I unleashed my kids on the public school system last week; Gabriel assaulted the second grade and Julian dipped his toe into the educational pool by going to kindergarten for the first time. As it happens every year, the school held a "meet and greet" so that parents could introduce themselves to their children's teachers and faculty could outline their plans for the kids.
My wife went to the events this year. I don't go anymore because it bothers me to hear kindergarten teachers discuss the merits of homework. And it makes me sad to know that I could hurl one of those big, fat kiddie crayons in any direction and hit a kid on Ritalin.
Gabriel was in Kindergarten when his teacher first suggested that we put him on Ritalin. She said it nicely and even pointed out that several of the kids in her class were already taking the drug. The suggestion was a green smiley-face stamp, not a red stop sign.
Last spring at the end of the school year, Gabriel's first grade class held a party chock full of presents, songs and hot dogs. The fiesta culminated with a giant water balloon fight. It was a poorly-planned affair that nonetheless turned out to be, well, way cool.
Originally, I think the plan was to let the kids throw the hundreds of balloons at each other. That plan quickly went south. First, we led the kids to playground and, because no one could think of anything else to do, we had the kids line up. If there's one thing elementary school kids know how to do - it's line up.
But as we parents stood in a loose group with the buckets of water balloons that we had spent hours patiently filling, we began looking at each other. With a quick shrug, we grabbed water balloons and launched them at the kids.
It took fully 20 seconds for the children to realize what had happened. It took about ten more seconds before the bravest of the kids ran forward to grab balloons of their own and fight back. And then it was on, baby.
I remember being out of breath when we ran out of balloons and I remember every single person, young and old, was smiling and wet. I remember how happy my son looked. It might have been the best moment school moment we shared that whole year. The rest was red stop signs, grueling home work sessions and, sometimes, yelling.
Earlier at that same end-of-school party, I watched Gabriel sitting at his desk while his teacher thanked the class for the gifts she had received. At one point, she spoke to Gabriel but he didn't notice. He had formed a piece of lined notebook paper into a tall, cylindrical castle and pretended to assault it with erasers.
And right then, I recognized me. My son was exactly like me. School would always be a struggle because he would always be imagining wild battles and amazing heroes. Homework would go undone, tests would be failed. And the very thing that I most liked about myself - my imagination - suddenly seemed like a handicap, a chronic medical condition that needed to be fixed - like asthma or a cleft palate. And I had given it to him.
My second son has entered school now. I'm worried for him, but I deal with it by avoiding parent/teacher conferences. I concentrate on the water balloon moments. But even that crazy, great moment bothers me. I picture our little group of parents huddled around buckets. But instead of water balloons, the buckets are filled to the brim with Ritalin. The kids laugh and giggle with excitement because they don't know what's coming. But they line up. Because if there's one thing that elementary kids know how to do - it's line up.