By Bassey Ikpi
This afternoon, my father handed me a brochure for St. Mathias Catholic School. It's that time. Boogie will turn 5 next November and we've been contemplating whether or not he should start kindergarten at 4 so that he'll be 5 with everyone else by November rather than a year older than everyone else. I've discussed it with his teacher and she says that though he's incredibly smart and social, he's also very stubborn (no idea where he gets that from) and makes up his own rules (I blame The Backyardigans). Rather than following directions, Boogie will find another way to do things, which is great, but not when the lesson is How To Follow Directions. His teacher is a black woman who raised three black sons. She's concerned that what is really a sign of his intelligence would be misinterpreted as a behavior problem if he enters kindergarten before he's ready. I trust her judgment so I'm weighing her concerns carefully.
I hadn't really started thinking about what school Boogie would attend until about a month ago. There's a French immersion Montesorri school not far from his current school that holds an bi-annual lottery. I haven't really researched it, but French immersion” and “Montessori all sound very fancy, right? I honestly would rather he go to a Quaker school. I just want him to go some place that understands him. Boogie and I are a lot alike in many ways. I see how frustrated he gets when he's not immediately good at something. When we do flashcards, he puts so much pressure on himself that I can almost feel his little blood pressure going up. I don't want to encourage that, but I also don't want to give him an out every time something is difficult. I remember being younger and worrying myself into stress headaches over spelling bees and state math exams. I know now that those were early symptoms of bipolar II disease, but it was also because I felt an incredible amount of pressure from my parents to succeed. I was afraid to fail, particularly because it's okay to fail as long as you do your best and you try again wasn’t really an option.
The look of excitement on my parents face when they handed me the brochure was telling. First of all, my parents are Catholic. I mean super catholic. I mean my dad is a Knight of Columbus Catholic. So Catholic, I'm sure the priest goes to my father for confession. I, myself, am not Catholic.
As a matter of fact, I don't even identify as Christian and haven't since I was 12. I gave my life over to Christ under extreme pressure while visiting a Baptist church when I was eight, but I remember getting on my knees a few weeks later and giving Jesus the it's not you, it's me I'm just not into you speech. I wasn't sure I was ready to be all serious with Jesus yet. My fear of commitment began early. I have nothing against religion. I'm just not sure I like what religion does to people. And I'm afraid of what it's going to do to Boogie. The uniforms, the strict emphasis on discipline and following the rules.
Where is my boy going to find his artist self or his biomedical engineer self or his guy-who-tears-the-ticket-in-half-at-the-movies self? I want him to be able to have the choices I didn't have growing up. If I had known that I could have been a writer or a TV show host or an actress, my life would have been much different. Instead, I had to suppress my artist because I needed to focus on law school, once it was established that med school was not for me.
Boogie loves his grandparents. He knows that I love him unconditionally and I prove it every day. But I'm scared of him trying to win the approval of my parents. He wants to go to church with grandpa and that's fine, but I'm scared. My father is a very progressive Catholic Christian. He believes in equal rights for women and homosexuals. He's pro choice and pro-“let the gays live,” as he's said. My father is extremely liberal and that makes him atypical of most catholics or those who identify as Christian. I don't want my son to even be faced with any anti-gay or anti-choice propoganda. I wonder if I'm allowing my personal politics to get in the way of my son's education. Plus, my mother is a tough nut to crack. She expects high achievement and isn't shy about vocalizing her disapproval when you don't meet her standards. I remember what that felt like growing up. I know she loves and she loves hard, but sometimes, I'm afraid it's too hard.
I know the ultimate decision is mine because he's my child and plus, I have to be thoughtful about my decision because I plan on moving in about six months. I'm a city girl. The suburbs aren't for me. I decided to stay in the DC area, but I want to move into DC. Did I mention that St. Mathias is literally around the corner from my parents' house? I appreciate how much my parents support and love Boogie and I know that sometimes I hesitate to step in because I don't want to appear ungrateful. I know they want the best for him. I'm just not sure what's best for him is such a strict and structured learning environment. I want him to have all the opportunities in the world but I also want him to grow with the same fearlessness and color outside the lines strength that he has now.
