How fourth grade changed my world (twice)

Growing up, I hated fourth grade.  Most of what I remember about the whole year was having to write lines.  It wasn’t just me. She’d assign the entire class lines when she lost her temper at us.  (If you’re picturing Dolores Umbridge… this lady was younger and skinnier, but she probably DID have the creepy collection of kitten plates.)  

The other thing I remember is the geography lesson.

My mom and I still talk about it. It was one of those assignments where I had a list of vocabulary words and I was supposed to write the definition for each word. My mom wouldn’t let me use the glossary in the back of the text book and made me read the chapter and then write my own definition of the word.  I got a ZERO on the assignment because the teacher just wanted us to copy what was in the glossary.

Fourth grade changed me.

That’s the year I realized my mom was weird and that school was stupid. It’s when I started figuring out how to “play school” – doing just enough to keep my grades up without actually engaging my brain.  (Playing school was NOT good preparation for college. Just… trust me.)

Fast forward a life time… 

My son’s fourth grade year is almost over.  He hasn’t been assigned lines, but we’ve had a geography lesson of our own.  (um… no, none of his teachers are remotely like Dolores. there isn’t a cat lover in the group. honest.)

For us, fourth grade has changed our family forever.

fourth grade changed us

Fourth grade changes things.

A few weeks ago, my too-big fourth grade son was curled up in a ball in my lap (not an easy feat) in tears.  We’d been discussing his failing grades… again.  What he said broke me. Utterly.

Please…. just… kill me.  I’m too stupid to live. I just want to die.

Suddenly, it all clicked into focus and I could see the big picture. Sometimes, parenting is like that. We miss all the little signs as they fly past, but they’re clear as day in hindsight.  I could see…

… the boy who eagerly pulled books off the shelf searching for new facts about bugs (or whatever) had retreated to his room to re-read the same books over and over. The flame of curiosity had dwindled.

… the boy who used to laugh and play jokes and chatter had gone silent.  When I looked clinically, my son was a walking checklist of depression and goth-dom.

… the boy who loved to learn hated school. He could tell you exactly how many more days there were until he was done with high school. I think he calculated it in his head.

… the boy who was struggling to complete projects and keep up with all those folders and notebooks for school was still acing all his tests.  The pattern was clear.  His daily grade averages were all under 50. His test averages were all above 85.

By the time my son had dried his eyes and moved on, I knew something had to change… fast. I could almost hear the clock ticking.

We’d hoped he would “grow into” the skills he needed for fourth grade.  That’s what had happened in Kindergarten and again in third grade.   With only nine days left in fourth grade, I’m fairly certain my son won’t “grow into” fourth grade. Even if he does, I’m doubtful he’d “grow into” fifth grade over the summer.

We’ve been fighting this battle for five years.

Five years ago, he was in Kindergarten.  We got through the last few months of the year with a rigid  6:30 bedtime, a strict no-sugar diet, and lots of prayer.  I had lunch with my son a LOT. I’d hug him and pray over him as he ate. Invariably, there would be the impromptu teacher conference with a blow-by-blow of the morning.

He’s the youngest in his class, the word “immature” was frequently used.

He’s a quirky kid who defies all labels, there were frequent hints for diagnostic testing and medications.

I remember sitting in the lunchroom as my son left for recess. I held it together until he left. Then I bawled. I cried helplessly as the sea of first graders entered the lunchroom. The tears wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t fix the problem. No matter how much I tried, my son still struggled. It broke my heart to see him work so hard on the things that come easily for others.

We anguished over the idea of holding him back. The idea of buying him time to grow up and maybe “grow into” those simple school skills was never far from our minds.  I contemplated homeschool.

And then it happened. With two weeks left in the year, something clicked. Suddenly, my son was able to sit still and remember to turn in his work. He was “normal” and school was easy.

Over and over and over.

With lots of variation, the cycle repeated every single year.  Sometimes more than once in a year.

Over the years, we’ve relied heavily on sleep, good nutrition, and lots of prayer.  We’ve focused on the fact that he masters the material and ignored the mediocre grades. We’ve emphasized character growth.

At least once a quarter, we’ve talked about having my son repeat the grade to buy him time to grow up.

But he’s so bright. He’s already bored and that would just make it worse.

We’d have to change schools. He’s already insecure and this would crush him.

At least once a quarter, I’ve contemplated homeschool.

When God calls me to homeschool, I’ll do it. But he’s going to have to use a megaphone.

At least once a quarter, I’ve dug into scripture and weeded the junk food out of the house and put more structure into his day.

At least once a quarter, I’ve fallen to my knees in prayer and asked God for wisdom and strength because I just don’t know what else to do.

And then we weren’t fighting anymore.

As I held my son and cried with him, something inside of me went click.

I decided we were fighting a stupid battle, because it’s one we don’t even have to fight.  We could take our stuff and go home.

My husband and I believe strongly that our son has the potential to be an amazingly successful adult.  We always follow that with the caveat that before that can happen he has to survive school intact. The strategy has been to protect my son from the “worst” of best school we could find for him.

(Among other things, my son is an auditory learner. He learns by talking. I understand that his learning style isn’t compatible with the classroom setting.)

The things that make my son amazing are incompatible with school.

For five years, we’ve been sending this child to the very best school we could find.  It wasn’t working.

