Tag Archives: back to school

So what did we learn this summer?

What did we learn this summer? You know what? We didn’t learn what monkeys eat, or much about Einstein’s theory of relativity, or to speak Italian fluently; and we didn’t spend all those weeks with improving schedules and doing chores and keeping up with our math skills. I look back at my notions from two and a half months ago and I think what a twat I sounded, basically.

But we did learn things.

They each went to camp. Mabel learned that she can survive a long day (camp was 9 to 4) with a bunch of strangers and maybe even have a good time and make them laugh and like her. If that’s not a good lesson to learn the summer before you start Kindergarten, I don’t know what is.

Mabel bouncing on a trampoline

Boing boing boing

Dash started baking. He can read and follow a (simplified) recipe – that was news to me as well as to him, I have to admit. He was bursting with pride at his achievements, and I should have trusted him to try it by himself sooner. Now I just have to encourage him to bake something other than entirely-chocolate-based items.

Dash eating a muffin of his own creation

Proud baker

They travelled abroad to a country where people speak a different language. They met new people and made new friends and old ones. They discovered they could do things they didn’t know they could do. They expanded their horizons. Dash was able after all to find things to eat in a strange land, and he realised he’d be okay. He became the child I never had a moment’s worry about – the social butterfly who was always happy and always with a buddy. After the early summer’s concerns – all mine, admittedly – about academics and reading and inability to entertain himself, it was just lovely to see the other side of him that’s so comfortable and confident and happy.

Dash eating a giant pizza bread

Plain pizza “senza tutti”

Once again the kids proved that they’re great travellers, who can fall asleep on a plane (maybe, eventually) and get up three hours later (or after zero sleep) and walk through another airport and queue up interminably again for the security routine and get on another plane and do it all without pitching a fit or sitting down and refusing to move a step further. (If you want to pretend to be a wolf cub and roll around on the floor while waiting to go through security in Heathrow and you’ve just been awake all night and it’s 6am outside while it’s still 1am in your body and you’re five years old, I think that’s perfectly reasonable. Different people express exhaustion in different ways, and drooping quietly against your adult while waiting in line is not yours.)

Mabel pulling a suitcase

Not in Heathrow, obvs

The coming school year will teach us all a lot of new things, but the summer is for learning all that other stuff. What a great person you are, and are becoming, and how you can do even more than you thought you could, for starters.

Dash and Mabel by a fountain

Conversing at the fountain


One of those nights

On Tuesday I symbolically went to Target and did lots of useful things. On Wednesday – I don’t remember, actually, but let’s assume I did more useful things. Yesterday Dash had a day off school so I didn’t get much done with my two hours of free time, and today I think I’m just going to sit down with a book. Useful things can feck off with themselves. Though I may possibly take a moment to push a swiffer around the floor, because I think the dust bunnies are unionizing.

Last night was one of those nights that when you have a baby you think you won’t have any more when you have big kids.

11:00 I go to bed.

12:20 Dash has a coughing fit. I get up to see if there’s anything I can do. I can’t give him a dose of cough medicine because he’s not actually awake. I attempt a ritual laying-on-of-hands (i.e. putting my hand on his back for a few seconds), which was sometimes all it took to relax him enough to stop coughing when he was younger. Doesn’t work. I climb into bed with him, which also sometimes works, though it’s not exactly simple due to his loft bed, and the thought crosses my mind that I may be approaching creepy Love You Forever levels of mothering. It’s  not creepy to get into bed with your seven-year-old, right? To stop them coughing? Oh well. It didn’t work, anyway. Not for ages.

1:00 or thereabouts: I go back to my bed.

… some other time… I get out of bed again, I don’t even remember why, maybe it was Mabel. Maybe it was more coughing.

… And again.

… And again.

All I know is that I returned to my own bed at 1, 2, 3, 5, and 5:30 this morning, with the intervening periods spent sleeping and/or not sleeping in one of my children’s beds. Then my wonderful husband did all the morning stuff and didn’t wake me till 8:30, when I had just enough time to stick my head under the shower, throw on some jeans (jeans! It’s jeans weather! At least before 9am it is), and run Mabel to school.

Leisure Day

I sat behind the loudly splashing veil of water that tumbles off the “mushroom” in the outdoor pool and squinted through the droplets at my family laughing and shrieking in the blue. The late-afternoon sunshine and the water in my myopic eyes made lens flares JJ Abrams would have envied, and it was one of those perfect moments that I have to write to remember because my camera is not waterproof.

