Finding Joy

This year has been a hard one for my older Smartling. There's a lot that's gone into it involving school district politics and giant class sizes and teachers (he's had multiple this year) who were not a good fit and blah blah blah... but his first grade experience has been pretty horrific. As a result, he's become anxious, angry, and distrustful of teachers and friends. It's been rough.

So, as we begin to plan for his second grade year (and my younger Smartling's kindergarten year), we're trying to figure out how to reintroduce joy. How to help our son feel safe and joyful and find his love of learning again. But it's not easy. He doesn't enjoy school anymore. He likes art class and PE, but the rest is just something he has to get through. And, while I expect this to happen in high school—or even middle school—first grade just feels too early for this kind of school dread. Shouldn't school be fun at this age?

It should, and it can be.

Our elementary school had an ArtFest tonight featuring an art walk with student art, art projects and activities provided by a local arts center, and volunteers from the Seattle Art Museum and a local kids' art school. There were also performances by the school band, orchestra, choir, drama club, and dance class. It was a cultural extravaganza for tiny eyes and it was surprisingly well attended for a 6-8pm event on a Thursday night. So, sure. It sounded fun and the Smartlings really wanted to go, so we went. But we figured they'd walk around for 5 minutes and get bored. But Smarties? My kids were enraptured. They were THRILLED. They did not beg to run around wild with their friends. They did not whine while Smartner and I contemplated 3rd grade mixed media artwork. They did not avoid the art projects in order to shovel cookies and juice into their faces. They did not act like assholes and chat through the off-key performance of "Ode to Joy" by the elementary school orchestra.

They participated. In all of it.

I cannot even tell you how shocked we were when Smartner and I figured we'd blow off the kiddie performances and asked the Smartlings if they wanted to go play on the playground instead. AND THEY SAID NO. They wanted to go to the show. They wanted to see the kids perform. They wanted to sit and observe.

I know, Keanu. I was surprised, too. (Image Source)

I mean, my 7-year-old and 5.5-year-old boys chose—on purpose—to attend a cultural event rather than play on the playground. I... I mean... it's like I don't even know them.

When we all packed into the muggy gym, it was short about 9000 chairs, so the kids were ushered to sit on the floor in the front. Alone. Without their parents. A large group of children unattended by the people who keep them from acting like wild monkeys.

I know what you're thinking.

You're not wrong, Nick. You're not wrong. (Image Source)

And yet... the kids did not go all Lord of the Flies on us. They did not revolt. They did not boo or giggle or act like wild animals. They. Paid. Attention. Nay... they ENJOYED. They absorbed the culture in front of them and reveled in it.

There were a few kids who were misbehaving, sure. But by and large, they were listening and watching and interested in what they were seeing. When the band played an off-tempo rendition of the Star Wars theme, they listened and then cheered like crazy. When the choir sang a Korean folk song, they were quiet, and then clapped with authentic enthusiasm. When the improv troupe did a skit of silly magic, they all laughed with real joy. When—in the middle of the dance performance—a little dancer stopped to count the number of dancers circling in each ring to ascertain which ring to join... they could have guffawed and pointed and made fun. But no. This room full—FULL—of elementary aged kids just tittered politely at the cuteness and exploded into applause at the end of the dance.

And my faith in joyful education was restored.

Because here's the thing: Education is not all about the classroom. It's not only about the subjects they're learning. Reading and writing and math and science and history are all important. Of course. OF COURSE. But those subjects are not all there is. School is also about social education and the arts and fun and friends.

And we forget these things. The arts are quickly disappearing from our schools and kids are increasingly asked to sit and stay quiet earlier and earlier and earlier. It's easy to forget that there's more to school than grades and standardized tests. It's easy to forget that there's more to school than all the things that frustrate us and make us angry. It's easy to forget about the joy. But there is so much more. And I remembered tonight. I watched my sons relish a night of arts with the people they've grown to know and love. I watched the proud teachers and parent volunteers and administrators who made this night possible. I watched a room full of kids—who could have been at home in front of a TV or an iPad—clap and cheer and laugh for an hour while their peers performed for them.

I was reminded that, ultimately, a huge part of school is about community and the learning we don't assess. There's so much more learning than the stuff that has to meet Common Core standards. And plenty of this kind of learning happens at school.

So, this is how we're going to start to find the joy again. We're going to seek out this part of school. We're going to encourage it in the classroom when and where we can. We're going to help our son find the parts he already loves about school so he can begin to associate that love with the rest of it. And hopefully, next year will be a whole lot smoother and whole lot better for these kids of mine.

But just in case... we'll be listening to an elementary school orchestra play an almost unrecognizable rendition of "Awimaweh" and grinning our little faces off at the cuteness.

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