In the Boston suburb where I now live, parents expect the schools to teach everything including shoe-tying.
With one hand on her Barbie lunchbox and the other clasped in mine, my 5-year-old daughter is poised to cross the threshold to her kindergarten classroom.
I feel the normal mix of pride in her reaching this milestone and nostalgia for the time when her entire body could nestle in the crook of my arm. Given the national debate about educational standards, I also feel particularly aware of my need to support her upcoming years in the public schools.
I know the importance of supplementing her education from my own experience. I attended the Richmond Public Schools during desegregation a crisis by any measure. Many of the top white students fled to the suburbs or private schools, creating a brain drain. Plenty of teachers left, too. Test scores plummeted. All extracurricular activities at Binford, the middle school I attended, were canceled. Administrators said they couldn't figure out how to arrange after-school transportation, though I suspect they were secretly terrified of racial fights.
Through all the upheaval, my family helped sustain my interest in learning. Once a week, my mother dropped me off at the Belmont Branch of the Richmond Public Library, telling me to check out any book I wanted. When I didn't recognize a vocabulary word, I could ask her or look it up in the children's dictionary she bought me. When I was in 8th grade at Hill Middle School, she nagged me incessantly to start reading the Times-Dispatch "because it's part of living in our city." I grudgingly agreed to scan the feature photos and comics.
My grandmother helped the reading campaign too. When I made conversation by asking about her paperback, she handed it to me the next day and said: "I'm all done. Please take it. Tell me what you think of it."
My older sister stepped in to rescue me from failing math. Elementary- and middle-school arithmetic was easy compared to the jumble of equations confronting me in Algebra I. Pulling a chair up to the oak desk in my room, my sister would patiently explain how to manipulate x and y. She helped me figure out how to calculate the rate at which John walked backwards on a moving plane and other vexing word problems.
Instead of watching TV together, my family and I went to art shows at the Virginia Museum. We saw history exhibits at the Valentine Museum, where my grandfather's baseball card collection is still on display. My grandmother and mother subscribed to the Richmond Symphony and the Virginia Museum Theatre. If one couldn't go, my sister or I often got the extra ticket. Once or twice a year, my cousins and I drove up to Washington, D.C., to spend the day at the Smithsonian Institution.
Parents today might moan about the time and expense of these activities.
My mother was a single parent with a teaching job and a limited budget. Library books were free, and children's admission to the museum was cheap. She made priorities. At no time did she berate the schools for failing to provide me with a stimulating curriculum. She wisely realized that the schools could only do so much, especially in the circumstances.
In the Boston suburb where I now live, parents expect the schools to teach everything including shoe-tying. If they are displeased with their child's progress, they often blame the teacher instead of asking how they can help reinforce the classroom lessons.
When my 8-year-old son was having trouble learning to read, it was tempting to scold his teacher. But he was already working with the school reading specialist. I kept up my own campaign at home, scouring yard sales and libraries for science books that I knew would interest him. I encouraged him to read just a few words before he got frustrated and asked me to take over reading aloud. I held my tongue when I wanted to say, "Why aren't you getting this?" Now that he can finally zip through "Harry Potter," I feel glad that the school and I both contributed to his success.
In the coming years, I'm sure both my children will have their share of frustrations in school. They will be subjected to capricious teachers and uninspiring textbooks. They will fail tests. I expect to take much of this in stride and make up for what I can at home. Public school is only one part of their education.
Former Richmonder Clara Silverstein graduated from the Open High School in 1978 and is now a journalist in Boston.
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