Swimming pool

The weather is contractually obliged to be hot as Hades for the long weekend of Labor Day, and I will be very miffed if it’s still this hot tomorrow, though it might be. We’ve had three days of carnival, volunteer obligations, and parade participation, and summer has been closed with a flourish, whatever atmospheric conditions may prevail from now on.

Children eating cotton candy at funfair

I have great plans for tomorrow, when both children will be back at school. I could sort my paperwork. I could throw out all the broken toys that can’t be touched when they’re here. I could take a bag to the thrift store or mop the kitchen floor unmolested. I could make pastry. I will probably go to Target and ceremonially wander around aimlessly enjoying the solitude and the absence of short people pestering me for toys.

Labor Day Parade

Back to school in America

This week the lovely Irish Parenting Bloggers, my soul sisters (and brothers) (but mostly sisters), have been discussing the annual financial burden of sending your kids back to school, even in a country where most primary (elementary) schools are state run and therefore “free”. I offered to talk a bit about our experience, for the sake of comparison.

This is our third year in the American public school system – something I never expected to encounter at first hand, and a prospect that felt very daunting when Dash entered kindergarten. (Kindergarten is the first year of elementary school for most children here, and they start when they’ve turned five.) Apart from the mystery that was the PTA – that’s the Parent-Teacher Association – I had to navigate the unknown perils of the school supply list.

It was all pretty easy, as it turned out. Of course. You get a list of things to buy before the year starts, and you go to Target or Staples or the supermarket and buy them. In Ireland, cynical me says, the shops would put up the prices of all these things in August, but around here they tend to have at least some of them on sale, and each state even has a tax-free week or weekend at the end of the summer when you can buy children’s clothes and school supplies without the usual added sales tax (that’s like VAT).

Our list this year, just out of interest, looked like this:

  • 1 large book bag
  • 1-inch white hard binder
  • 12 no. 2 pencils, sharpened
  • 2 glue sticks
  • 4 composition books
  • 1 pair of children’s safety scissors
  • 4 pocket folders
  • 1 box of crayons or coloured pencils (no more than 24)
  • 2 small pencil sharpeners with cover
  • 1 pack wide-ruled lined paper

There are other things they note would be nice to have donations of, such as copy paper, more crayons, index cards, tissues, and liquid hand soap, but that’s the basic list.

The first year I obsessed over whether we were meant to label each item with his name, and if so whether we had to label every single pencil and crayon or just the box, and so on. This year I just put them all in a bag and brought them in. I don’t actually know whether my son uses the specific items I bought or whether they are all stored together in the classroom and then doled out as the children need them – it doesn’t really matter. I bought the nicer crayons and the brand-name pencils because I like those, but if he ends up using someone else’s not-so-spendy supplies, that’s the luck of the draw.

As far as back-to-school costs go, that’s the lot. Done for about $50. I didn’t count.

Our school doesn’t have a uniform at the moment, though it is being considered. Several of the local public elementary schools do, and I assume it would be something similar – a simple outfit that I could buy in Target or from Land’s End (for instance) depending on the quality I wanted and how much I had to spend. They don’t have crests or whatever it is that made my Irish school uniform so terribly expensive and only available from the secret special room at the back of the second floor in Arnott’s of Henry Street.

Books and workbooks are all provided at school. They never even come home, so I don’t see them and know very little about them. There’s no extra photocopying charge, no not-actually-voluntary contribution, and no extra fundraising commitment. If you join the PTA you can volunteer some hours of work at the used bookstall at the upcoming Labor Day Festival, or help organize the 5k race they do every year, or help out at the Scholastic book fair later in the year, for instance, but it’s not mandatory and it’s easy to help without writing a cheque. (Though cheques are always welcome.)

I’m not counting things my son would need anyway, like new winter shoes and clothes and a coat. He’s pretty well set for the coming season as far as that goes, thanks to my affinity for the thrift store and my habit of stocking up on higher-end things (like a good coat) when end-of-season sales happen. I got him a really nice winter anorak last spring that will do him for the next two years, at least. His backpack is still fine, though he may need a bigger one by next year.

We are designated “walkers” because we live within a mile of the school. If we lived further out, he could take the big yellow school bus. During the year, the teachers will probably send out requests for additional supplies – last year they were always running out of glue sticks and pencils and whiteboard markers. The PTA will run a coat drive when the weather gets colder, and I’ll probably pick up a decent-quality kid’s coat at the thrift store and bring it in, to be donated to a child who might not otherwise be warm and dry all winter. The school provides lunches that can be bought at a reasonable price, and these are free to those who need them. Children can arrive early and eat breakfast at school if that’s arranged for them. There is a limited amount of before- and after-care available, but you have to be lucky and get randomly selected from all the applicants to benefit from that.

