T-Minus Zero: Thoughts on Launching My Son Into College

Today is the day. We have been planning for it for over two years now, even before my son’s junior year in high school when we toured colleges, when he took ACT prep courses and AP classes, participated in all those extracurricular activities, solicited recommendation letters and completed the college applications. It was almost all-consuming, until this May when he finally made his decision to attend a college a two-hour plane ride away.  We could finally breathe a sigh of relief.  Then, reality set in and we began to plan. Shopping, sorting clothes, packing, arranging travel.

We are on an early morning flight, bound for Portland, Oregon to move my son into college.  It takes three parents to do this—his dad, his step-dad and I.  I am almost sure my son will have the most parents to move him into a dorm suite he will share with three other young men.  With all those parents and four students in one single room it is sure to be crowded.  But I would not miss this for anything.  Never mind that despite all my planning, late night packing and barely sleeping, we almost missed the flight because we left too late from the house.  Perhaps I was delaying the inevitable?  Anyway, my husband Juan and I made it without a moment to spare.  My son had arrived at the airport with his dad and was already seated on the plane.  Juan and I found our seats next to my son, and directly in front of his dad. It’s kind of strange to be traveling all together like this, but then again, it really isn’t.  I know that all of us who have played a role in getting our son to this moment, would not want to miss it.

As I settle into my seat and calm my racing heart I hear the voice of a little boy in front of me.  From the space between the seats I can see he has strawberry blonde hair.  The passenger seated beside the boy engages him in a conversation. From the sound of the boy’s voice I guess him to be about 4 years-old. He is talking about Mickey and Minnie Mouse and coloring in a Disney coloring book. All of a sudden I am transported back to a time when I would sit with my own sweet 4 year-old blond-haired son, and read, over and over again, the story of the Tonka Rescue Helicopter.  I close my eyes and try to recall the sound of 4 year-old Nico’s voice, but I can’t. I promise myself that soon I will convert all those video cassettes with countless recorded memories into a digital format, so I can actually watch them and hear my son’s 4 year-old voice.

I look over and see my son, headphones in place, eyes closed, and realize he is the same boy who I read to all those years ago. Then it occurs to me he is not. His once blond, fine hair is now a thick dark brown, and he has grown into a young man, ready to embark on a wonderful, challenging and exciting adventure—without me.

He is ready.  I, on the other hand, may not be.  My son has been a joy to raise and I love having him around.  He is thoughtful, funny, sensitive, bright, kind and good.  I don’t want college to change that.  As much as I know college will challenge him to think and experience beyond the familiar,  I hope that the values we have tried to impart on him will sustain him.  I keep thinking there must be more I can say to him, some wisdom I can share to prepare him, but I know there is nothing else to say right now. We have talked about everything, some of it sensitive enough to embarrass him.

So we are here, about to launch this young man into a life away from his family.  I realize that we didn’t begin this process only two years ago. We have been preparing for this moment his entire life.  I look over at hm, napping, and I am glad. I don’t want him to see me blinking and squinting, trying unsuccessfully to keep the tears from rolling down my face.  He is already concerned enough about his parents because he knows this transition will be difficult for us.  I don’t want to cause him any more concern by seeing my tears.  I use a cocktail napkin to dry my eyes and I know that even though I am sad at the thought of  his leaving, I am deeply, truly excited for him.  I think that means that I am ready too.


Ready to launch. College here he comes!

The Gift

Driving kids to school is part of my daily routine.  Depending on who is in the car– my sullen, half-asleep teens, or my energetic, talkative 1st grader– my drive can be heavy with silence or chaotic with chatter. This morning I was driving both my sons, 13 year-old Nico and 7 year-old Diego.

As we got on the freeway Diego began shouting from the back-seat:

“Exit 12A.”

“Call box.”

“No right turn.”

“Pasadena.Del Mar. Cali-for-nia Boulevard!”

I looked over at Nico sitting next to me in the front seat. He rolled his eyes, groaned and put his head into his hands as his brother continued to shout out street signs.

I laughed both at Nico’s reaction and Diego’s delight in annoying his older brother.

