Thursday, February 12, 2009


(Above graphic by Chris Sharron. Incidentally, just so I can clear about 20+ e-mails from my inbox all in one fell blow--people often ask me where I get those cute T-shirts for Cal. I have talked about this before, but most of them are from They primarily do adult shirts, but their selection of kid's shirts and onesies has really expanded in the past few years. And apparently they are having a $9 sale on all their girly-fit T-shirts now through Sunday, so go look. Unless you're one of those nudists.)

(And now back to your regularly scheduled whatever.)

There's a pretty big spread of ages in Cal's class. I mean, all the kids are three to four years-old, but I don't think anyone can argue that a the difference between just-turned-four and just-turned-three is huge. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while it's a spread that will minimize with time, it's not going to totally stop being a factor in school until all the kids in the group hit puberty, at which point everyone will just be equally revolting. Some of the kids in Cal's class turned four as early as this past summer, probably more than half celebrated their fourth birthdays before the calendar year ended. And Cal, well, Cal turned three at the end of July, less than a month before the school year began. He is what in the preschool age spread they call "a young three." In fact, I think he's actually the second-youngest kid in his class, if not the youngest.

The night that we got Cal's progress report, Joe and I discussed the idea of retaining Cal in "pre-primary" (as his nursery school class is called) for another year. This is something that sometimes the teachers and parents choose to do for a variety of reasons--there is one kid repeating in Cal's class right now, for instance--mostly to give kids who are a little bit on the young end of things a chance to catch up, both socially and developmentally, to give them a chance to not always feel the pressure of being smaller, clumsier, behind. I'm not worried about Cal's academic development--that I think is well on-target--but I think the combination of Cal's particular cautious personality and the fact that he is on the extreme young end of the bell curve for his group may be a disadvantageous combination. We talked about it and we talked about it, and finally, I just said, "Well, let me just see how this parent teacher conference goes, and we'll see what they think."

At the parent teacher conference, after we had chatted and gone through all the papers and artwork and shot the shit for a while, the teachers paused, sort of took a deep breath, and said that while Cal is doing great academically, they thought that--guess what?--with the combination of Cal's particular personality and the fact that he is on the extreme young end of the bell curve, they wanted to see what we thought about him staying with them in pre-primary for another year.

I think they were a little surprised when I told them that I actually wholeheartedly agreed instead of running out of the room, rending my garments, screaming, "MY KID JUST FAILED PRESCHOOL!"

After they exhaled (really, they were very relieved that my reaction was not, you know, defensiveness or anger), they further elucidated their reasoning, much of which I had thought through myself and agreed with. He would be in the same classroom, with the same three teachers, and they hoped that in not giving Cal another big transition (our move from New York to Atlanta right before Cal started school also played into their decision, as Cal is not a kid who deals easily with upheaval), that he could build his confidence, and in already knowing the rhythm and patterns of his classroom environment, he could finally be the expert, the leader, bigger and more competent as opposed to always feeling behind. And that with this comfort and familiarity, maybe he could finally be a little less anxious, and develop a little more of that social piece that we all think he needs work on. That's the thinking, anyway. We could re-evaluate again at the end of the year, since Cal seems to have been steadily improving on all fronts (most notably in the few weeks since Mack was born--instead of regressing, he seems to have hit some sort of developmental growth spurt) but they just wanted to broach the subject and see what we thought.

I will be totally honest with you here and say that as a Type A person and someone who skews towards the nerd end of the spectrum, part of me does find this a little embarrassing. The TEACHERS are saying that MY KID may benefit from REPEATING a year in NURSERY SCHOOL. Oh my god, he is REMEDIAL. But another part of me sees the potential benefits of retention very clearly, and not just for the reasons you might think. See, when I was a kid, I attended nursery school starting at the age of two. This is not uncommon in New York, and anyway, my parents were both residents, and they figured, what, was I just going to sit at home with a nanny all day? Might as well go learn how to sit in a circle and nap on cue. So by the time kindergarden rolled around, I had already been attending school for three years. Like Cal, my academic skills were on target, and at the time (this was the early 1980s, remember) my school principal thought I might be bored in kindergarden or something, doing the same old things that I had been doing all along, and so decided (along with my parents) to skip me directly into first grade. My birthday is at the end of June, so I had just turned five.

Like I said, I turned out basically OK. As I got older, I even eventually came to like being on the younger end of things--it occasionally made me look like some whiz kid or something, though clearly I am nothing of the sort. But as the years went by, it also ceased to matter--no one asks me how old I am anymore (well, I guess my patients do sometimes), and when I did an extra year of residency when I switched from Peds to Anesthesia, that extra year I had on everyone got absorbed. And, whatever, I'm thirty now, so who cares. But being on the extreme young end of the spectrum for my grade and, like Cal, having sort of a self-contained personality, I'm not sure in retrospect that skipping ahead was necessarily the best decision. I've always done OK academically, and it's not like I'm some social retard or anything like that, but I'm not going to say that being on the younger end of things didn't occasionally make things hard.

Particularly for Cal now--we're not sending him to school for academics. I mean, yes, of course that is part of it, and I care as much as the next parent whether or not he can write his alphabet and cut out shapes and recreate patterns. But the big thing, the main reason we sent him to school when and where we did, is for the social element. As his parents, we can teach him how to read and add and write in cursive. But we can't recreate the experience of being in the schoolyard with four of his little buddies, playing "construction site" and cooperating to dig a giant hole straight through to China.

Joe's one hesitation when we first discussed the idea of retaining Cal was the prospect of separating him from his peer group. There are seventeen other kids in Cal's class besides him, and he knows their names, knows some of their parents, sometimes tells us little stories about the COO-RAZY stuff that Aaron or Maya or Simon did at school that day. However, tellingly, Cal does not have a best friend yet. He is interacting with the other kids more now than he was at the beginning of the year, and I think is starting to make that leap from parallel to cooperative play (he also does more imaginative play now, at least at home--his new favorite game is "Car School," in which there's a teacher car and student cars and all the cars sit in a circle and have snacktime and line up to go to gym class) but I don't think he's particularly attached to any one or several kids in his class over any other kids he might meet. Well, except for his teachers. He is very attached to his teachers. Which, I guess, is another argument to keep him in the same class for another year, and let him grow a little more under the care and guidance of people who already know him well.

Anyway, for all our hand-wringing and overanalysis, let's not forget--THIS IS NURSERY SCHOOL. The idea of "retaining" or not retaining him in some sense is almost meaningless, all it means is that he's going to be in the same classroom with the same teachers, as opposed to in that other classroom with those other teachers. Everyone's going to learn to read, everyone's going to learn to add, everyone going to get to eat paste. The important thing is that Cal is enjoying himself while doing it. And that he eventually attends the Ivy League medical school of his choice.


(I swear.)

Edited to add: Yes, I have read this article. And while I never thought that I would be making this decision, I realize that if Cal continues at his current school through kindergarden, we may be in the position of looking over the fence from one side of the debate to the other.


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