It’s not so easy to send a 5-year-old off to a California kindergarten

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Photo by Mrs.F /CC/Flickr

“Wait, Daddy,” you say.

You are 5, and you have your priorities. You are reassembling the wooden train tracks. You are building an airplane hangar out of MagnaTiles. You have a drawing you need to finish.

“Hurry up, Ben” I always say. Don’t you know that I have too many things to do? Don’t you know I need to put you to bed? Can’t you see the refrigerator is empty, and we’ve gotta get to the grocery store? Don’t you remember that your two brothers have to get to day care and preschool?

Don’t you know that life is a race? Don’t you realize that kids around the world are learning and growing, while you’re just sitting there? That’s why I signed you up for those reading classes Sunday mornings at Pasadena City College. It’s why you’re in gymnastics and soccer and Spanish. Don’t you know we bought a crummy house we could barely afford because it is in a very good school district?

Don’t you know that you’re starting kindergarten this week? And don’t you know that it’s not going to be enough for you? Kindergarten is only half day—just three and a half hours of learning—which is why we’re about to spend more than $10,000 a year on before- and after-school programs.

Do you know that I feel guilty about sending you to public school in California? Adults tell themselves that they put kids first, but most of us don’t really mean it. Especially in California. Some countries provide universal child care and preschool, but not ours. Did you know that California is a rich state that spends far less per kid than most others?

Wait, the people running California will tell you. We really care about kids, and we’ll come up with the money—someday. But when is that going to be? The temporary Proposition 30 sales and income taxes that kept schools from sinking further will expire before you finish fourth grade. And that additional local money for districts with poor kids? The increased funding won’t take full effect for eight years, if it ever does.

Don’t these people have any sense of time, Ben? Aren’t they aware of how much you and your fellow California kindergarteners will need to grow and learn in the years while we wait?

“Hurry up, Daddy,” you now say to me.

“Wait,” I say. I am editing, writing, talking on the phone.

Hurry up, Daddy, you say, because there is a book I promised to read you, a train ride I promised you. You pull me from the laptop and try to grab the phone. Technology means I must confront the choice between being a good worker and a good dad every minute, over and over.

The dirty secret I won’t tell you is that, as much I love you and our time together, work is easier than you and your brothers will ever be. Articles and memos get done, but children are never finished.

When you were a baby, people would stop us in the street to admire your long eyelashes and then tell me it all goes by so fast. But five years in, it doesn’t seem fast. It feels like time has slowed down, and you’ve been here forever.

Time is powerful and inconstant. Is a half-hour at the playground really the same as a half-hour at the grocery? It’s little wonder you are now obsessed with time. You ask me to buy you watches and you study any clock you see. You always want to know when—when we will eat, when we will go to school, when the bath will be drawn.

Your afternoon kindergarten starts at 11:30 am. You love the place immediately, but my first week of kindergarten is hard, with so many new rules to absorb. Don’t let your kids bring cell phones to school. (They’ve never had a kindergartener with a mobile—I asked—but first graders? Yes.) Don’t buy school supplies; donate money to the teachers instead, since they can buy them at a discount. If you want to eat at the cafeteria, you’ll have to memorize and punch in a six-digit ID code.

But your classroom is nicer than any classroom of mine. There are two teachers for 24 of you, and they seem great. The younger one, in a bow-tie, is a magical character kids can’t keep their eyes off of. And he tells you and the other kids that this is the first day of 13 years, or 17 years, or maybe more years of schooling. It is the first day of the rest of your life.

Then they ask us parents to leave, and they close the kindergarten gate. You hurry into class, as though this is a race. Where did you get that idea?

Wait, kid. Wait.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.