First Day of First Grade

First day of first gradeI just walked Cavanaugh to school for his first day of first grade. Unlike last year, I was not in tears before he even walked through the classroom door. I did not go to the library to be comforted by the PTA. I walked him in and walked home.

Okay, I felt a few tears in my throat.

I woke up Saturday morning so sad that it was the end of summer, thinking about how in two days all of our time would be structured by someone else, and how the time between school pick up and bedtime would be so short, and how I would miss him. How could summer have passed so quickly? What had we done with the time?

Then, when we’d been up for about an hour, instead of playing a board game or doing a jigsaw puzzle or listening to an audiobook with Cavanaugh, or going to the pool or trying to think of something new to do, I realized that what I really wanted was to get on the computer for hours to get some work done. Or be able to run errands or do research for work. I wanted hours. Not snippets of time when he would play by himself and I would make food or return a quick email. Not the times when he would visit his dad and I would be scheduled with clients,  computer work, housework, and trying to capitalize on every minute without him.

I am out of energy for summer. I don’t have any more adventures in me. At least not day after day, all day long–until summer bedtime, which is way closer to 10 p.m. than 7 p.m. And the question of how we’d spent the time, well, I could write a dozen five paragraph “What I Did on Summer Vacation” essays. We visited his grandma, cousins, aunt, uncle, grandpa, saw his godfather and family. We had playdates, hosted a kids’ book club, went to high tea, went to the river, the pool, the mountains. We baked, played games, did home improvement projects. We read, had tickle fests, danced in the living room. I afforded time instead of money because we have a lifetime to go on big ticket adventures, but it feels like the time is fleeting when we’ll want to just hang out with each other all day, cuddle into a storybook, or hold hands as we cross a parking lot.

Boy in a BookHe was out of energy for summer too. Last week, when I asked what he wanted to play, he went into his room to read with his door closed. When I checked on him half an hour later to see if he was hungry, he said, “I’m reading Mama” and went back into his book.

We were both ready for school to start, because we know what it looks like, how the days run, what to pack for lunch–so much so that I could write about how to get organized for back to school.

This year, he’s not a stranger in a strange land. Before we even reached his classroom for Meet the Teacher on Friday, two kids had run up and hugged Cavanaugh, announcing, “You’re in my class. Come this way!” We walked in the door and the teacher got down on her knee to look Cavanaugh in the eye as she introduced herself. When she asked his favorite subject and he answered, “Math,”she looked at me and said, “He’s a really good reader too though, isn’t he?” because she’d heard about him from his kindergarten teacher, and the principal had given her a copy of our teacher request letter. He knows he’ll have music class, art, and PE and that they’re called Specials. He knows where the library and cafeteria and bathroom are. It’s not all about what he’s losing this year–the time with me and his dad, the freedom at home to play or rest or not be an introvert surrounded by people. He walked in this morning excited about what he’s going to learn and who he’s going to see.

And I walked out feeling like I was leaving him with a kind teacher, in a place where he’s okay without me–which gives me the room to come home and write instead of spending the day wondering if he’s okay. He’s just fine, and so am I. It’s amazing what a difference a year can make.

Set Up for Summer Fun with Kids

As excited as I was for Cavanaugh to get out of school for summer, I was also a little worried that we could spend months inside hiding out from Texas heat and mosquitoes while playing LEGOs and Minecraft. We needed a to do list of fun.

Luckily, one of my organizing clients was working on a summer intentions banner created by fellow Austinites Bernadette Noll and Kathie Sever. I was inspired by the banner, but worried about the execution. Sewing and stamps would have meant we completed ours sometime after school started this fall. Summer Fun List

What I loved was the idea of setting up our summer so we could get the most of the time with each other without gong stir crazy or bickering our days were so unstructured (exactly what we wished for all school year long).

So we set summer intentions and planned great adventures without locking ourselves into a schedule or spending a ton of money. Here’s what we did.

First, we brainstormed lists of people to see. We thought of friends from school and outside of school, plus family members and the characters from Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles series we’re listening to on audiobook.