We were fighting a losing battle and it was one we didn’t need to be fighting.

the call to homeschool

Suddenly, I felt like God was talking to me…. with a megaphone.

By the time my husband got home from work, I was pretty certain that God was calling me to homeschool. But because I’m stubborn, I tried to pretend it wasn’t quite that clear of a message.

(To be honest, the conversation with God started like this…. God, please say yes to homeschooling this time. I just can’t do this to him any longer.  YES.  Really?  YES!!!!!!!!!!! Are you sure?  YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Oh…. um…. are you sure?   YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  But um… God… that’s not convenient for me….)

We talked about it.  A lot.

I talked to a few friends and family members. I started with the ones that I thought would be the LEAST supportive of the idea.  To a one, they were all supportive and enthusiastic of the idea.  After  walking with us through the last five years, it’s obvious that school isn’t working.

I prayed about it. A lot.

I spent some time whining about how inconvenient it was, how it would mess up my work out schedule, how we didn’t have a space for this, how hard it would be…  And God was patient and gracious and let me pour out my whole laundry list of fears and complaints.

When I quit talking long enough to listen, God answered me.  Not with a megaphone, but with a gentle whisper.  Because He loves me.

And then I told the kids.

It’s not the first time we’ve talked to the boys about homeschooling. They found the stash of “how to homeschool” books on my nightstand last Christmas.  They were horrified.

Mom. You can’t do that to us! Our lives would be ruined!

That was just five months ago.

I was expecting resistance. I was expecting drama.

Instead, I got hugs.

Every day since then, my kids have begged me to pull them out of school to start homeschool… immediately. They’ve suggested ideas of things they want to study (Legos and mud and video games). They’ve asked if they still have to write in cursive (yes).

It’s like a huge weight has been lifted from their hearts.  My tween son has even quit sulking in his room and started hanging out in the chair next to mine.

I’ve been overwhelmed.

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been a little swamped this spring. My blog has suffered from neglect.

  • I’ve struggled to rehab my knee. Adding two hours a day of physical fitness took some adjusting!
  • We’re working through the need to move my in-laws closer to us to enable them to age in place safely.
  • I was planning an epic month long road trip summer vacation.
  • We’re writing a business plan for a really cool venture of my husband’s.
  • I have a dream of a book.
  • I’ve got a crafting list a mile long.
  • I technically still have a side business selling bags.
  • Some other stuff that I can’t blog about because it would be rude and insensitive to those involved.

My plate was already full. When my son crashed into my lap that afternoon, I was already stressed and stretched beyond capacity.   Earlier in the week, my husband had staged a sharpie intervention after seeing me in tears and totally overloaded.

I just love how God staged a “sharpie day” of his own for my life.  When I was faced with the idea of homeschooling, a lot of the other stuff just didn’t seem important.  I found ways to simplify or outsource the important stuff.

I found time.

I found time for hours upon hours of reading and learning.  Way back when, I taught high school algebra and geometry. I’m also certified to teach English.   The last time I was in the classroom was 1991.  I had a lot of catching up to do.

I caught up over three decades of changes in education. I read up on common core. I examined how technology changed everything.

I’ve stayed up until midnight reading… only to wake up at 4am to start reading more.

I’ve created more secret Pinterest boards that any woman should be allowed to have.

But when the kids get home from school, that all stands still.

I’ve made time.

When he’s home, I pour myself into my boy.*  He wants to quit, and I can’t let him.  He doesn’t quite understand the difference between not finishing a race and finishing in last place.

We talk about Paul.  A lot.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)

Paul never claimed to have won the fight. He never claimed to have won the race.  The victory was in his own heart because he didn’t quit.

We quote Winston Churchill.

Every night, as I tuck him into bed, he asks me if homeschool can start the next day. He begs me to not send him back to school. He tells me his dreams for the perfect homeschool day.

And my heart breaks.

* Technically, I pour myself into both boys. But my oldest needs me most right now. The youngest is fine at school. He’d thrive under almost any condition. He’s ambivalent about the whole homeschool thing most of the time, but says it’s OK if he can hold the cat during lessons… and if I promise to allow Legos at school…. and if he can have playdates… and if we can take more field trips… and if he doesn’t have to write in cursive.  I told him “yes” to everything but the cursive.  He spends a lot of time watching me on Pinterest and is quite opinionated on what he sees. Allowing him to have “input” takes time, but involving him in the process will help him accept this change.

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Susan Baker
I have a passion for encouraging weary worn out mothers to find joy in everyday motherhood and peace in unlikely places. I have two elementary school boys, one nerdy husband, and two cats. I have a strange fascination for bad puns, the color pink, socks, and books. I worry about running out of toilet paper, wine, and chocolate.. I serve an amazing God. I live an ordinary life filled with wonder.
Susan Baker
Susan Baker

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  1. Heather Duke says:

    So excited for you, I remeber our disscusions on the playground fondly regarding our boys futures. Please field trip out to Bandera. We would love to learn alongside of you and the boys. God knew the educational training would come in handy, so much more then could have been realized at the time. Finnish Strong Momma

  2. Life throws animated twists right when everything seems to be in equilibrium. Your post has turned into a small documentary! Enjoyed it thoroughly.. Best Wishes

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