Back to School Again

This morning, I sent my daughter off to school again. The first day of school came early this year, catching us by surprise. We were still in the swing of our summer routine. I had to cancel an on-line Chinese language lesson, a horse-back riding lesson, and a gymnastics practice. She will also have to discontinue her on-line conversations with her grandmother in Hebrew, which had been taking place on an almost hourly basis for the past few days.

Will she learn more in school than she was learning at home? Is the almost eight hour separation between us really worth it?

Boarding the Bus

On a school day, we all get up at 6:30 a.m. I see to Bow, and my daughter, after she is dressed, feeds Summer, her Quaker parrot. Then it's a walk down our long driveway to the mailbox, to wait for the school bus, which arrives a little after 7:00 a.m. Breakfast is eaten at school, and classes start at 8:00 am. School lets out at 3:30, but I don't expect the bus to return for the drop-off until about 3:45. That's a long time for a mother and daughter to be separated.

Socialization vs. Education

You could say that the academic education she will get in school is well worth the sacrifice of her time at home, but that isn't the truth. I can give her an education at home. We have a house stuffed with books. There are floor to ceiling bookcases, and more under construction. I inherited my grandmother's library, and in it are the books that my grandfather, an Israeli phililogist, acquired over a lifetime. There are books about ancient languages, Latin, Greek, Persian. There are books he translated from Persian to Hebrew. There are books explaining the grammar of each of these languages. There is ancient history written in ancient languages. We have Tacitus in the original. I don't think the school library can boast the same.

We have books on physics, some of them even written by my own father. My grandmother had a master's degree in mathematics. She liked to read about number theory in her spare time. I inherited those books. We have books on algebra and trig for begginers, and there are advanced books that go well beyond that.

I am a linguist and a primatologist. There are books from my collection on lingusitics, anthropology and primatology. And there's Bow himself, who can teach and learn with her.

If it's health we're talking about, I have books on nutrition, anatomy, endocrinology, fertility and other medical subjects. I have herbals that explain the medicinal value of everyday plants. If it's botany we're talking about, there are our own orchards and the woods behind the house to explore.

And the house is full of literature and literary criticism. Tolstoy and Chekhov, Agnon and Chernichovsky and Bialik, as well as Dickens, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Kipling. We have Chinese literature for children in Chinese. We have Japanese literature in translation.

But there is something that I can't give my daughter at home; I can't teach her how to get along with her peers. I can't provide her with playmates her own age and of her own species. And I can't give her friends. Those things are no less important than an education.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Bow doesn't get to go to school. He watches Sword depart, with a mixture of envy and wonder. He is a common chimpanzee, and he, too, needs friends of his own age and species. When he was younger, I tried to organize a chimpanzee pre-school that would allow him to socialize with other chimpanzees his own age. I recognized that he, too, needed socialization.

However, due to current health regulations among institutional chimpanzee caretakers, in order for Bow to visit with other apes, I would have had to give him up. Imagine, if you had to give up custody of your child, just so that he could attend pre-school!

Bow and I haven't given up on the idea that he should have companions of his own age and species. It's still in the works, but in the meanwhile, he is homeschooled, while his sister goes to regular school.

What are the results? Bow's Hebrew is his stronger language, with English a close second. With Sword, because of the many hours she spends in school, it is the other way around.

School as Total Immersion in Language and Culture

When you speak a non-dominant language at home, sending your child to school serves as a way to achieve total immersion in a foreign language. It helps if everybody at school is monolingual in the dominant language, because then there can be no cheating. Your child has to learn English, if English is all they speak!

When you have an unusual outlook on life, sending your children to school allows them to learn about mainstream culture. It does not necessarily mean that they will choose conformity, but at least they will be given an opportunity to learn a different way of thinking and a different set of values.

When I was shopping with Sword for back to school clothes, I pointed to a pair of jeans with a flashy belt buckle and asked her if she wanted it. "That's what so-and-so would wear!" she answered, naming a classmate who wears flashy clothes. "I don't want to wear something like that."

It's important to allow your child to know what the different social choices are. That way, when she makes a choice, even in something as seemingly unimportant as clothing, she knows the social significance of that choice.

Socialization doesn't mean learning to become like everybody else. It's learning to understand others and the signals they are sending you. It also helps us to understand what signals we are sending back in return.

Taking Responsibility

When she returns from school this afternoon, my daughter will be tired and will need a snack. I won't ask for the details of her day, until much later, when she has had a chance to relax.

When the time is right, I will ask questions. I will find out what they did in school today: what went well, and what wasn't so good. I will check her math and her spelling homework if she has any, and I will try to supplement the school curriculum with other things I think she needs to know. Ultimately, all parents are homeschoolers. We are all responsible for our children's education. Sending my daughter off to school does not mean relinquishing responsibility. It just means letting her experience a small, controlled part of the outer world, with all that it has to offer.

The Value of School

What is the most valuable part of the elementary school experience?

  • Learning the three Rs.
  • Socializing with other children.
  • Learning to accept authority.
  • Becoming part of the community.
  • Learning that there are other points of view besides those of the parents.
  • Learning the dominant language of the country where the child lives.
  • Other.
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Backto School

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