For places to go and things to do, we added some of our favorites from previous summers, like going to see the symphony in the park and baking, but we were picking from what’s already routine and that would not keep us going through August. So we read through two of my favorite books: 101 Things You Gotta Do Before You’re 12! and 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12!. Cavanaugh put stickers by all the things he was interested in, then we went through the pages together to figure out which of those things we could do during this summer. They included items like seeing a meteor shower and eating a flower.

Then to see if some of the items he’d found were even available in Austin, we went to the Free Fun in Austin website and added to our list with going to a ghost town and a junk cathedral. On Facebook, a friend had posted the 50 Ideas for a Slow Summer list. They helped too! So did the email from Cavanaugh’s school librarian and the one from his kindergarten teacher with summer reading clubs at some local bookstores and the library and with different learning activities and websites.

Once we had all of our lists, we went to Hobby Lobby and used their handy iPhone app to get the ever-present 40% off a full price item coupon to get a copper foam board. Copper is Cavanaugh’s favorite metal right now. It meant no sewing fabric and the foam board will travel well so when we go visit family in New Mexico, we can take our lists with us. We also used Cavanaugh’s favorite font, “Wonton” which I downloaded for free from dafont for his ninja birthday party last year.

We wanted to keep our lists out where Cavanaugh and I could read them when we needed ideas. As we see people, go places, and do things, we are putting checks or dots next to the items on our list. On the calendar, I listed only events that were date specific, like Mr. Popper’s Penguins being shown for $1 at the theater down the street.

We have a Summer Fun Board in our living room and enough ideas on it to have more adventures than we have time for. I’ll end this post with some items from our list.

Things to Do:

  • Make a Bast board game: The Path of Bast
  • Do experiments in DNA Kit
  • Explore backyard habitat #35
  • Build Volcano
  • Host book club with school friends
  • Play marbles
  • Build a fairy home in the garden
  • Reading Clubs: Book People, B&N, Library
  • Replace front doorknob and lock
  • Eat a flower #45
  • Watch a Meteor Shower #12
  • Bake
  • Play cards
  • Build robots 
  • Do puzzles
  • Make YouTube videos
  • Finish LEGO Ninjago Village
  • Play board games
  • Reading time in bedroom
  • Make up a Spy Name #65
  • Practice handwriting
  • Do 2nd grade Word Wall Words
  • Go through photos
  • Play learning games 

 Places to Go

  • High Tea
  • Taos
  • Splash Pad
  • Camping/Sleep Under the Stars #4
  • Movies
  • Picnic
  • A Famous Road #92 Route 66
  • Junk Cathedral #44
  • An Artist’s Studio #3
  • Swimming Hole #16
  • Rock Art Site #19
  • Radical Rock Formation #69
  • A Canyon or Gorge #86
  • Ice Cream Factory Tour


What are you up to this summer?

Almost the Last Day of School, Finally!

No towelDo you notice here how my son–the one in the middle–is the only one without a towel? He started to shiver right after I took this pic and the boy next to my son leaned over to share his towel. I remembered to send the sandals and the swimsuit to his dad’s for a sleepover. His dad remembered to pack dry tennis shoes and an outfit to change into. But none of us remembered a towel.

The forgetting is part of a larger problem really. It’s the end of the school year. We’re exhausted. As Jen Hatmaker puts it in her “Worst End of School Year Mom Ever” post, “We are limping, limping across the finish line, folks.” I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve forgotten to check the homework folder in the last month, or checked it and decided we’d just have to do it the next day.

Getting used to waking up at 6 a.m. took us almost all fall. Just as we got into a groove, winter break happened. We went to a different time zone, came back, and had to figure out the waking up business all over again. Then there was Spring Break, and the time change. In the midst of that, there’s been getting used to public school, switching classrooms, learning, emotional politics of kindergarteners–making friends, who to play with at recess, how to say “stop” when your classmates are really bugging you–keeping track of things at school, at both parents’ houses.

We’re all so ready to be d0ne now, though it’s, as Cavanaugh’s teacher would say, “bittersweet.” Cavanaugh goes back and forth between counting down how many days he has left to saying, “I want 199 more days.” Because he’s going to miss his teacher. And even though some of the kids in class really annoy him, he loves others. And he’ll miss them. No matter how many play dates we have over the summer, he won’t be in class with some of them next year and who knows what that means for his closest alliances. Change is scary, and exciting, and sad, and exhausting.

