By Art Taylor
Today, our son graduates from school!
...pre-school, that is.
He's only five.
Dash will be starting kindergarten in the fall, and someone mentioned recently that there might be a kindergarten graduation next year too. We'll see how that goes when we get to it.
I'll admit straight out that I myself once scoffed at the idea of a graduation ceremony for five-year-olds or six-year-olds—or heck, even at the idea of a graduation ceremony at elementary school or middle school or junior high, whatever they term those divisions these days (we're learning ourselves with each new year). While I have no doubt that each of these stages might mark significant milestones, the need for pageantry around every move seemed... unnecessary, excessive, maybe even a little ridiculous.
I can't say I feel that way anymore.
Maybe part of that change of perspective is grounded in simple bias—now it's our child briefly in the spotlight—but I do think it's more than that. It's not just having our child in the spotlight (to shift emphasis) but having our child go through the experiences of preschool that have opened my eyes a little more.
A couple of years ago here at George Mason University, a student in one of the advanced composition courses that I teach commented (ranted really) in the class's online discussion board about the silliness of preschool education at all—basically calling it glorified daycare and arguing that kids aren't doing any significant learning at that age, nothing that could really be taught at least. Sadly, one of the teachers at my son's school has noted echoes of the same sentiments from the parents themselves, some of whom have treated her as if she's simply some form of nanny or babysitter.
Needless to say, I disagree with those attitudes.
Kids at Dash's age are like sponges (isn't that the regularly accepted simile?) taking in information all the time, at rates and in quantities far superior to what us older folks might manage. As an example, look at language acquisition—not just how kids learn their native languages but how much more smoothly they can learn different languages in those early years than later in life. Dash can count not only in English but also in Spanish—and in Chinese too. He's picked up words in several languages, songs as well. And he's always coming home with a broadened vocabulary generally, new bits of knowledge, some greater understanding of geography or science or mechanics in the afternoon than he had in the morning.
I'm certainly not arguing that any of the kids in Dash's class could jump into my advanced composition course at Mason and follow our lessons—not at all. But that student who was in that class, who dismissed early childhood education as glorified daycare.... well, I fear that he learned little over the course of that semester himself, little more than he already came in with. The curve of his learning was ultimately low. (Part of that, however, may have been simple obstinacy rather than any inability to absorb additional knowledge.) Meanwhile, the children in Dash's class are just... whoosh!
But education is about more than knowledge, and pre-school is about more than prepping kids for elementary school—and this is where the approaching milestone may mean the most.
Over these last few years, Dash and his fellow students have become far more than friends; they are indeed like a little family—even in many cases playing family, husband and wife or sister and brother, and in the process learning how to be people, how to relate to one another with appreciation and respect, really how to live as good, responsible citizens of the world, and I'm grateful to his teachers for helping to guide those life lessons as much as the traditional lessons on reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. Watching those relationships develop and grow has been magical in so many ways—the stories Dash brings home, the joy he feels about his friends—and it kind of breaks our hearts, mine and my wife Tara's, that he can't take that whole classroom of kids with him to kindergarten next year. Instead, nearly all of these children will be going in different directions from one another—sorted out by zones and districts into the various schools that are part of the complex educational system here in Northern Virginia with its booming population. We'll do our best to schedule playdates and get-togethers with his pre-school friends, of course, and we know they'll all make plenty of new friends in their new classrooms. But at the same time, the move is clearly a significant one—a closing of one chapter, an opening of another, excitement and apprehension in equal parts, and that's not just for the children but for the parents too. The joke is that there are many tears on the first and last days of school, but most of them are from the moms and dads (and the punchline is that it's not a joke).
Somewhere in there is where my perspective shifted about the idea of graduations for five-year-olds.
Dash and his friends have learned a new song that they'll sing together at graduation later this afternoon—a reflection on their time at school. He's very excited about it, and he's been previewing it for us in recent weeks—each time making my wife cry just a little. He gets to wear a graduation cap, get a diploma, eat some cake, and he's excited about all that too. Dash's school invited me to speak at the ceremony as well —just 2 to 3 minutes as part of the program—and I said, sure, glad to. How hard could it be? Tell a couple of anecdotes, thank a few key people, tell the graduating class to enjoy that cake—and then enjoy some myself! The morning after I drafted my comments, I started my stopwatch to read them aloud, make sure I landed loosely within my time limit, and I hope they'll indulge me a little since it clocks in around four minutes—though that timing is approximate at best. Every paragraph or so, I had to pause the stopwatch because I felt myself tearing up. We'll see how well I manage on stage. (I'll update in the comments below—and maybe even include the text of my speech once I've delivered it.)
In the meantime, congratulations to Dash and to all his classmates—and congratulations to all the folks graduating this month, wherever you're at in your education. Celebrate the milestone! Enjoy the moment! Have a piece of cake on me.