Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Blue Jello Daze: A Back-to-School story of the suburbs

We wanted our young Delusional Precious to have the very best education in the county, although we could not afford to send her to a private school. Besides that, we didn't really think private schools were a good idea from an egalitarian point of view. So, we sent her to the"best" school in the county, which of course, turned out to be the "richest" of the public schools. The volunteer ratios were nearly 2-1; unemployed moms to students.

My first lesson in the new school was what this actually meant.

During test week on the West side (poor side) of Greenville County, we got a flier telling us the kids would be taking all of the official, federal standardized tests. Okay, that's nice. Typically, I didn't think much of it and just made sure Delusional Precious (herein referred to as DP) got a good night's sleep. However, in the days after testing was over, DP complained that the old lunchroom where the tests were taken (in a building that has since been condemned, BTW) was by turns drafty and too-hot. South Carolina Autumn sunlight (blinding) was shining right in her eyes at one point, and she couldn't concentrate. At another juncture, she had to pee, and there wasn't enough time alotted. She apologized for the tests, and said she knew she had not done her best.

And then, DP was tested at her NEW SCHOOL; the East side (rich) school with air conditioning, tinted windows and carpeting. No sunlight in the eyes there, no sirree Bob! In fact, between each test, there were copious bathroom breaks and stretching exercises, supervised and conducted by legions of stay-at-home moms. They did rousing cheers, as in sports ("WE'RE #1!") and practically engaged in Cultural Revolution-style calisthenics, right there at their desks. The kids were also plied with healthy snacks and juices between the tests, to keep their blood-sugar levels high. (Who paid for all this? Who do you think? The legions of volunteers, of course.) They were STOKED, and yeah, their tests scores were phenomenal. DP's scores were about 20 points higher. I was astounded!

I joked to people that my kid's IQ had been raised one standard deviation just by moving to the East side.

I should have known, this meant LOTS MORE WORK for me, but I really hadn't thought it through. But after awhile, I was carting her everywhere for all kinds of specialized activities. I was footing the bill for all manner of pricey field trips; some of which I could not afford (i.e. trips to Quebec) and she had to sit out. We were out of our league, financially, but I hoped this meant she was getting a better education.

The assigned school projects were enormous. A mere child could never execute stuff so intricate; they seemed to require people with engineering or graphic-design degrees. In addition, it seemed understood that the parents would certainly chip in... or maybe do the whole thing. Certainly, working mothers could never find the time to work on these gargantuan undertakings.

I found reasonable ways to cut time-expenditures on these projects, but discovered that this would be judged (by teachers) as "cutting corners" and would negatively influence DP's grade. The projects had to LOOK like they had been duly fussed over, and some seemed worthy of the Martha Stewart Living Christmas edition. When I visited the school to drop off the (increasingly huge) projects, I would see what the other parents had done. DP and I would exchange dumbfounded looks: Jesus H Christ. I would never be upset with her for whatever grades she was given on these things--realizing that a good grade in such a situation was simply impossible to obtain. But of course, she wanted the good grades too, and felt that she was being cheated and unfairly penalized (which she was) since her mother could not take whole days off work to execute these complicated, long-ass projects.

I realized, once and for all, that we had made a big mistake on the day I call Blue Jello Day. It was my moment of truth. We do not belong here. I realized, moving to this side of town for the sake of a better education, was a huge error. What were we thinking?

It was the Blue Jello.

The project was a Native American project. The kids picked a tribe and made something that was emblematic of that tribe. I was relieved that this was an easy one. I actually duplicated something I had done as a child: a warrior's necklace. I regret to say I now forget the tribe(s), but most tribal warriors wore these, rather as charm bracelets are worn in the present day. They collected pieces of arrowheads, colorful beads, animal bones, shells, etc and displayed them, as military medals or girl scout badges might be displayed. So, we made one based on a photo in Encyclopedia Brittanica, and I was happy with it. I figured it might at least get a B.

On this auspicious day, there was MORE THAN ONE PROJECT DUE (do you believe?), so there I am, hauling in some humongous hand-made poster about the habitat of the North American Lynx on the same day I brought in the necklace.

And, taking up about half the room, was an "Indian village"--on what seemed to be a very large, burlap-covered ping-pong table. There were little teepees and little people. PEOPLE. They were all dressed appropriately, I noticed. Little tiny braids on the little tiny people. Little tiny papooses on the backs of the little tiny wooden women... and...

There it was. In the middle of the village, well, what do you suppose was there? What WAS in the middle, usually? Historical accuracy! Yes, a POND. A very nice POND was etched out of the burlap, and it was .... made of blue jello.

Stunned, I actually reached out and touched the jello. My suburban Epiphany!

What the fuck am I doing here?!?