When all of the kids went in after the big Splash Day festivities this morning, I was happy to help Cavanaugh change into dry clothes, but I just couldn’t stay for lunch. It’s crazy in the cafeteria. The kids are so riled up they can’t help touching each other and spilling food and yelling in voices that echo like crazy.

Cavanaugh says he’s missing me right now and wanted me to stay. I felt guilty leaving–kind of. We are missing each other. We’ve had house guests for the last two weeks, a family of four and then my mom. The timing of the trips was terrible, and necessary. We rolled with it as best we could. But we haven’t had a whole lot of time to just hang out, or talk about transitioning to summer, or rest. Summer is about to offer us plenty of that, however. So I came home to get the alone and quiet time summer won’t be offering quite as much of, and left Cavanaugh to the cafeteria because he only has two more lunches with this class. And he’s going to miss them.

Checklists for Cavanaugh

Settled by Spring BreakWe’re near the end of the school year so it may seem like a weird time to introduce checklists to kids, but this is the perfect time.

Earlier in my son’s life, checklists that told him to put on pajamas or brush his teeth didn’t feel like they’d be a big help considering I was still brushing his teeth and helping him dress him. Even though he’s been able to do those things on his own for a while now, I hadn’t made checklists. What prompted me to make them last month was that Cavanaugh kept saying, “You’ve told me that a million times!” and I kept saying, “I don’t feel like you’re listening to me.” Both things were true. Because he’d heard the steps in his routine over and over, he didn’t want to hear them and I didn’t want to say them. The problem was he was relying on the reminders and if I wasn’t giving them, he’d forget parts. I had to be in the middle of his stuff for it to get done.

Before kindergarten started, we didn’t have that much of a routine. We didn’t have to be out of the house first thing in the morning. Bedtime could happen somewhere in the vicinity of a time rather than needing to be at a specific time. When he brushed teeth or whether he ever needed to wear shoes changed. Checklists weren’t necessary.

Having checklists at the beginning of this school year would have been wonderful but for most of this year, we’ve been adjusting. We were both so sleepy in the mornings that figuring out when to pack lunch, what we’d have time to eat for breakfast, or how to get out of the house took months. By spring break we’d finally managed to figure out routines for homework or snacks or even when bedtime should be. A week of vacation through even that tenuous schedule out of whack.

The transition has been a hard one for both of us. When I was talking about it with a friend recently, she pointed out that one of the great difficulties is that almost all of the time we spend with our kids–at least during the week– is in transition and full of things that must be done:

  • Waking up and getting ready for school
  • Getting home, having snack, doing homework, play (in between homework and dinner).
  • Dinnertime to bedtime

Reminding Cavanaugh of all the steps those transitions require made him feel like I was always telling him what to do (and he was right). So he and I talked about what the steps were for before school, after school, and before bed. I wrote down the steps we agreed on. He tested them for a few days, then we switched the order around and added steps.

Things are so much better! Transitions are happening on time (most of the time) so we’re not rushing out to school or pushing back bedtime. We’re not squabbling. Cavanaugh feels proud of himself. I get to do my part and help when he needs help, but I no longer feel resentful because I can’t get my stuff done because I’m too busy reminding him of what he needs to get done.

I’m so glad we’ve got them in place now because they’re helping with the end of the school year this year but they’re going to be a tremendous help in getting us into a routine when school start back in the fall.

I’m including our checklists here so you can use them, adapt them, or be reminded of something you might not otherwise have thought to put on them.

Morning Checklist

  • Wake up
  • Eat breakfast
  • Put on socks
  • Put on shoes
  • Brush teeth
  • Brush hair
  • Put on sweatshirt
  • Put on backpack
  • Go to school

After School Checklist

  • Take lunchbox to kitchen
  • Put homework on coffee table
  • Hang up backpack
  • Hang up sweatshirt
  • Put shoes in closet
  • Have snack
  • Do homework
  • Play

Bedtime Checklist

  • Leave play downstairs. Come into calm upstairs.
  • Put clothes in hamper
  • Put on clothes for tomorrow
  • Go to the bathroom
  • Wash hands
  • Brush teeth
  • Get into bed
  • Gather animals
  • Stories
  • Songs
  • Draw a dream
  • Cuddle
  • Sleep

First Grade Teacher Request Letter

I wrote yesterday about why we should write teacher request letters for school. Today, I’ll share my teacher request letter for first grade.

