Friday, March 8, 2013

A letter to everyone who has asked about the new school


I am often asked about our new school. We've been there about a month and I'm enjoying the honeymoon period, even as I feel sad about the many parents and relationships I have left behind. I can't keep up with a schoolful of parents, and I miss saying hello, comparing shoes, sharing a joke or talking about the weather with people that I know.

But the new school! What a relief! It's like coming home.

What shall I describe? The welcome? The principal who warmly greets the students every morning at a short assembly, and revs them up for the day? The teachers who have invited me to visit their classroom any time; who have identified my daughters' strengths and weaknesses and gently pushed them already? The kids who have asked my girls to birthday parties, and who have quickly become friends? The parents who have come up to me in the playground and introduced themselves? The good conversations I've had, coffee in hand, with new acquaintances on the deck of the school canteen?

Should I describe the transformation in my children? Last year, school refusal; this year, eager anticipation? Last year, chicken scratch; this year, beautifully formed letters? Last year, constant daily squabbling; this year, quiet cheerfulness?

Should I write about the shift in me, from anxiety to confidence, from being overwhelmed by anger to being flooded by gratitude? By the end of last year I had nothing but scathing contempt for school, and felt sick with guilt when I had to leave my kids there; we took many days off. This year, I feel confident that they are in good hands. One friend, who moved with us from our old school to our new, looked appraisingly at me in the playground last week. 'There's something different,' she said, 'I haven't seen you smile in a school playground for a year, now you smile all the time.'

But I don't think I'll tell you about these things; I will write about the grounds, instead. The red brick school is built on a hilltop; the land slopes sharply down to chickens, veggies, and rambling gardens dotted with climbing frames, fruit trees, eucalypts and cubbies. At the bottom of the hill, the ground flattens into a wide oval. The breeze roars up from the south and dances in the treetops. Five miles from the city centre, a large freeway to the west: yet it feels like the middle of the country.

In the grounds stands an old windmill, mounted on a steel frame. My six-year-old climbed the frame the other day, to just below the blades. I was still in the grounds and saw her, so I went over and called her down, suggesting that getting her hair caught in a windmill blade was probably not a good idea. I was also a bit worried about the host of other kids who, inspired by her, were now trying to clamber up.

I've come from a school where control became the order of the day. Parents were allowed in the school in very limited capacities; the grounds were locked at nights and weekends; my daughter was constantly shouted at for climbing; almost everything was presented as an unacceptable risk. I mentioned my daughter's exploit to our new vice principal, to gauge her response. 'Hmm,' she said, 'perhaps suggest to her that she can climb it on the weekend, just not in school hours.'

'Sure,' I said. Inside I was turning cartwheels. Where once she would have been yelled at, here she has been given an appropriate time and an invitation. Here, she can be a kid and take good risks. Here, the gates are never locked. We are all welcome at any time, on any day.

I was expecting the transition to be long, slow and difficult, but it has been a dream. My nine-year-old is radiant; she frequently describes a school day as 'the best I've ever had'. My six-year-old has said the same thing. A cheeky active kid, she also said, 'I love this school. I don't get yelled at all day.' She is experiencing steady, calm discipline, and in its quiet predictability she has relaxed – and finds it easy to behave.

I am so grateful that, where last year I withdrew from everything, this year I am signing up for things: the canteen; reading in the classroom; and the chook roster. Next week, we will go in on Saturday and Sunday, let the chooks out, give them clean water, and have a long play. I can't wait to see my daughter up the windmill again then. And from that vantage point, maybe she can blow the old school a raspberry.

Though not at the people. We do miss you.


  1. This reminds me of the change in David's drawings when he moved from Laburnumbto Preshil. He went from drawing a little bound figure at the bottom of a pit, to a little fellow diving into water by a green bank with a big tree!
    Sound like you have found a healthy setting for your daughters. Interesting how the toxic environments get us doubting ourselves too, isn't it! Jean

    1. Those drawings alone should be enough to close a school down. Like our old school, which dismantled cubbies and banned kids from building them - they were an OH&S risk, apparently. I do find it fascinating how the dynamics of our whole family have shifted, not just the kids. They're so much happier, so we don't spend our evenings talking about and worrying about school, so we're much happier, so they have calmer parents - a virtuous cycle!

  2. As an ex-teacher I feel so sad for what you all experienced in the old school, but so glad that you have found somewhere to belong! What a lovely community those teachers are forming.

    1. We do feel very lucky. And I must say, there were/are some very special teachers at the old school, but their gifts were constrained by the new principal and the climate of fear she developed. Teachers weren't allowed to talk with parents in the playground etc - very hard to shine in that sort of environment.


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