Monday, April 20, 2015

closing time

On Friday I took both boys for their annual check-up. I had to beg the pediatrician to fit us in between their actual birthdays and before this baby, as they do not schedule three appointments at the same time. 11 yo needed shots, so the insurance would not cover a visit before his actual birthday. I ended up taking them on Friday afternoon.

Between my dear friend and my MIL, I did not have to bring all four kids with me, so I assumed the appointment will be a piece of cake. The pediatrician is located not far from the taekwondo studio, so maybe we would even make it to a Friday afternoon class, in the spirit of trying to get in as many classes before the baby as possible. I told boys to pack up their uniforms and gear and load up.

When we were being taken in by a nurse, 11 yo asked right off the bat whether there are any shots in store. He was told that there are going to be two, and he took that info in stride. Then 9 yo timidly inquired whether he is getting any shots. He was reassured that there will be none, and he visibly exhaled. Then, as the nurse was finishing inputting their measurements, she said how 9 yo will need a finger stick to measure his cholesterol, but it is not a big deal.

It turned out to be a big deal. For a child with anxiety, being told something new like this was a big deal. He immediately kicked into full panic mode: crying, screaming, begging not to be pricked, asking why he deserves this, etc. It took three nurses to hold him down to get that prick. By this point, 11 yo was starting to lose his cool, so be stepped out. I was trying to talk to 9 yo, and I even asked the nurses to back off, to give him on minute to decide which hand will get pricked, but he was too far gone. I remained calm for as long as I could, but when he started trying to kick the nurses, I firmly said that he cannot do that. Meanwhile, the nurses invoked: "Don't upset your pregnant momma" mantra which I really wished they didn't. At the end, he was left sniffling and screaming, huddling on a chair, waiting for a doctor.

11 yo hopped onto an exam table, and mumbled something about losing his resolve to stay calm for his shots. He tried lightening the mood in the room by clowning around a bit. The rest of the appointment was unremarkable, and 9 yo cooperated with the doctor just fine. Then those shots came. By the time the nurse told 11 yo to relax and stuck him, he went into hysterical giggling: "It didn't hurt! It didn't hurt!" He was laughing, but there were tears in his eyes. Clearly, he had had enough emotions and they were spilling out.

When we checked out, there were only ten minutes left till taekwondo, so I asked boys whether they wanted to rush it. Both of them shook their heads "no", so we hit the ice cream store instead. Ever since the kids were vey little, I promised ice cream for those doctor appointments which involved shots. It was a nice way to end a possible nerve-wrecking outing, and it left a taste of something sweet. I did not promise such a treat to boys apriori, but, after what we've all been through, it seemed fitting.

It was raining, and it has been raining for the whole week. The ice cream place is outdoors, but they have a small canopy. Everyone ordered a scoop, and we stood there, silently eating our cones and looking out into the rain.

It was the zen moment of the day. 9 yo finally relaxed. 11 yo was rendered speechless, just savoring his cone and standing there. I was thinking of what my life would be like if I only had to take care of a 9 yo and 11 yo, instead of catering to much smaller creatures. I was enjoying this moment of knowing that everyone near me is relaxed, content and thankful for the treat (both boys thanked me, easing into gratitude).

The speaker above us pumped in "Closing Time" by Semisonic. How fitting: I have heard this song numerous times, but never paid very close attention to the words, assuming it is all about being kicked out of a bar. Recently, I have seen a little tidbit floating around, saying that the song is really about impending parenthood, and the ambivalent feelings that come with it. Now I was really listening.

I am in my last weeks pregnancy, yet I feel strangely unsettled. I can't put a finger on it: what is that project, that nesting activity that I need to complete in order to feel ready and prepared for this baby? It is not a matter of finding a trusting practitioner, or getting labor support. It is not a matter of a doula. It is not a matter of getting baby things set up. I have all of that in place, or close enough. It is a hang-up in my brain, keeping me from being ready.

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."

As we were looking into the rain, my two older boys and I, I had this strong feeling how this might be the last Shabbos that I am having with just four kids. This baby is a new life, a new beginning, yet, it is also an end of an era. It is the end of "four kid" stage. It might sound funny to those who have one or two kids: does it really make any difference whether there are four kids or five? Isn't four already in the slightly crazy, big family category? Besides, the youngest is only two, so this "four kid" stage only lasted for a short while. Yet, in my head, four was within some grander logical scheme, and five is beyond that. Five is a whole next step. Five is where I cannot keep them all at home. Five is where we do not fit into any sedan, no matter how we contort ourselves. Five does not fit around a standard table. Five is this new area, which does not fold into itself neatly. It is a prime number, it is a star.

"Every new beginning come from some other beginning's end."

My last surviving grandmother is on her last breath. My mother is with her, and it is also an end of an era. It's the end of my grandparents, it is the end of my kids being blessed with having seen their great grandmother. We visited her in the summer, but she has long joined the dementia world of endless summer, or endless dark, so it was not a coherent visit.It was a long good-bye, drawn out over many moons, many years. Now, as a great grandchild is about to take a first breath, a generation is taking its last. The interplay of grief/relief/joy, the end juxtaposed with a beginning.