Dear Principal _________,

I’m writing because I’ve spoken with (the classroom teacher) and (the school counselor) about the first grade teacher assignment for my son, Cavanaugh _________, next year. They said I should send you a letter before the end of April giving you some details about (child’s name) that you might consider when assigning teachers.

As a reminder, he started out with Ms. ___________ this year. On the second day of school, he got lost between specials and pick-up so when the class came outside, he wasn’t with Ms. _______. We searched the halls and found him but he was terrified. For the next two weeks, he was very scared and upset and cried every day after specials because he was scared he’d be lost again. Though his dad and I repeatedly tried to communicate with Ms.__________ about what was happening with our son, it was clear that they were just not a good fit for each other. After his dad and I met with Ms. ________(the school counselor) to explore options for helping Cavanaugh, Ms. ________ (the counselor) gave Cavanaugh a tour of the school, which made him feel safe and empowered, and you transferred him to Mrs. ________’s class. We are still so grateful for this.

The difference has been amazing. He loves school and looks forward to going. He has gotten almost all 3’s and 4’s on report cards in academics and behavior, frequently comes home with Super Kid awards, and is absolutely thriving with Mrs. _______.

Cavanaugh’s dad are I are hoping that he can start out with a teacher who is a good fit for him next year so the transition into first grade is an exciting instead of anxiety-provoking one.

Cavanaugh is very bright, focuses for long periods, and cares very much about being well-behaved in class. Because of that, he does not need an authoritarian teacher or a firm-hand. He is sensitive and not always able to speak up for himself, so he needs someone who can emotionally read him, who can connect with him and help him feel safe and seen. He will extend himself outside of his comfort zone, try new things, and thrive if he has a teacher that he trusts cares about him.

Ms. _______ (the counselor) asked if there were any students Cavanaugh should not be placed with. There are not any particular kids. He does come home upset because boys in his class are being silly, trying to spank each other, tickle etc. His dad and I are aware that this is just what most boys do. Cavanaugh just has never been like most boys. Because of this and because his dad and I are divorced, I wonder if Cavanaugh would benefit from having a strong male role model as a teacher. I will leave that to your discretion, but I mention it because it could be a consideration.

Thank you so much for your time. Cavanaugh’s dad and I would be happy to come in to meet with you and discuss placement if that would be helpful, or, if you need any more details, please feel free to call me.


Sonya _______
My Phone Number

Write Your Teacher Request Letters Now

The end of the school year is near and many schools are already making teacher assignments for next year.

As a parent, you can have a voice in this decision. While most schools won’t honor requests for a specific teacher by name, you still have an opportunity to let the school know about your child and what kind of teacher would be best for him or her. And honestly, asking for a specific teacher won’t always get you what you want anyway. Just because a teacher was good for your neighbor or friend’s child doesn’t mean that teacher would be good for your child. Writing about specific personality traits, skills, or needs allows the school to take what they know about all of the teachers in a grade and match your child up to who can really align with your child.

I wrote last year about sending the school a Getting to Know My Child letter for his kindergarten placement. I just sent the school our letter for first grade. Because we’re staying in the same school, they already know some about him. His teacher has put together a portfolio of his work and recommendations for his first grade teacher assignment. My son, his dad, and I have all ended up loving his teacher and her recommendations are probably just right for our son.

We still chose to write a letter to the principal. Why?

There are things that happen in the classroom, at recess, in the cafeteria, or in special subjects that his classroom teacher may not know about–even though we communicate with her frequently. Besides that, the teacher’s view of our son is just one view. He also had the opportunity to be in a play group with the counselor this year, so she knows him too. I called her last week to get her input about the teacher letter. She directed me to copy her on the email to the principal so that they can talk about our request and the counselor can share her input.

