The year in review

May 27,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L.'s last day of third grade is today. I can scarcely believe it, really. Each year seems to drag on painfully slowly, over horrible bumps and snags in the road, dark twisty portions where you can't see the light ahead, sudden bursts of clear ground now and again. But then May hits and all of a sudden we're there, at the end of it, not knowing just how to feel. Second grade had many of the same bumps and twists and dark corners, but it was still a good year, when it was all said and done--which is more than I can say for this year. But we're at the end now--almost. And while we can't exhale just yet (big IEP meeting on Friday), we are feeling our grip on the year loosen, just a little bit. Last week a mom I don't know too well asked me in the walk-up line if third grade had been a good year. I've been asked this question maybe a dozen times in the past few weeks. Some parents ask because their child is heading into third grade next year and they want the information. Was it okay? They ask tentatively, eagerly grasping onto any crumb of information you can give them. Was his teacher good? What was the class like? Other parents just ask because it seems the polite thing to do. Sometimes I am non-committal in my response: No, it wasn't the best year, thanks for asking. or Well, it could have been better. Other times I am blunt: It's been one heck of a year. Glad to see the backside of THIS year. It's been pretty god-awful. Are you SURE you want to know? *********** Ever since L. entered kindergarten we have struggled with redefining our definition of what elementary school is supposed to offer our child. I'd safely estimate that about 90% of L.'s academic learning happens outside of the classroom, at home, through his reading, through his own very focused pursuits about what he is most interested in--and often in the wee hours of the night. Sure, he may not have passed math this year, but he can tell us all one heck of a lot about Foucault's pendulum and the concept of the tesseract. He also knows how to calculate the approximate measurement of a light year, even if he stumbles over a multiplication problem. He will sit in rapt attention and listen to a poem--I will watch him and know he is filled with poetry bursting inside of him, waiting to get out, hindered by his cramping, illegible handwriting, his inability to capture in words the emotions and images swirling around in his heart and head. Sometimes it strikes me just how arbitrary the measurement of knowledge and learning can be, and this makes me feel extra weary, at the end of a long school year. But there are other gains to be had in school, and we have learned to celebrate these--to be experts at examining the flip side, the more subtle and very important triumphs. This year was the first year L. participated in the annual Field Day; the first year he danced in the talent show; the first year he sat through a film in the classroom and enjoyed it; the first year he has really seemed to make deliberate and strong steps to becoming a part of some of the school activities. And as any parent who has a child on the autism spectrum knows, these are huge steps--huge, great exciting leaps into a world that often seems impenetrable and out of reach. So was it a good year (since you asked)? No, it wasn't really a good one. It was disappointing, and frustrating, and difficult, and there are still hard decisions to make. But not every school year in any child's life will be good, or shining, or even fully tolerable--and third grade, it seems, is a challenging one for lots of kids. You have to take those small triumphs, those little steps forward, and consider the sum of them all. And sometimes, sometimes you just cross your fingers, say a wish, and hope you can all make it through in one piece. And we did--I think we did.