Schools vary from district to district, from county to county, and from state to state. You can decide to send your children to private school, of course, or you can choose the location of your home because of the school district it feeds into, if you’re in a position to do so. But our middle-of-the-road school has such luxuries – as any Irish state-funded school would probably see them – as a librarian (sorry, that’s a media specialist), a counsellor, several special education teachers, a psychologist, and dedicated music and art teachers.

There are many things that are far from perfect with the American school system, with my county’s school system, and even, maybe, with our school. But from where I’m sitting, I have to admit that it seems like a pretty good bang for my buck.

Boy at school desk

If you’re interested in reading more about the cash crunch many Irish parents find themselves in at this time of year, here’s a handy infographic. And take a look at the other contributions to this conversation (I’ll update this list as the week progresses, so come back again):

The Clothesline – It All Adds Up
Wholesome Ireland – School Expenses
The Mama’s Hip – Homeschooling haul and chatter
Learner Mama – Back to school – A costly business
Musings And Chatterings – Crests and costs – starting big school 
The Serious Wagon – Back to School Costs 
Dreaming Aloud – Changing Gear
My Country Girl Ramblings – Back to School The Hidden Costs
Jazzygal – Back to school costs (a lot)


Things your child will want to do when they come home from school for the first few days of the new term:

  • Fight with siblings
  • Fight with you
  • Ignore your pleas to sit down and do their homework
  • Eat a lot of snacks
  • Complain about the quality of the snacks
  • Not eat dinner because they’re full of snacks
  • Demand a sandwich at bedtime because now they’re starving
  • Watch TV
  • Jump off the coffee table, repeatedly
  • Jump from the sofa onto the coffee table, repeatedly
  • Fall off the coffee table because you told them to take their socks off, but did they listen?
  • Languish on the floor, too exhausted to place one piece of lego on another, calling you to come and do it for them
  • Drop their backpack on the floor and then claim that it’s lost forever
  • Leave their backpack in the car and claim it’s lost forever and that it’s your fault
  • Well obviously

Things you will want to do when your child comes home from school for the first few days of the new term:

  • Tear your hair out
  • Cry
  • Drink heavily

Remember, it’s a phase. Things will settle down. Everything will be okay. Eventually, they will move out and allegedly then you’ll miss them.

Patience and time

To be honest, I thought he’d be reading by now. Or at least, reading a bit more fluently than the halting, frustrating, stopping-and-starting pace he’s going at these days.

It’s all very well being all Waldorfy and lovely and telling everyone how the children don’t even look at a letter in Finland till they’re seven, and they have the best educational system in the world, but the truth is that, sadly, we’re not in Finland. And I’m starting to see how the system here is really geared towards the children who are already reading, even though the “official” list of sight words they’re supposed to know at this stage is only 30 long.

I can see, for instance, how tonight’s homework would have been the work of a fun ten minutes to a fluent reader and more willing writer. Dash had to read a story and then write down the title, author, setting, characters, and his favourite part. There may have been space for a picture in the middle too, but we ignored that. The instructions didn’t even say “Read a story with an adult”, but since the only books he can read himself are definitely devoid of character and setting, I helped him read one of his Spider-Man books, and then we went through the required information and figured out what to write where. It took forever, even without the drawing.

“They have to teach me to read first,” wailed Dash. “That would make it easier.” We sighed, and explained that that’s what they’re doing, but he has to practise. He was unconvinced. It makes me think of that point in a learning curve where the old way was faster but you have to plough through in the new way because it will get better – like when I learned to type. It was quicker to hunt and peck with two fingers, but I had to keep doing it the other way if I ever wanted to get any better. For him, he’s at that point where he can do it, but it’s so tedious and time-consuming that it always seems harder than the alternative. Especially where the alternative is just not reading.

I don’t remember what I was doing in class or for homework when I was six – the only things I remember learning that year were how to receive Holy Communion and how to knit – but I know I was an early reader, so I suspect homework like tonight’s would have been pretty easy for me at that age. I don’t remember a time when reading was ever a chore. I do remember looking at the boys in my class struggling over dotted lines in workbooks (at some age, not necessarily first grade) and wondering why on earth they couldn’t write their letters more neatly. It’s still hard not to let my frustration show.