Feeling encouraged, Diego continued to read aloud:

“San Fernando.”

“Orange Grove.”

Then, Diego proclaimed, “I have it! I have the GIFT!”

I thought about where we were almost one year ago exactly. We were struggling with Diego to get him to read. He was struggling with de-coding words in English and Spanish. We had already met with his teacher, principal and a reading specialist (the Student Success Team) and were told that Diego needed reading support. As the remainder of the school year progressed, it became clear to us that Diego needed more time to develop as a reader, and would probably benefit by repeating first grade.  Juan and I were concerned and upset, but ultimately we decided to retain him. What a difference a year has made. Diego took a few weeks to get over the disappointment of not moving to 2nd grade with his buddies, but now he has friends in both grades. He has gained confidence in his reading and he even asks to read at night. He is working his way through his first chapter book.

As I listened to him continue to read aloud all the street signs on our way to school I smiled. I was cheered by Diego’s constant chatter from the backseat. Nico was annoyed.  I thought to myself, “Yes, Diego, you have the gift.”


Study Techniques for Old Dogs Who are Never Too Old To Learn New Tricks

You know the saying that goes, “It’s never too late to learn?”  Or does it go, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks? In any case, during the last four months while I was studying for a big promotional exam, I experienced both.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn

Well maybe not, but it’s certainly more difficult to learn new material when it’s “later” in  life. This is probably due to a number of factors, including, I am reluctant to say, my aging brain.  I would rather like to think that learning is more difficult because I have more demands on my time now than I did as a full-time student. Now I have a full-time job, a family with four kids, and a household to run. My memory has a limited capacity and unfortunately, legal standards, case law, and personnel policies exceed my memory’s maximum capacity.

Studying for this exam forced me to learn new study techniques so that I could be more efficient and memorize information for the big test. One of these techniques involved taking advantage of all the technology that didn’t exist when I was in law school 16 years ago.  One of my very generous and tech savvy co-workers, did me and the 400+  other test takers a tremendous favor by scanning all the review materials,  and digitally recording all the exam review lectures and uploading them onto a cloud at Sugar Sync.  It was incredible.  I learned how to use the cloud and was able to access the information from anywhere, as long as I had my iPhone with me.   I spent many weekends doing laundry, driving kids to their activities, and cooking dinner, listening to a downloaded lecture.

Another study tool I learned to use was the iPhone app for flashcards. Another tech savvy co-worker created a series of flashcards on an app and made it available for all of us to study. It was so convenient. One night Juan and I went out to get a drink and he sat watching the World Series on the bar’s television, I reviewed flashcards from my iPhone app.

Another thing I learned during this period was how much more efficient I can be when I am focused and I have limited time to study. I wish I knew this in law school when I was a full-time student and frittered away my time, finding countless distractions to keep from really focusing on my studies. I wish I could teach my high school daughter Olivia this, as I watch her “studying” at the computer while switching from Facebook, to Tumblr and simulanteously responding to a text message.  I often ask her, “Shouldn’t you be studying?”  Although, I must confess that one night I was studying and switched over to Facebook. She was studying on a computer in another room and must have seen that I went on-line. She immediately sent me an on-line message, “Shouldn’t you be studying?” Touche´!

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

When I was in law school I realized that in order for me to truly understand something I needed to do more than read it and highlight it. I needed to dissect it, and diagram it. I guess this makes me a visual learner. When I studied for the Bar Exam I made countless flow charts, and diagrams to help me understand legal concepts. This trick worked. I passed the bar on the first try.  As I was studying for this exam, I tried to short cut my studying by repeatedly listening to lectures, and reading outlines. I learned a little but I really didn’t feel like I absorbed the material.  As soon as I read or heard the material, I was unable to recall what it was about. In the end, the only way I really was able to understand something was to resort to my old trick of drawing flow charts and diagrams.

The other trick I used, which served me well in college and law school was a study group. I was part of a study group that met regularly through our exam period in law school. We divided the work load and then reviewed the material together. This time around, I was also part of a study group.  The women in my study group were also working mothers, and we supported each other throughout the process. We shared information, took self-made practice exams, and when there were legal concepts which some of us were unfamiliar with, we called a resident expert who would explain it to us.

