Story from parent Cathy Emrick

My kids go to “that” school. You know, the one to which “I would NEVER send my kids,” exclaim people who have never set foot inside. “No one goes to that school!” I’ve heard said. But as a friend of mine recently added, “That’s strange, because the classrooms are all full.”

Actually, my daughter isn’t there anymore – she was there for K-5th grade and then had to go elsewhere for middle school. My son is still there, though, and when I think about next year being his last there, I want to cry. We have invested our time, our love, and our children into our neighborhood public school, which I recently realized is considered an “urban school.” It is also a Title I school, which means that a LOT of kids there qualify for free or reduced lunch because of their parent(s)’ low income. Many of our kids have to deal with violence, drugs, hunger, etc., at home (a few are even homeless), but when they come to school, they get free breakfast, free or reduced cost lunch, time to play safely outside every day, exposure to art and music, the opportunity to be surrounded by books, and teachers (and volunteers – I’m proud to be in that category!) who are committed to them and their education, compassionate, and love them no matter what. My kids and lots of others get all of those things too, except for the free/reduced cost lunch, but we might be more inclined to take those things for granted.

School, in many ways, is the great equalizer. The kids there make friends regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, parental income, etc. We are white Christians. My son’s best friends (all boys) are another white Christian, a Bangladeshi Muslim, and twin Latino boys. He has celebrated Eid (twice), spent lots of time in households were English is spoken poorly or not at all, learned to love Bangladeshi food (even though he still won’t eat a hamburger patty if there is a chance that it touched anything green in passing), even gone fishing for that night’s dinner – none of which would have happened if he hadn’t gone to “that” school. My children are outraged by racism and prejudice in all its forms, comfortable with people regardless of their apparent differences, and on target to be successful in the adult world in large part because they will be able to travel in many different circles and easily connect with people in them, much of which will be traced back directly to their experiences in “that” school.

But that’s not the point of this blog post. I know many parents won’t consider sending their kids to our school, even though they are zoned for it. They won’t even visit it to determine its reality vs. its reputation. So my purpose in writing this post is to share some memories, some moments, from our school – “that” school.