We finished our ice creams and came home to the usual hustle and bustle of a four kid household in preparation for Shabbos. "You don't have to go, but you can't stay here."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

the results of ITBS

A few weeks ago the boys took ITBS test, also known as Iowa. It is a standardized normed test, just the kind that the state requires to be administered every three years. 11 yo (yes, we had a Pesach birthday!) took this test before, both in school setting and then in 3rd grade. He tested well, his results were good to exceptional, and it was no big deal, even though he was taking it the week after I had 2 yo and the house was topsy-turvy.

9 yo (yes, he also had a Pesach birhtday!) is known not to test well. He has never done a test like this. He hates being put on the spot, his anxiety revs up, he freezes or tantrums. His previous assessments were the psychological profile where he refused to cooperate on the section that required writing, and the testing done for the local day school, where, again, he got teary-eyed, dropped to the floor, and did not do well. Based on those two assessments, I was told that he has anxiety, a possible writing disorder, difficulty adjusting to the classroom, need for medication and shadow. In short, beyond my personal qualms, I had external reasons to worry about how the testing would go.

I knew that 9 yo has to get tested this year. I spoke to other homeschool parents and was told about different normed tests that are out there that would qualify. However, after much thought and mulling it over with my husband, we decided to stick with ITBS. It is a well-recognized test, and it is widely administered. Moreover, while I do not want to call it "objective", few schools would dispute its results. In our state, the results are not submitted anywhere, and nothing really hinges on them, so we decided to risk it, and see what we will get.

As the preparation for the test, I ordered Spectrum Test Taking Skills booklets, so the boys would get a bit of practice with multiple choice, timed sections, and general examples of the questions to be expected. Total expenditure (besides time) was $20. Predictably, 11 yo had no trouble with his booklet, and 9 yo was less than eager about his. I did a bit of test prep with them every day, but we did not get to finish before the test rolled in. Also, the booklet had just English and math sections; ITBS also tests social studies and science. I chose not to tell 9 yo about those sections, since we have not done any formal learning in those areas.

The testing itself was administered by another homeschool group, and took place over three days. It helped that there were a few other familiar faces taking the test. None of the kids enjoyed it, although 11 yo was more optimistic in his assessment of how it went compared to 9 yo. What was done, was done, and I settled in to wait for the results.


I got the results this week.

Both boys did well. Ridiculously well. Exceptionally well, Off-the-charts well in some areas. The only area where they did on an average level was math computation, but they both did so well in other math sections, that the total was still quite high.

I am not posting this to boast. I will not go into details of raw scores and percentile ranks and grade equivalents. I am posting this to validate the ability of kids to spend most of their time outside of traditional worksheets learning, and then outscore their peers who are wasting away behind those worksheets. I am posting this as a validation of unschooling. When we saw those average results in computation, I told my husband: is it because we did not spend enough time on practice? Or is it that the only subject where we stuck to a traditional curriculum (math) is the only subject which is hindering our kids' learning? Maybe they need fewer of those math pages, fewer drills, and their results would improve?

It is possible that my kids are really geniuses. It is possible that an average American kid taking ITBS is not so smart. It is possible that this is just luck of the draw, etc. It is possible that by conducting practically one-on-one training, anyone can achieve such results. It is possible that I am such a brilliant parent who managed to put together such exceptional opportunities that my kids entered the test extremely well-prepared. I can come up with many conjectures to the results.

I do not think any of them hold water.

What I do think is that wasting childhood on test prep and traditional schoolwork is sad. I do want to march into the day school and wave 9 yo's test results in the face of the principal and say: see, my kid did this, without a shadow, without medication, and without being boxed in. Wouldn't you like to have such a brilliant student in your school, to pull up everyone else's score? Only I got to keep him at home, save all those tuition dollars and all the heartache.

I will file the test results away for now. I told the boys that they did well, that they passed, and I emphasized to 9 yo that he has nothing to worry about. As kids, unaccustomed to making a big deal out of external assessment, they shrugged and moved on. They did not see their actual test results. They do not think in terms of grades and ranks.

They think in terms of self-knowledge. Just today, 9 yo told me, out of the blue: "You know how I hate sitting down to do mishna and chumash? That's because I need to find something good to fidget with; then my hands will be busy and I will be able to sit."
"What do you want to fidget with?"
"A stuffed animal might be good. Or a pen that I can click."
He settled on a particular pen, explaining how it was not too easy to click it, and not too hard at the same time. He did fidget with it, although I'm not sure that is the object that he will ultimately choose. Fidgeting is a well-recognized distraction in situations of anxiety.What I like about this whole experience is the self-knowledge, the recognition that something can be done, something can be improved, and the search for that improvement.  No test will measure it, but the results of self-discovery will have life-long consequences.