The nation's five-year-olds will file into their schools soon, their faces so young and sweet and innocent. I hope their year is filled with enough happy moments to fill those cute and somewhat overlarge backpacks they proudly carry. At the same time, I worry. Reflecting back on four generations of kindergarten experiences in my family, despite all the changes to education made over these years, there are more similarities than differences.
One of my father's earliest memories that he shared with me was about a teacher's shaming of the drawing he made in 1926 on his first day of kindergarten. He spoke no English but understood the class was supposed to draw something, so he picked up a green crayon and drew a grocery store. His teacher criticized him for not using the right colors, even though he did not know how to ask for them. This was his first memory of formal education. Even though he became a pretty good Sunday painter later in life, he never forgot the humiliation that accompanied his first school drawing.
Flash forward to 1950. What do I remember about kindergarten, myself? Fold paper into 8 sections, number from 1 to 8, draw something in each square to match the number. I loved to draw, so I spent a lot of time drawing one I-don't-remember-what in the first square. Subsequently, I shared my father's humiliation when my teacher declared time was up and asked why I did not finish the work. I remember her saying that I did not have to do such a good job drawing. "Just draw one anything and move on," was the message I received.
In 1976 my son came home from kindergarten with a sad face on his paper and a comment that his teacher expected him to do much better work. The offense: coloring outside of the lines. Although he was a very bright child, he was also a worrier who was extremely anxious to please. I was thrilled that he felt comfortable enough to color freely on that paper. More coloring outside the lines was just what he needed. Rather than lessen his anxiety, the teacher exacerbated it.
By 2012, I was sure something had to be better about how kindergarten was taught. Surely with all of the "racing to the top" and making sure there was "no child left behind," teachers were learning how to work appropriately with five-year-olds, who were now with them for a full day. But alas, history repeated itself. My granddaughter was berated in kindergarten for not finishing her "work" because she spent too much time coloring the pictures in the early squares! As my daughter explained it, she had no idea going fast was important -- it never had been before.
Almost 90 years have passed since my father entered kindergarten. The world has changed in every way but this one. It seems the purpose of the children's garden remains teaching children how to operate within the confines of the public school system: Sit down, use an indoor voice, raise your hand, do the work quickly and correctly, and get ready for first grade.
We are still forcing these young children to conform to expectations that may not be developmentally appropriate for them. We are still squelching their enthusiasm and creativity in the interest of maintaining order and conformity. So my wish to this year's kindergarteners is this: may you be given the time to finish creating the pictures that dance in your head and may you be allowed to color outside some of those lines.
A version of this appeared in ChicagoNow, October 2, 1013.