  • When my daughter Elizabeth was starting kindergarten, she was not thrilled about brushing her teeth. Somehow that fact came up in conversation with the school registrar, who sympathized, claiming trouble with remembering to brush twice daily herself. Then the registrar proposed a bet – they’d each keep a calendar of their brushing habits for a month, and whoever brushed more times would win “something really good.” During that month, Elizabeth brushed more often than she had in the past, and she kept faithful track. In the end, the registrar “forgot to bring” her calendar in, but she remembered how many times she’d brushed – it was exactly one time less than Elizabeth, so Elizabeth “won” a brand new book.
  • When my son was in kindergarten, he spent a lot of time on the floor. The students were put into small groups according to their reading abilities for small group instruction once a day. When the teacher pulled Tim’s small reading group, he would sometimes slide under the table when embarrassed or frustrated. She would simply ensure that he had his book under there, and then when it was his turn to read, everyone would just bend down in their chairs so that they could hear him. If she asked a question of the group, he could raise his hand like everyone else so she could call on him. She would see a little hand inching up from under the table and know he had something to say. He would eventually be comfortable again and get back into his chair.
  • In fact, when Tim became upset with himself or anyone else, he could usually calm himself down given some time alone. So his kindergarten teacher created his own special place, under the counter in the back of the room, filled with beanbag chairs. Tim had permission to go there without asking any time that he needed to, as long as the class was not on their way out the door. It was used a lot in the beginning of the year, but he needed it less and less as the year went on. Having his own space eased his transition into Big Kid School enormously. As did his loving, understanding teacher.
  • Several times over the years, when one of my children was having an absolutely horrible day, his or her teacher would call or text me so that I could come to school and give him or her a hug. If it was just a really crummy day and they missed me, the teacher would call and let them use her phone to say hi.
  • My son struggled with separation anxiety when he was younger, and dropping him off at school in his first semester of kindergarten was very traumatic for both of us. The first time that I tried to leave him at the front door, he – you guessed it – threw himself on the floor of the school foyer. I tried to get him up to walk to his classroom, even offering to take him myself, but to no avail. We were late by then, fortunately, so he wasn’t at risk of being trampled by hordes of arriving children. After a few minutes, the new principal happened to walk out of the main office. Smiling, he assured me that they could “take it from here” and waved me off. I reluctantly retreated outside but pressed my face against the window to see what would happen next, especially since Tim and the principal were facing away from me, completely unaware that they had an audience. After seeing that Tim was not planning on the leaving the floor anytime soon, the principal laid down on his stomach next to him and rubbed Tim’s back. They talked for a few minutes and then got up. The principal held his hand out to Tim, who took it, and without looking back, they walked off to Tim’s class.
  • There was a group of four kids in my daughter’s kindergarten class who got along well – most of the time, anyway. All four moms volunteered at school, even if only to chaperone field trips. We got to be friends, and stayed friends. The PTA holds spirit nights at the local Chick-Fil-A once or twice a year, and for the next six years, spirit nights always meant a reunion with the kids, the moms, the teacher, and as often as she could make it, the TA. The kids went their own ways over the years, with one leaving the very next year for a magnet school, a second going to a charter school five years later, and the third moving out of district about that same time, but the reunions continued anyway. The adults are all friends on Facebook. One boy was on Elizabeth’s soccer team a couple of years after he changed schools, another’s Mom helped us sell my Mom and Dad’s house a couple of years ago, and I still collect Happy Meal toys and the like to donate to the kindergarten teacher for her prize box. In other words, we made connections in that classroom that have lasted far longer than I ever imagined possible. Now that I think about it, I miss those families. We’re going to have to schedule something this summer. The kids are too big to be allowed on the Chick-Fil-A playgrounds now (surely they draw the line by 7th grade), but I’m sure we can figure something out.
  • One day, when Elizabeth was in 5th grade, she was having a truly awful day. She was so upset that the teacher could not begin to reach her. Elizabeth takes great comfort in being with either or both of our dogs, so the teacher called me and asked me to bring the dogs to school for a visit. Elizabeth’s day got a whole lot better as soon as she heard that her furry companions were on their way. Her class was based in a trailer that year, so she and I just hung out on the hill outside with the dogs for about 15 minutes, and that was all it took. Life was good again. Later we asked for and receive permission from the principal to bring the dogs in – preferably during recess – regularly or on any days that she needed them, but as it turned out, just knowing that they could come was enough. She never needed them during the day again.
  • Do not think that our wonderful memories are all social, emotional, and behavioral, with no positive academics to report. Quite the contrary! Both kids are quite bright and in AIG (Academically and Intellectually Gifted), but some memories stand out. One of my favorites is from Elizabeth’s 2nd grade year. She loved to research things that interested her, so her teacher encouraged her to write reports about whatever caught her attention to read to the class as often as she liked. Elizabeth was proud to educate her classmates about Old Faithful, the Lincoln Memorial, and Rosa Parks, among many other topics. Her teacher had so much fun finding new ways to challenge Elizabeth that, although she had been teaching for decades, that spring she went back to school at night to receive an AIG certification. She’s now the AIG coordinator/3-5th grade AIG teacher at our school.
  • Once Elizabeth is an adult, if anyone asks who influenced her most in life, one of the first people she will name will be her third grade teacher. Her third grade teacher loved all of her babies deeply (as have all of our teachers). She was young, energetic, and infectiously positive. Teaching was obviously her passion, and she and Elizabeth were somehow kindred spirits. I’m not sure exactly how, because “infectiously positive” definitely does NOT spring to mind when one is describing Elizabeth. However, they absolutely adored each other. They complemented each other beautifully and the teacher became a fast family friend. She attended one of Elizabeth’s soccer games, went to Golden Corral with us on kids’ night, and while the other kids were doing their math work in class, regularly tutored Elizabeth privately from a 5th grade math book so that she wouldn’t get bored.
  • Speaking of going above and beyond the job description, several years later, Tim found his special friend in his P.E. teacher. Coach lived in a nearby city and drove in to our school every day. He admired Tim’s soccer playing in P.E. and when invited, eagerly agreed to come see Tim’s team. Tim was nervous but elated that his favorite teacher cared about him enough to come see him play. Their game was late on a Sunday afternoon in a different nearby city – about an hour from Coach’s home – but he showed up on the soccer pitch just as the game was beginning nonetheless. He apologized for almost being late, telling us that Tim’s was the fourth student’s game that he had attended that day.

There are far too many positive things going on in “that” school to report in one post, so there will definitely be a Part II soon. Stay tuned, and please do not judge a school by its reputation. Go see it for yourself. You may or may not decide it is right for your child and your family, but if you don’t go see it and talk to teachers and current parents, you may be accidentally cheating your child out of great experiences and valuable opportunities to grow in many different ways. I am so thankful that we gave ours a chance.

Read more from Cathy on her blog

from Cathy Emrick on Friday, June 5, 2015

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