Bassey Ikpi is a Nigeria-born, Oklahoma-bred, PG County-fed, Brooklyn-led writer/poet/neurotic. She's also the single mother of an amazing man-child, Elaiwe Ikpi. A strong advocate of mental health awareness, Bassey is working on a memoir about living with mental illness and producing Basseyworld Live, a stage show that infuses poetry and interactive panel discussions about everything from politics to pop culture. Get more Bassey on her site, Bassey’s World.
Flickr credit: Dominique Godbout
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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i know how you feel. i too am the mom of little brown boys and i was fortunate to have found a place where my kids feel nurtured, challenged and free to express themselves creatively. it isn’t easy, it’s hard. this parenthood thing is not all sunshine and applesauce. you will find it in your heart (and Mind) to do what’s best for your beautiful brown boy. and whatever choices you make, he will always know his mommy loves him. just as your parents love you.
Hey Bassey – I struggle with this everyday. My 9 year old brown baby was private schooled until age 8. The DC area makes it very hard for parents to decide between paying for a great school for your kids, or living in a safe place for your kids. It’s almost economically impossible, and I kick myself everyday for choosing safety. My son, a product of the nurturing private school environment is struggling with the PG county school system. His last two report cards left him horribly crushed. He’s stepping up to the plate, as my hubby calls it manning up, to do a good job. But I think a quality education is SO important to our little brown boys who will grow up to be big black men. Please start looking as soon as possible, because slots start to fill up in late March, and consider if you move to DC you can put him in a FREE Public Charter school. Tree of Life in NE, DC is a wonderful school. Good luck to you. You’ll make a good decision.
I am the mother of a 6 year old black boy who attends a Montessori School. He is VERY head strong, sensitive, smart and kind. He was tested gifted and talented and I am being told by the teacher, that he takes “short-cuts” during math… (he is 6, and adds 2 digit numbers, can do single number multiplication and we are working on division) I teach him at home, and when he gets to school they want to teach him the Montessori way, He is currently learning that the world is different, you have to conform.. There have been some blow ups, but he LOVES school.. You may want to try to put him in for a semester or two to see how he does.
Hi…..i’ve left comments for you before….but never have I felt so strongly about something you have written such as this. I am the mother of a very precocious 4 year old girl, who will be 5 in Oct. I feel like we are facing the same things. My daughter is in school now, but she is the youngest of the class of 17, and because of it, she knows all the work of the kids who are now turning or have already turned 5.
I felt this overwhelming pressure for her to excell, her teacher said she knows all the information, she just isnt in the mood. She actually told her teacher “I dont like to be rushed”…..the standards to get into kindergarten in the “Big” school are so many, that I am feeling overwhelmed. Failure wasnt an option for me growing up, and the reward was $5 for every A, up until it was necessary to pay more.
I have learned, just recently, that I can no longer impose those things which I want upon my child……if she doesnt go after what she wants, it won’t have the same effect for her…..she may be young, but an individual none the less, who knows exactly where she is supposed to be. And I think, based on what you write, Boogie is the very same way.
More of what I children learn anyway, begins, and is reinforced at home…..
He’ll do well!
I always learn so much from Bassey’s posts. It’s also humbling to learn that ON top of the already challenging mom-issues we all share, she has to worry about how her baby’s developmentally-appropriate behavior will be construed merely because of his skin color. Crazy.
My son isn’t in school yet but there are a couple of thoughts I can offer based on my own childhood. The first is the age thing and the second is the Catholic school environment. I was youngest in my class (late summer birthday) and almost pathologically shy between 4th-6th grade, which is also when I transferred from the (white) public school to a (less white) Catholic school, to get away from the girl bullies and the administration that didn’t care to do jack about them. (For the record I am also white and female.) The Catholic school was quite firm about treating people with fairness and compassion. I did transfer back to public school in 8th grade, when that particular Catholic school’s curriculum fell behind what the public school had to offer in math and science. But it was invaluable to have spent three tween years in an environment of love, compassion, and service to others, especially when I was significantly socially “behind” my peers. I just didn’t get why they did/said some things, being a year to two years younger.
So, there’s merit in the notion of starting kindergarten a year later than when first eligible. And there’s merit in a Catholic school environment — it’s not all rules and rigidity, by a long shot.