So the teacher knows our son, as does the counselor, and as his parents, his dad and I know him best. The person who doesn’t really know him at all is the principal, and she’s the one who oversees teacher assignments. Giving her as much information as possible when she’s choosing a teacher for our son makes success more likely.

All of that being said, I highly recommend you ask the school (teacher, counselor, principal, front office receptionist) if you can write your own letter or if they have another way of accepting parent input regarding teacher assignments. I included the link to our kindergarten letter above and will include the text for our first grade letter in my next post. Even if the first teacher assignment doesn’t work out, writing a letter gives you more leverage when you go to the school to ask for help. You’ve done everything in your power, which makes the school more likely and able to help you.

We wrote a kindergarten letter, which the principal read when making teacher assignments. Then the school’s enrollment grew and they had to hire an extra kindergarten teacher at the last minute so kids were placed in different classes and the letters were apparently not reread. I totally understand how and why that would happen. But when I went to the school and talked to the counselor and vice principal two weeks into the school year to describe the problems we were having, I could refer back to the letter I’d written. They had it on file. The teacher my son started kindergarten with didn’t match what we’d described at all. They moved him to a class with a teacher who fit all of it. Was it just because of the letter? No. I’m sure it was due to their caring about children, about their appreciation of our approaching them with respect and requests versus demands or threats. But, advocating for kids means doing all that we can so we have as many resources to help them as possible.

Who am I to say so? A teacher, an educational advocate, a learning center director, a director of education, and an Attachment Parenting chapter leader.  Most importantly though, I’m a parent who knows the power of advocating for our children. If we know what we have the right to ask for, our kids are so much more likely to get what they need.

Avoiding Cupid

There’s been a lot of talk around here lately about how to avoid Cupid’s arrows, or avoid falling in love should one be hit by an arrow. Cavanaugh’s kindergarten teacher taught him how to do this. Apparently you’re supposed to look at your arm. Why? As she tells it, if a boy looks at a girl (or a girl looks at a boy) after being hit by an arrow, they’ll fall in love, s0… look at your arm.

I said, “But boys can fall in love with boys and girls can fall in love with girls.”

Cavanaugh said, “I don’t think my teacher knows that.”

I told Cavanaugh I wasn’t particularly worried about getting hit by Cupid’s arrow. He wasn’t worried about me getting hit either because I was already in love.

“You can fall in love more than once,” I offered.

“Right. You were in love with Daddy. Now you’re in love with me.”

Ah. Got it.

So we made our own bow and arrow for Cupid. And then we made a set for ninjas. I’m getting quite a Valentine’s education this year.



Learning to Read

My son and I started a kindergarten letter campaign this summer. Not a political protest kind of letter campaign, a learning-his-letters campaign designed to prepare him for kindergarten.

The current Texas public school curriculum has moved what used to be first grade expectations down to kindergarten. For boys especially, this is a bad fit. Many of them don’t have the fine motor skills to do the handwriting. Beyond that, what is expected in terms of reading and math skills is far beyond anything kids used to be asked to do: reading multi-syllabic words, memorizing sight words that are the exceptions to phonics rules, counting to 100 by 1′s, 2′s, 5′s and 10′s, solving word problems, and being able to write a full page with words written correctly in upper and lower case letters.

Cavanaugh had not shown much interest in learning his letters or in the sounds they made. He’d randomly remember letters and always skip or rearrange numbers when he tried to count to twenty. At the preschool he’d attended last year, they’d practiced handwriting. He came home saying he was bad at writing, that he couldn’t do it and would never be able to do it. I knew that wasn’t the message he was getting from his preschool teacher, but he’d always been super hard on himself about trying to write or draw anything. He’d ask his dad or I to draw something rather than attempt it himself. If he was being so hard on himself about handwriting in what I knew was a supportive environment with an encouraging teacher, what would he do in a classroom with up to 22 kids, in a higher pressure environment, with a teacher who might not be so positive.

If he was going to have a voice in his head, I wanted it to be a kind one. I wanted it to be mine–saying, “It’s okay if it’s not perfect. You’re just learning. That’s what practice is for. Keep trying. You’ll get it.”

