I don’t recall my kindergarten experience very well, except that I know it was cut short. Near the end of the school year, we moved from one California town to another, and I didn’t finish my kindergarten year.
I sometimes have dreams about that. You know how, years after college, you sometimes dream of the class you forgot you were enrolled in but you have to go take the final exam? My kindergarten dream is a bit like that, except I’m an adult who is required to sit on a floor with a bunch of 5-year-olds and a pair of blunt, short scissors, trying to do some kindergarten-style art. (Despite being a creative lefty, I pretty consistently sucked at every academic art experience, which must be why the dream always goes for that subject). In the dream, my master’s degree is in danger of being revoked if I don’t finish the K year.
Let’s hope it comes true.
Anyway, my oldest granddaughter is about to embark upon kindergarten. Nikayla begins her formal school education on Tuesday. The next oldest, Elizabeth, who lives in England, will be starting school soon too, because their system is different and schooling begins earlier. Anyway, what advice would I have for Nikayla or Elizabeth as they start their school journey?
Like I know. I was such a great elementary school pupil. That, kids, is called “sarcasm,” but I think it’s so deeply embedded in your genes you’ll master that genre pretty early. Anyway:
- Minimize the times you’re a bully. I would say “never be a bully,” but in the simian world of school, sometimes you’re the victim, sometimes you’re the alpha kid. Social interaction among great apes inevitably involves a certain amount of threat display, and despite what some misguided religious fundamentalists might tell you, yes, we’re a branch of the ape family. Remember what it feels like when you’re on the receiving end and try to restrain when it’s your time to dish it out.
- Don’t take criticism too seriously. Listen to feedback, but don’t let anybody define who you are and what you can do. So what if the current “it girl” in second grade, or whatever, doesn’t like your singing? Even a bigger deal, so what if your second grade teacher doesn’t like your singing? It’s too easy, and it happened sometimes to all of us, to shut a door and decide you “can’t” do something because of some cruel remark. Cultivate the mental ability to get over it and get on with it.
- Do your best to read. A lot of the school books—especially for subjects like social studies or science that will cover intrinsically fascinating material in the dullest possible way—seem designed to convince you that reading is a bad idea. Too many kids learn that lesson. But the aptitude to read well is the single biggest separator between the academic achievers who will go on to graduate school and the checkout clerks at discount stores—the ability to absorb the complex experience of humankind accumulated over thousands of years in written form is the key to your future regardless of your life path. In today’s instant world, it’s more important than ever to be a reader. The post literate universe belongs to the readers.
- Don’t get too lost in reading. Play a sport, even if you’re terrible, for a while. Go out and climb something at recess. Go ahead and play Barbie. Reading is the most fundamental of academic skills, but it can also be such a consuming passion that you forget how to ride a bicycle. I urge you to be a reader, but I urge you to be other things, too. Balance in everything. Even reading can get to be too much.
- Don’t fret the small stuff. It’s possible the principal’s kid will win an academic contest through fraud. It’s possible you’ll do something original and cool in a science fair competition and your teacher will be too dense to understand it—your uncle Jon once wrote encryption software for a middle school science fair. At least one judge recognized it as actual original work, but his teacher did not. He became a programmer at the world’s leading software company. She didn’t … in the long run, the small stuff doesn’t matter, and pretty much everything that happens before your high school graduation is small stuff.
- Don’t avoid school. I developed a habit during elementary school of having vague gastronomic symptoms that often kept me home to watch reruns of “Andy Griffith” rather than going to school. The irony, of course, is that in my adult life my digestive tract has caused me virtually no problems at all. I’m sure part of it was I was just extremely bored with school, but part of it was I also excelled at being lazy. School is there whether you’re there or not, and despite the social embarrassments and difficult peers, you’ll get more out of it if you’re there.
- Don’t suffer in silence. If somebody really gets serious about picking on you, and threatens to make it worse if you tell, TELL. It won’t always solve the problem and certainly won’t solve the problem immediately, but if someone tries to threaten you into silence, it means that their nightmare is you won’t remain silent. Give them the opportunity to live out their nightmare.
Most of all, you’ll have teachers good and teachers bad, peers who are scholars and peers who are training for a life with a parole officer, opportunities to define yourself and risks that others will define you. It’s 95 percent guaranteed that you’ll emerge years from now with, on balance, an overall positive experience from your educational journey.
But it’s not 100 percent guaranteed. And it’s more than 95 percent guaranteed that there will be some bumps along the road. The only sure thing you can control is your own attitude towards the whole experience. I think both Nikayla and Elizabeth have pretty good attitudes towards life in general, and that’s a good sign. Anyway, be a little skeptical—don’t buy every idea on the first try—but smile and enjoy yourself, too.
And laugh. That I can 100 percent guarantee. There will be plenty to laugh about.