In spite of all the high tech study tools available to me, I still relied on the very low tech flash cards made from index cards.  Olivia could not contain her delight when, one night when it was just the two of us up late studying, I asked if she had any more packages of blank index cards.  She gladly handed me over a brand new package from her own stash.

The community support from my co-workers, and the high and low tech tools, made the job of studying a lot more tolerable, but I am still so relieved to be done with the exam.  This dog doesn’t need to learn any new more new tricks,  for a while at least,

Back to School with the 3 R’s – Reading, Writing and Retention

Diego has been back in school for a couple of months now, and I am happy to say that even though the beginning of the school year presented a lot of challenges, we survived it.  You see, Diego is in the first grade. Again.  It was a big decision, and one we did not take lightly, but after several meetings last year with Diego’s teacher, the school principal and a reading specialist, Juan and I decided it would be in Diego’s best interest to repeat first grade. I felt it was the best decision.  Until the first day of school when I saw Diego curled in the corner crying. My heart ached and I began to second guess our decision. It was not the first time either, that I would second guess myself.

The first time was shortly after Diego started  kindergarten, when he was in pre-school and his pre-k teacher suggested he could use another year before he went to kindergarten. The kindergarten teacher at the school he was scheduled to attend also suggested it.  Juan and I considered giving Diego another year of pre-k since his August birthday would make him one of the younger students in the incoming  kindergarten class.  Delaying kindergarten, especially for boys, is a growing trend. There’s even a name for it, “Red shirting.” It comes from the term used in college sports when recruited athletes sit out the first year of college play.  In fact our own school district recognizes the benefit of starting kindergarten later and has begun to move back the cut-off birth date so that by next year an entering kindergartner must be 5 by August 1. However, in 2009, when Diego was set to start kindergarten, the birthday cut-off was still mid-December. That year Juan and I  learned that Diego was accepted into our local school district’s inaugural year of a Spanish immersion program, and we decided it was too great an opportunity to pass up, so we enrolled him in kindergarten, even though a part of me felt he could benefit from another year of pre-k.  In kindergarten Diego struggled for several weeks. He cried  regularly when I dropped him off. The teachers assured me that he was fine after I left and he definately seemed to be grasping the curriculum, even if 90% of it was in Spanish.  I felt better about our decision to to start him in school–and then he got to first grade.

Suddenly, it seemed like the curriculum took a steep curve. The class sizes increased to 29 students, due to budget cuts. When I volunteered in the classroom, it seemed chaotic, a couple of students seemed to continually interrupt and demand attention from the teacher, as she tried to work with small reading groups. Diego seemed to be a bit behind in reading, but we figured it had more to do with the fact that this year 80% of the curriculum was in Spanish, and the understandable confusion between learning to read in Spanish and English.  Four months into the school year, the teacher determined that Diego needed reading extra support and he began to see a reading intervention specialist. The added support seemed to make a difference, and Diego loved it. He received 20 minutes per day of individualized instruction. Unfortunately, by the end of the school year, his reading was still significantly behind the standard,  and we were faced with the decision to let him advance to the second grade or repeat first.

Juan and I were taken aback. How could this happen? Diego is a bright, sociable, confident boy.  Juan and I both love to read, and we have been supportive of his education.  I hate to say it, but I felt a bit like retention was a poor reflection upon me, and my ability to raise a child who loves to read.  My ego was tied up with my son’s academic achievement. Mother fail. When I came to terms with the idea, I realized  retention wasn’t about me, but about him. I knew that retaining Diego was the best thing for him.

I broke the news to Diego, and he was, understandably, very upset. He cried because he thought he would not see his friends and that he would not be able to play with them.  He sobbed and told me he was a “failure.” Ugh.  Exactly what I did not want to hear. I had tried to put as postive a  spin on retntion, without ever suggesting that he failed. Diego came up with the idea on his own. My own fears were realized, since I had read that one of the major criticisms of reteniton was the negative impact it had on a child’s self-esteem.