I pointed at the blue jello, and attempted to say something to Delusional Precious. Speechless. She looked at it and rolled her eyes. Even though she was only in the 5th or 6th grade, she exclaimed "Shit!" and I did not chastise her, because she had correctly spoken my thoughts aloud.

Yeah, shit!

Did the mom come and set this whole thing up IN THE CLASS? Well, I guess she had to, huh? How else could she get all the little people lined up just so? She must have brought the blue jello in some tupperware and dished it out, after carefully placing the burlap and teepees and tiny wooden Indians and teensy stuffed buffaloes (really) and teensy arrows made of painted toothpicks all sticking out of the miniature stuffed buffalo. I just stared, and as I often do, I wondered what JG Ballard would say.

Okay, that's it. I can NOT compete with this.

And it was then that I stopped trying to. I did not worry that my kid could not keep up with these people. I realized, well, we made a mistake, but we will attempt to deal. And we dealt with it pretty badly, actually, and things did not always go as planned. But after I saw the Blue Jello, I had a point of reference.

Every year, when I hear all the moms worry aloud about their kids going back to school, I think of my Blue Jello Daze. And frankly? I would not repeat those years for ANYTHING.

My love, good thoughts and novenas are with all of you feminist, progressive moms, as you attempt to navigate this territory, keep your sanity, and yet do the right thing for your babies.

Namaste, and know that I love you. :)


sheila said...

Wow. What a great post! Blue Jello Revelations. Huh! What a wonderful thing though that you and your daughter got to experience the 'other side' though. To see what the 'big deal' was....to walk a mile.

Incredible experience however difficult it may have been.

When I was reading your post I kept thinking about that movie, Indian in the Cupboard (with all the accuracy and 'little people'.) Have you ever seen that? incredible flick!!!!!!!!!!

How wonderful a life's lesson though for your daughter, especially since she was at the age of impression still. not to mention the lesson of satisfaction by working on an honest project yourself (with guidance) as opposed to having it done for you. Hmmmmm.

Lovely post Daisy!

JoJo said...

I don't think it's quite fair of parents to do ALL the work for the child....create these ginormous projects that you know damn well a child cannot and did not do.

John Powers said...

It's fun now that a few of my friends are grandparents, some wisdom comes with age.

As far as my school years went I wish I'd had more help being organized. I'm sure my mother tried! But I very much treasure that she let me do things on my own. She was good at making things so there was frame of reference that we could make stuff too. She never gave too much praise or criticism. With a sly smile she would say: "That's interesting." Lots of the stuff I made wasn't very good, but we were encouraged and supported in making things. And not even really discouraged in taking things apart.

That restraint is hard, first because kids always want approval. Second everybody wants their kids to shine. But ownership and a feeling of agency are lasting gifts.

Meowser said...

Geez. After about third or fourth grade, I didn't even get help with my math homework. No tutors, no parental help, no nothin'. And there were times I could have used it.

What you're describing is not for the kids, although they are led to believe otherwise; it's some peacock-feather strutting party for the mothers (and I do just mean mothers) of look-how-rich-we-are and ha-ha-I-don't-have-to-work-ever-again.

There's got to be some middle ground between throwing your kid in the shark tank and yelling "SWIM GODDAMNIT WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU!" (as happened to me), and having homework assignments completed almost in their entirety by the parents. Bleh. Maybe the next species will figure it out.

Rootietoot said...

AAAHHAHAHAHAHA!! Bless you, I love this! We went from a school system much like that one, to a much more...um...Kuntry type. I refuse to do my kids' projects. I won't. No. Uh uh. Just yesterday I was told my a teacher that All Projects Will Be Done At School because many of the children don't have supplies or parental concern enough to do them at home. I was saddened by this, but also relieved.

(and "Delusional Precious"? Has there ever been a better moniker for a kid? No? I didn't think so. I'd take it for mine if you hadn't already.)

Jackie said...

Great post Daisy. Parents who do most of their children's projects do not realize what damage they do...proof of this is that most entrepreneurs you find speak of how they did this or that at very early ages, with no help from their folks.occueho

CrackerLilo said...

Oh, Gods, this takes me back. I was always one of the poorer kids in rich school districts because my mom always tried to put us in "good" districts. I appreciate it...now...but it was really hard at times! We had tons of helicopter parents like that, too. I remember learning to take pride in, for instance, the fact that I got a decent SAT score on my first and only try, which I paid for with my babysitting money, rather than having my parents pay for endless "practice" tests and tutoring sessions as happened with my classmates.

Awesome post.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Rootie, she used once "Delusional Precious" as a screen name, so she can't get mad at ME for using it too!

Amber Rhea said...

OMG... hilarious. Blue Jello as a pond? What the hell?

Anonymous said...

this is the greatest back to school post in history.

another tired mom