And we went at it badly today. I didn’t realise that homework would start in earnest this week (duh, really), so I let them kill time but not each other in the playground after school pickup. And then there were other unforeseen events, so that by the time homework happened, Dash was eating a sandwich with one hand and using at least half his brain to feel hard done by about the TV show he had missed. Tomorrow I will be more on the ball, I promise.

We all sorely need a routine after the summer. Homework is just going to have to be part of it, and the reading will come.


This is the pile of schoolwork and artwork that Dash brought home from school in the Spring, more or less, with a few things of Mabel’s thrown in. It’s been sitting there all summer, leering at me. (I leered back.)

This morning, Dash went to school and in ten minutes of concentrated activity, while Mabel watched some nice educational My Little Pony (ahem), I turned the pile into this:

Yes, I could have done it at any point during the past two months – though not with Dash in the room telling me that every single worksheet had sentimental value – but somehow I was never inspired to. It’s now sorted into (mostly) recycling as well as a few folders containing some representative pieces of writing or artwork from his kindergarten year, a couple of stray school reports I should have put  elsewhere in the first place, and about fifteen love notes to me, his father, and even his sister. (Awww.)

If you were here last year, you might remember that Dash took a while to settle in to elementary school. Let’s just say he fears change. On the first morning he clung to me piteously, and I left the classroom with him crying under his desk, where he remained for two hours until the teacher told him it was against the rules to be under the desks.

Today, I was pretty confident that he’d be fine. He took the new room and the new teacher in his stride, and wasn’t fazed by the fact that none of his particular friends from kindergarten or nursery school are in his class this year.

And he looked just as happy at the end of the day. His teacher gave him a candy (“a sugarfree candy”) for walking the right way, and she taught them a song about keeping their hands by their sides and their feet straight ahead, and he ate all his lunch, and there was a fire drill at recess but he still found his old best friend from last year in the playground.

So first grade is looking good on all fronts.

History repeating

September 2008: Monkey’s first day of nursery school
Monkey enters the room, excited, and plays with stuff until I say I have to go now. He turns limpet and clings to me. I peel him off, sobbing. (He’s sobbing. I’m only having my heart torn out.) I run away and linger in the hallway until I can peek in the window and make sure he’s stopped crying.
I pick him up two hours later. He runs to me in the playground and bursts into heaving sobs.

August 2011, today: Monkey’s first day of elementary school
Monkey enters the room, meets his new new teacher (lovely), happily finds his seat, his cubby, some crayons, and explains to another parent that the Man with the Yellow Hat is a bit wrong because Curious George is some type of ape rather than a monkey. I beam with pride. Then I try to leave, whereupon he gets upset and turns limpet. I peel him off, run for the door, and close it behind me. The woman who comes out after me says he’s under the table. I figure he’ll stay there for as long as it takes him to compose himself, because he hates people to see him crying.
I pick him up six! whole! hours! later. He runs to me outside the school door and bursts into tears. I hold him and tell him he did great, that the day is over and he did it and tomorrow will be better, and he’s just overwhelmed.
“What’s that word you said, Mummy?”
“Overwhelmed. I mean, you just have a lot of feelings going on.”

August 2024, how’s that for terrifying: Monkey starts college
I hope he’s got the crying down to a minute or so at either end. And I don’t think he’ll fit under the table any more.

End times

I could probably get all emotional about Monkey’s impending entry to kindergarden and thus Real School, if I decided to, but for now I’m okay with it.

“Okay”, actually, is how Monkey would describe his own feelings about starting school next Monday (with orientation this Thursday), if you had asked him. He says he’s not nervous or worried, though he was a bit earlier in the year when all the members of his nursery-school class seemed to think that kindergarden was a maybe-friendly, maybe-not leopard waiting in the undergrowth to spring out on them at any moment. In preparing the four-to-five-year-olds for things like raising their hand to ask a question, or doing homework (they had a homework week – it was so cute), I think perhaps the teachers didn’t stress enough exactly when the big K was going to happen, with the result that Monkey wasn’t the only one thinking in February or so that maybe it would be tomorrow, or then after Spring Break, or then as soon as nursery school ended in June.

As soon as I realised what was going on, I steered him up to my big wall calendar and showed him just how many pages needed to be flipped over before we would get to Big-School Time, and all the things that had to happen first. That reassured him. Since then he’s been making peace with the idea of being a kindergardener, moving slowly from worried to mildly anxious to pretty much okay.

