Sunday, June 15, 2008

Life Decisions

I turned 43 yesterday. Not a “cool” birthday but one that moves me deeper into “mid-40s” territory. Our friends Elise and Robert came out from Seattle and our island buddies dropped by. We BBQ’d and had a campfire – generally a perfect evening. But…I can’t believe I’m 43! How did that happen?

But, the bigger issues facing us these days are Mark’s work, the launch of my magazine next spring, and how we’re going to educate Dylan. Tough questions. Good questions. In a shocking reversal, I am now beginning to advocate homeschooling our son. It is a bizarre position to find myself in, but here I am nonetheless. In some ways, homeschooling is not really a departure from many of our other decisions – to nannyshare with a nearby family, to find a way to do an au pair instead of daycare when I accepted a full-time job, to move to the island, multi-age classroom over traditional. I’ve always resisted the institutional norm for Dylan – I knew it wasn’t for us, or for him.

But, homeschooling always seemed way out there. The default choice of religious fanatics and off-the-gridders. It wasn’t until I started analyzing Dylan’s learning style and his persistent stumbling blocks that I began to come to the conclusion that the rest of public school, school in general, may not work for him.

Most people I know eschew the overall “testing to the test” phenom we’re caught in. Me included. But, it is not until you’re several grades into it, I think, that the very real, complex consequences of teaching to the test really start to reveal themselves. Dylan is a brilliant kid – every adult who knows him will say that. He’s conceptual, verbal, spatial, articulate, scientific, empathetic. But, he can’t write and he can’t spell and while he can understand the concepts of sine and co-sine, he has real difficulty memorizing his times tables. So, brilliant kid, poor student. In short, a kid that the PS system is not set up to nurture. It’s that simple.

You know, we had a little gathering here for my b-day and of the 3 couples that were here late, 2 are considering something Else educationally. Shelley is looking at the island’s very high-quality private school; we’re looking at homeschool. Mark actually had Shelley’s husband follow him inside and ask why we think Dylan is “so special” he needs to be homeschooled. It’s so interesting – b/c this mirrors my experience in retaining an au pair. Why is it that as soon as you step back from an institution here in the US, everyone thinks you’re a nutcase or a snob? Somehow, the fact that public school exists has come to mean that it is the de facto pathway to an education. How ridiculous.

Our country is strong because of public education – that is not an over-statement. That education is offered to all lifts many up and out of poverty and provides the spotlight onto much otherwise-undiscovered talent, which then fuels the still-unequaled culture of entrepreneurship that exists here.

But public education’s ability to lift all boats on its tide does not equate to a system that is all things to all people, and yet somehow we have been lulled into believing that it does. We are de facto snobs or nutcases simply by choosing a different educational path than the one plunked down in front of us and for which we willingly pay.

Dylan is not going to succeed in public school. He very likely will enjoy it and make friends. He will amuse and delight his teachers in real time – only to disappoint them come test time. His teachers will again and again be faced with the uncomfortable dichotomy of an articulate insightful student who produces almost nothing.

That’s the deal.

So, it’s up to us to provide a learning environment that gets him to produce. We can develop projects that build learning into what he loves and he’ll produce easily. My couple hours at Friday’s Homeschooling Convention were mind-blowing – looking past the still-Christian-dominated landscape to the possibilities, I saw education in a totally new light. Homeschooling isn’t just teaching public school at home, it’s approaching learning in an entirely different way. The speaker I saw had this incredibly simple but key thing to say: It’s not about what you teach, but about what they learn. In other words, don’t focus on what you can and cannot teach – that’s not the point. Look at what they need to learn – and a lot of it will have very little to do with your teaching.

So, I dunno. I think we’re in. We’ll see.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

16 years and counting

Today is our 16th wedding anniversary. Wow. A while back, we’d had fanciful ideas about going out to dinner – maybe, even…Off Island. But, the calendar declared a baseball game, so we spent most of the evening huddled under three layers of warmth, chuckling about “June” and praying our kid would get a hit.

I’d felt kind of crummy this AM, so after piano lesson and dropping Dylan off at school, I declined my usual buddy walk and came home to simple household duties and computer time. Moved the sheep, then boiled up several frozen roast chicken carcasses and made stock, then turned that stock into Green Chile Chicken soup. So, we had something warm, nourishing, and spicy to come home to at least. Good for what ails you.

Jessie cornered a raccoon under our porch around bedtime and we chased him off communally. They are the bane of our farm existence. Stalking our hens, upending our garbage, scavenging our porches. It’s aggravating. They’re next to fearless and absolutely dedicated. They’ve picked off one of our hens this week – we’re down to 13 and this only the 4th we’ve lost to raccoons in over 2 years – so I’m back to considering mini firearms (AKA pellet guns) as a means of discouraging them. sigh. I HATE THEM.

Anyway, as I told Mark tonight, we have many examples among people we care deeply about of marriages in crisis – we’ve watched one very close to us disintegrate and several of our friends are deeply unhappy in their relationships. Honestly, I think that’s just par for the course of being in your 40s and 50s. But, such a state of affairs (so to speak!) has the effect of reminding me to be deeply, deeply grateful for each other and the life we’ve worked together to build. It’s not perfect – not even close – and there are of course things we should be better at working on, but we dearly love each other and appreciate each other and have the wisdom to weigh our anger over any given issue against its cost. Key. Really key.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Tyranny of Sheep

June. June on Vashon Island in 2008.

Different. Right now, it’s about 45 degrees and the farm is being buffeted by nearly gale-force winds. Welcome to Summer!

Meanwhile, we moved the sheep yesterday to their 1-2 day grazing area, this time a new place literally steps from both our house and my mom’s. Apparently, they don’t like it. At all. I’m not sure why – long grass, a big tall tree for shade. But, no. They are very, very annoyed. And, believe it or not, sheep have the collective ability to use their unifying skills to make your life a living Hell.

Here’s how it goes. In our life – I can’t speak for other shepherds – we have this small (doesn’t feel small any more) flock that genuinely has some kind of relationship to us. I wouldn’t begin to presume to try to define or even understand that relationship, but it’s there. We live together on small acreage and we feed them, move them to different pastures, handle them, etc. Ironically, the two “gift” ewes, given to us and essentially untouchable when they arrived 18 months ago are now almost annoying lapdogs – any time we try to move or herd the sheep, I am literally stumbling over the Cotswolds.

Well. This familiarity has bred the predictable contempt and now said Cotswold stands and baa’s relentlessly. I use this word advisably: RELENTLESSLY. People who have not been around sheep cannot begin to understand the tyranny they can exert on their shepherds when the spirit moves them. Our lapdog ewe has decided she’s annoyed at her surroundings, so she baa’s. But, fortuitously for her, and oh so unfortunately for us, she resides among a flock. So, whatsoever she does, so goes the flock.

Thus, we have this evening, as gale force winds howl and I fret about our tender plants, our one Cotswold stands alone, 20 feet from my kitchen, maa-ing and maa-ing (the Cotwolds “maa”) and the icelandics are only too happy to lend their support. So all evening – all afternoon and evening – nearly every moment is filled with howling wind and incessant baa/maa-ing. Hard to know whom to root for in the decibel race.

It is a delicate balance, understanding when the maa/baaing means genuine hunger and when it is simply signifies the understanding that at some point the person on the other end (me) will break down and decide they clearly need grain. I did that today, and that bought me about 5 minutes of peace. I want them to have grain, so that’s not a problem, but it’s tricky to figure out when you’re being played.