start out small. You run a short distance. The next day, you run a bit further. You build up your stamina, you strengthen your muscles and you enlarge your lung capacity by adding a little more every time until – hey presto! – with determination and persistence and hard work, you can run as far as you want to. Hooray!

Learning to read doesn’t work that way.

My daughter started kindergarten this year knowing the letters and most of the sounds they stood for. She could sound out simple words. But she couldn’t read yet. Somewhere along the way, and with help from a great teacher, things clicked. Now she looks at words on a page and knows what they are, without having to think about letters and sounds and how they all fit together.

There was a point for her when that leap from decoding to knowing just happened. It’s the leap that didn’t happen for her brother, the third-grader, the one with dyslexia. He still has to decode every word. That’s what takes so long.

So my kindergartener is testing above grade level for reading. Like, way above. “But,” her teacher said to me, “I’m worried about her fluency. It’s not there. Is she reading for 20 minutes a night?”

“No,” I said. “I read to her for at least 20 minutes a night.” She reads a few lines, or a few minutes, or whatever she feels like. She’s reading all the time – I see her eyes lighting on words she knows as I read a book that’s way above her own level. I see her reading signs and lists and packages and posters. She’s reading.

“Well,” said her teacher, who is a great teacher, who knows exactly how to get the kids reading, “she needs to start reading by herself for longer. Start her at five minutes and move up to ten and then fifteen. When she’s in third grade she’ll be taking the PARCC tests, you know. They have to read for 90 minutes at a time.”

This is where the running comes in. That’s how you train for a 5K, but it’s not how a child learns to read. That’s like saying that your three year old needs to attend an academic preschool where he sits at a desk and learns his numbers and letters for a good portion of the day, because he’ll need to do that when he’s five. So he’s got to start practicing now.

No, he doesn’t. Your three year old needs to be running and jumping and feeling different textures and finding out what fits together and what goes inside what and looking and listening and smelling and tasting. He does all that to prepare his body and to connect the dots in his brain so that WHEN he’s five – or six or seven – he’ll be able to sit still for a while and learn in a classroom setting, given a sympathetic teacher and material that interests him.

My six and a half year old may be able to read and understand a lot of words, but that doesn’t mean I can hand her my seven volumes of Harry Potter (UK edition) and expect her to immerse herself for the afternoon. She loves Harry Potter, but she’s not ready to read it yet. And I’m unwilling to sit her down with a book and a timer and make her read a little longer every day, because that’s not how it works.

Some day when I’m not watching, she’ll pick up a book and get comfy and find that an hour later she hasn’t moved because she’s been reeled into another world, where James flies a giant peach or Hermione saves a hippogryff or Anne accidentally dyes her hair green. It will happen with a leap, the way your toddler went from having ten words to fifty in a week, or the way one day your preschooler could whistle (and didn’t stop demonstrating for a month). It will happen when you’re not paying attention.

Absent dyslexia, it will happen.