The first day of school Diego was anxious.  He saw his old friends but didn’ t engage them much. He seemed self-consciouse that he had to  line up separately from them.  When he got into the classroom, he didn’t recognize anyone.  He took a seat on the carpet away from everyone and began to cry.  It was awful. I tried to comfort him but I there was little I could do to make him feel better, and eventually I had to leave. I hovered outside the door for about 10 minutes and watched through the window as his tears stopped. I knew that he would adjust. It’s taken awhile but he seems to be doing okay. He used to regularly ask if he could move onto second grade, but he is doing that less and less. He still plays with his old friends and has made new ones. He is confident in class and is one of the kids who regularly speaks Spanish to his classmates, and his reading has improved.  The class size is smaller, 21 students.

Next week, Juan and I meet with his teacher for a conference. I am anxious to talk to her and spend some time discussing his progress. Even though I may have second guessed my decision to send Diego to kindergarten early, and our decision to retain him for first grade, the more and more I see him really blossoming, the more I feel like it was the right decision. Diego is not the youngest in his class, but he’s not the oldest either. I think that he is right where he needs to be.

Summer Strategizing Wrap-up

Now that summer is unofficially over, I thought I’d write about the results of my Summer Strategizing.  At the beginning of the summer, I wrote this post about how I was planning on filling up my kids’ summer days with summer school, chores and summer activities.  You know that saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry?” I think my summer was a bit like that.

I did have some success in engineering the kids’ summer school programs. Olivia completed the SAT prep course and Drivers Education. Nico and Erica both completed their High School entrance exam course, and Eric even did an Algebra review course and a painting class. Diego, well, he had the most fun, taking a science and geography class. All in all, I think it’s safe to say we spent about a small fortune keeping our kids in school this summer. Did they learn anything? I hope so. I do know that the girls learned how to navigate public transportation pretty well, so if Olivia can’t pass her driving test, at least she’ll know how to ride the bus.

One of the other plans I had for my kids this summer was to work on some chores. I intended for them to start dinner while I was at work. Yeah. That didn’t go so well. I still found myself rushing home from work, faced with four hungry kids who apparently didn’t know how to cook anything but a Lean Pocket in the microwave.  There was one day, when Olivia had an urge to bake and when I got home from work I saw this:

Lemon bars and an apple pie. Both were delicious, and since she had even washed all the dishes, I guess I can  overlook the fact that no one really cooked dinner while I was at work. Oh well.

Another task I set up for the kids was to complete their summer homework.  Each of the kids had summer reading to do and Nico and Erica both had to write essays  on their books.  Watching Nico sit at the computer to compose a paragraph is like watching paint dry. On the other hand, getting Erica to read her assigned books is like pulling teeth. I don’t know if she finished reading Pride and Predjudice and the Watsons Go to Watsonville, but she is so crafty, that one, she should be able to write her essay even if she didn’t finish the books.

Now that Labor Day has come and gone and summer is unofficially over, I can say that while I certainly did manage to fill my kids days with activities, I did not really enjoy the season. There were some fun days, but with my grandmother’s passing, and the hectic pace at work and home, I feel like I just got through it.  Barely.  I think part of it had to do with the fact that this summer we did not not really getaway.  Not that we really go anywhere glamorous, but at minimum our family goes camping. Sad to say, we didn’t even do that. I think it makes a difference to get away and break up the routine.  I hope we can manage some type of getaway next summer.

A vacation would be great in the Fall but unfortunately, my life has become all about studying. In August, I received news that my job was offering promotions in Spring 2012. Unfortunately, in order for me to be eligible for a promotion at my government agency job, I have to take a test and rank high enough to be placed on a promotability list. The test will be given in October and will cover materials in these notebooks:

I have to say that studying law and policies as a 48 year-old with a family of four kids, while working full-time, is a lot more challenging then studying law and policies and having a social life as a 28 year-old law student.  So, I hope you will hang in there with me if I am not able to post regularly for the next six weeks. After October, I hope to back to my regularly scheduled life.  Until then, I better check on dinner. No,  the kids aren’t cooking (still), and after dinner I have to hit the books.

Happy end of Summer. Welcome Fall.