So we started our letter campaign. I didn’t want drill and kill. I didn’t want to turn letters, reading, or books into work or a power struggle. Reading and writing are two of the most exciting things in the world. They enable you to visit other times and places, to get to know people, to visit worlds and to make worlds. I wanted learning to read and write to be a ticket to great adventures, a way to escape, to dream, to learn. I wanted it to be fun!

Worksheets weren’t going to do that. Neither was teaching him phonics rules and running memorization practice. Still, Cavanaugh turned in his Word Wall list before Thanksgiving break. He had to know all of the words by sight without having to sound them out. He was so proud of himself when he checked off the last word and is excited to get the next list of harder words. I don’t think we’d be here (yet) if it weren’t for Leapfrog videos. You no screen folks probably won’t like this, but for all the people I’ve been talking to whose kids are struggling with reading, here’s the post I’ve been promising you, hopefully in time for some holiday sales, in case you’d rather order the videos than try to check them out from the library.

In the same way I wondered how Cavanaugh could write letters before he knew letters, I was sure he couldn’t start sounding out words until he knew what the letters sounded like. Luckily, my friend Ava told me about LeapFrog: Letter Factory. The frogs’ dad works at a letter factory and when the kids go to help make a presentation, the youngest, Tad, feels frustrated because he can’t help. He’s too little. He doesn’t know the letters. Professor Quigley says that’s not a problem because Tad can learn them all easily. He leads Tad through the factory where each room is dedicated to a letter. Whether it’s P’s popping like popcorn or K’s kicking, the letters each have such a specific association that’s easy for kids to remember and easy for parents to remind them about. After we’d watched Letter Factory, when Cavanaugh would try to sound something out, I could say, “Which letter swings through the air?” or “Which letter falls asleep?” and he was able to tell me the letter and the sound it made.

After Letter Factory comes LeapFrog: Talking Words Factory. It teaches the rules for silent E, vowel digraphs, long and short vowels, and “sticky vowels,” all that stuff that parents don’t remember the rules for or how to explain. These are the first building blocks to putting the letter sounds together to sound out words. The next video in the series is LeapFrog: Word Caper with more rules and strategies for sounding things out. They don’t feel like rules and strategies though. It’s just a game with machines that aren’t working properly and crazy adventures that engage kids. Cavanaugh remembers everything he learned so much better than if I had been trying to teach him rules or get him to memorize letter sounds.

The next in the series is LeapFrog: Learn to Read at the Storybook Factory. It teaches kids how to chunk words into phrases rather than sound out each word separately. With this video, kids start reading instead of just merely sounding things out.

We also watched WordWorld, Superwhy (all of which is on Netflix Instant Play), and Sesame Street alphabet videos. They were helpful for exposure to the world of reading, but I found none so helpful as the Leapfrog videos listed above. There are other Leapfrog videos too, but the ones I’ve included are the ones I recommend. Cavanaugh’s teacher is sending home DRA level 8 books already even though he’s only required to be at a level 6 by the end of kindergarten. It’s November. He didn’t know all of the alphabet in July. The videos weren’t the only thing that got him here so fast. Having been read to his whole life, loving stories and books, spending tons of time at the library, and listening to audiobooks in the car all set the stage for him to learn to read. Having encouraging parents and a great kindergarten teacher are also a huge help. But those videos made it easy. They took the fight and frustration out of learning to read. They are most certainly  on the list of things I’m thankful for this year.

Now We Are Six

Cavanaugh turned six today. How is it possible that I gave birth six years ago? I’ve been remembering it all week, the double-check to make sure we knew had to use a car seat, the suitcases that had been packed using lists from pregnancy books and parenting magazines, all those plans for how it was going to happen.

I didn’t imagine he’d be a ninja by now. Last night, we read On the Day You Were Born, my favorite section of which reads,

“While you waited in darkness,
tiny knees curled to chin,
the Earth and her creatures
with the Sun and the Moon
all moved in their places,
each ready to greet you
the very first moment
of the very first day you arrived.”

This started a discussion about what I was doing on Cavanaugh’s birthday eve, how I lay in bed wondering who he was going to be. But I’ve gotten six years to see. He wanted me to tell him what I know so far and as I listed qualities, he agreed with them: smart, funny, kind, curious. Yes, yes, yes, yes, he said, though he wasn’t sure when I said he was a good dancer.