And in the past couple of days, I’ve seen something I can only describe as actual excitement in his eyes when he’s asked me again how far off the first day of school is. Yesterday morning, inspired by that certain feeling of last-weekiness, I decided that the laundry didn’t look much like fun, and we took a hastily conceived trip to the outlet mall instead, to get them new shoes. (Children’s clothes and shoes are tax free in Maryland this week. So I sort of had to.) One light-up pair of Star Wars shoes, some new socks and a new t-shirt later, and Monkey is now really quite enthused about school. What’s more, he’s not wearing his snowboots any more.

And all it cost me was, well, some amount of money, and a chocolate milk in Starbucks, and a portion of my limited reserves of patience, as I sent longing glances in the direction of the Loft and Banana Republic outlets, so cruelly denied to me by my horrible offspring and their need for fripperies like food and sleep.

And now I have a few more notions of things to do with my scant few free hours a week after Labor Day when they’re both in school, most of which have more to do with spending money than earning it.


I just spent my precious cup-of-tea-and-Internet time labelling 48 crayons, 24 no. 2 pencils, 8 markers, 8 glue-sticks, and two pairs of safety scissors with my son’s name.

This part of preparation for kindergarden is new to me. I hope I’ve done it right.

In Ireland, we got, as I assume students still do, a list of books to be bought at the start of the year. Everyone had their own pencil case with a couple of pencils, an eraser (or ten, depending on whether there was at the time a craze for scented erasers – or smelly rubbers, as we call them, no doubt to the amusement of my American readers), a pencil sharpener (again, something Americans don’t need – classrooms have those terrifying electric ones that look like they’re just waiting to eat a finger), and a ruler. We also had our own copybooks (soft-covered exercise books, or composition books, I suppose you’d call them).

Over here, the books are provided by the school, but the children bring in not only all the pencils, crayons, and markers they might need during the year, but also extras like boxes of tissues and ziploc bags and copy paper, for general school use. I suppose it comes to the same thing, but it’s just the first of many ways, I’m sure, in which school here is all new territory to me. I asked the Internet how I should label the supplies. Google told me to use a Sharpie marker and labels, and to mark each item – every last pencil and crayon. I used a ballpoint pen and I cut my big sticky labels up into as many pieces as I could fit his name onto. I hope that’s okay.

I used to get a new pencil case from Santa in my stocking every year. I didn’t mind starting the new year in September with last year’s ratty and doodled-on pencil case, because I knew that in January I’d come back from the holidays with a lovely clean one. But it’s the memory of my copybook covers that is really what made me want to get this vital introductory step right for Monkey.

Many people’s parents would lovingly cover their schoolbooks, and even their copybooks, with brown paper, in an effort to keep them cleaner and make them hang together a bit longer during the long terms of being slung in and out of a schoolbag on a daily basis. As I grew older, the really lucky kids had their books covered with clear sticky plastic, making them extra durable and also attractive, because you could still see the original, like-new, cover. Brown paper, though, was classic, and clean, and would never get you into trouble. My best friend’s books were covered with brown paper. My books were not.

Most years, my books paraded a colourful and sometimes seasonal selection of used wrapping paper, with tiny tags of old sticky tape left here and there to betray an earlier, more temporary, vocation. I was probably not the only child in recession-hit 1980s Ireland whose parents had thought of this. One year, however, and maybe things were especially tight that particular August – though I have a feeling it was just my parents’ habitual frugality – I distinctly remember going to school with all my copybooks covered in the sort of waxy paper that came around loaves of bread. Johnston Mooney and O’Brien Wholemeal, to be exact: still the bread of choice in my house. The wrapper has changed now, but the particular pattern of beige and white with big, unmistakeable logos, that graced all twenty or so of my copies that term is seared by the flames of mortification onto the little grey cells of my memory.

I also seem to remember having flock wallpaper on some of my books that year – some sort of raised paisley pattern in cream. Sturdy and hardwearing protection for the rough-and-tumble life of a history textbook – and very tasteful, in the 70’s, whence no doubt it came.

That must have been the nadir in terms of book coverings, and the following year I demanded that for my entry to secondary school there must be no  more of this recycled nonsense. I took my father to the homewares store and pointed to the clear plastic stuff that would show I too was a person of taste and discernment. I was, no doubt, the envy of all. At least I knew there was one fewer thing to set me apart from the crowd, and when you’re 12 in a new school, that’s all that matters.

So, with all that still fresh in my mind, I hope that I got Monkey’s labelling right first time.