Change Abounds

If I’m being honest, the first warning sign was LittleMan’s midyear parent-teacher conference back in the Age 3-4 classroom (pre-Pre-K).

“LittleMan!  Great kid, awesome little guy, just like a little boy should be!” said his teacher.  We nodded happily.  The ice thus broken, she consulted her comment sheet for the nitty-gritty, and looked at us.  “LittleMan…” She paused.  “LittleMan…does not like art.”

“Oh, we know that,” I assured her with a laugh and a wave of my hand.  “He never really has.  He doesn’t have the patience for it.  He’d rather be running around or doing imaginative play or Legos or something.”

She regarded me rather seriously.  “And some kids are like that, into the more physical stuff, and that’s fine,” she said, before continuing: “But art is really the Gateway to Handwriting so we’re going to need to keep an eye on this going forward.”

As her meaning sunk in I began to think about the times I had noticed: LittleMan was one of the few kids who didn’t sign his own name on his Valentines; LittleMan’s goblin cape at the preschool Halloween party was noticeably less be-dazzled than the others; LittleMan’s map of the world was one long line squiggled on paper: no attempts at airports or train stations or school buildings.  Just little X’s where his key landmarks — Home, Car, Tahoe — should be.

Oh my God, it’s true.  LittleMan doesn’t like art!  It’s not his thing!  But it’s the Gateway to Handwriting!  I had no idea!  And now…HE’S NEVER GOING TO LEARN TO WRITE!

As you might imagine, when Pre-K started about six months later, we were all over the Art Issue.  A desk had been installed in our kitchen, filled with watercolors and stickers and Crayolas of all sizes and varieties.  But suddenly art was just the start: “LittleMan’s fine motor needs work,” the new teachers observed.  “LittleMan should be using the tiny Legos instead of the big ones,” they advised.  “LittleMan should only use regular, adult-sized crayons and pens.  No chunky little-kid ones.”

Everything suddenly seemed to revolve around building the right muscles in LittleMan’s hands.  He was casually directed to join the kids at the “writing station” during morning choice time, where he would scribble with a No. 2 pencil and a ruler.  I enthused dutifully over every last shred of stenciled paper.  At home, my husband and I logged hours at the table overseeing teeny-tiny Lego racecars with infuriatingly small headlights and rear-view mirrors, all the while keeping vigilant watch that none of these pieces wind up on the floor where they might choke our younger child.

Meanwhile, the tantrums were getting ridiculous.  Every single day I would pick LittleMan up from school and before we had exited the courtyard he’d be sobbing over something totally inane.  I began to dread going to get him, knowing that the other commuters on Beale Street were probably taking notes to send to CPS for the number of times I had to haul that kid down the five blocks to our apartment building, screaming to wake the dead.

And he still refused to write his name on anything.

“Something isn’t working,” I lamented to my friend, whose children are older (9 and 11).  I was speaking globally, of course; when your child falls to pieces every single evening, his love of scissors and paint seems sort of secondary.

“Do you think, maybe, this pre-K is a little, I don’t know, intense?” she replied.  “I mean, LittleMan only turned 4 last month.  And he has the vocabulary of a 10-year-old” — this is true — “so he’s clearly learning language…Are they really that concerned, at barely 4 years old, that he isn’t into writing yet?”

LittleMan had been in the same preschool organization since he was barely a year old.  We were just sort of following the trajectory of the program, knowing at the same time (rather smugly, perhaps) that it happened to be one of the “better” preschools in San Francisco…whatever that means, when you’re talking about preschool.  But my friend made a good point.  It was becoming clear (all too clear) that the latest incarnation of this program was simply not the right fit for our child.

Let me be frank: LittleMan is a deeply intense little dude.  So I don’t know why it took us so long to realize that taking our spring-loaded child and putting him in a year-round, 9am-5pm, academically-focused Pre-K might not be the best thing for his psyche.

I was already immersed in the Kindergarten Research Process, a mind-bendingly time-consuming activity that most San Francisco parents must endure (even our public schools operate on a lottery system in which you rank your choices; some parents tour as many as 30 kindergartens when their kids are 4 and 5 years old).  As an added bonus, LittleMan’s birthday happens to be on the cut-off date for age-eligibility, meaning that he may or not be admitted into Kindergarten next year at all if he is deemed too young.  So I was focusing my attention largely on elementary schools with a Pre-K or T-K (that’s “Transitional Kindergarten” — don’t get me started) option.

This is how I found myself launching into a spontaneous therapy session with a kind Pre-K director at another school.  As this woman listened, I explained our concerns about LittleMan’s temperament, our worries that he wouldn’t be age-ready for Kindergarten and we’d have to “red shirt” him, the fine-motor stuff, and so on.  Eventually she said, “You know, I’m under-enrolled at the moment if you wanted to swing by sometime?”

Two days later my husband and I were squatting on tiny chairs at the back of her classroom, observing Circle Time and pondering change.  Two weeks after that, LittleMan was suited up in his new school uniform and entering, shyly, a brand-new class.

Change is not simple.  I have had to alter my work schedule and we are in the process of moving Babygirl to a new daycare closer to LittleMan’s new school.  But I gather my kiddos at 3pm now instead of 5:30, and we play together at the park or hit the library on the way home, and we’re settled in at 4:30 in the afternoon rather than after 6, and life just feels a little…slower.  It’s wonderful.  And in two weeks of the new school, LittleMan hasn’t had a single after-school tantrum.  Which is also wonderful.  Sublimely so, in fact.

We have not stopped encouraging LittleMan’s artistic development, and we continue to monitor his fine-motor skills, but no one seems particularly panicked.  LittleMan will write his name, and he will read someday, and he may just need to work at his own pace.  Which is just fine with me.

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