Though sometimes he complains, “You’ve told me that a million times,” last night he was happy to hear that he’s my favorite.

I asked him, “Do you know what my favorite number’s going to be tomorrow?”

He guessed, “Six.

“And do you know what it will be next year?”

“Seven, because I’ll be seven!”

“And do you know what my favorite day is?”

“My birthday!”

“Yep, my luckiest best day.”

“What’s your second favorite day? Maybe your birthday. Shouldn’t that be your favorite?”

“Do you want it to be my favorite?”


“All right then, because it isn’t. Your birthday is. You are. My absolute favorite.” And he is. Man, do I love this kid, but I also really really like him.

He was talking about how they went outside at school yesterday to use their four senses to check the weather. When I asked which four, he left out taste. “Did you taste the weather?”

“Yes, I tasted the wind.” This poetic astute boy really understood On the Day You Were Born for the first time last night. And this morning, as on no other birthday so far, he could   read my birthday message to him. He can read. He’s six. My god, how did that happen?

I couldn’t have imagined that we’d be making ninjabread cookie with he’s know most of his life so far, who is only two months younger and three doors down. Or that on the way into kindergarten on his sixth birthday, I would sing “Happy Birthday” and he would put his fingers to his lips. “Shhh. People might think it’s weird.”

We walked into school and the boy who Cavanaugh was sure hated him the first two weeks in his new classroom came running out into the hall with a cardboard ninja mask he’d made at home, saying, “Happy birthday Cavanaugh. I made you a present!” and tackle him into a hug. Or that he wouldn’t be able to make it into the classroom because another boy would come running out to hug him too and the whole class would call, “Happy birthday” and the teacher would say, “Come in come in Cavanaugh, everyone’s been waiting for you to get here.”

That’s how I felt when he was born. Like I’d been waiting my whole life for him to get here. I walked back to my car in tears because he is so loved, because I get to be his mom. So, when I say, “Now we are six,” it’s because I feel like I was born into a whole new life when I became his mom. So Happy Mamaversary to me! And Happy Birthday to my ninja. I am so happy you are here.

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A Great Kindergarten Teacher

It’s amazing how different kindergarten looks with a teacher that fits my son’s personality. The last times I wrote were about how we were coping with kindergarten (not well) and our fears about starting kindergarten. Now we’re in week five and the view from here (thankfully) is beautiful.

Cavanaugh’s first kindergarten teacher just wasn’t a good fit for him. She was nice, experienced, knowledgeable, and very focused on rules and structure. Cavanaugh is quiet, smart, and well-behaved. He has already developed the behaviors his first kindergarten teacher was trying to teach. What he hasn’t developed are the social skills to be in a crowd, to raise his hand, advocate for himself, or to navigate a big school. Rules won’t help him with that. A teacher who can meet my son where he is emotionally and socially is what he needs. And he’s got her now.

After the first couple of weeks of school, it was clear that no matter how many requests we were making of Cavanaugh’s teacher, she wasn’t seeing him or meeting his needs, and she wasn’t hearing us. His dad (my ex-husband) and I went to meet with the counselor and discuss options. The principal was off campus so she wasn’t available to be in the meeting but the counselor assured us she’d confer with the principal and get back to us. It felt so good to be heard. Here was someone who had absolutely been trained in communication. She repeated back what we’d said to make sure she was hearing us right. She said she didn’t have any power to make the call about what to do for Cavanaugh but she listened to us and said she’d work with the principal to find a good solution.

After we left her office, at my request, she took Cavanaugh on a tour of the school. I asked her to get him oriented so that if he was ever lost anywhere, he would know how to get back to someplace familiar or to get help. She introduced him to the women in the front office and said, “This is Cavanaugh. If he comes in, he might not ask for help, so please ask, ‘How can I help you?’” She gave him the supreme confidence that he could navigate the school on his own, if he ever got separated from his class again. When I had lunch with him that day, he was glowing. He felt safe at school, finally!

That afternoon, I got a call that he was going to be moved to another classroom. But the teacher wasn’t anyone I’d heard anything about. And Cavanaugh was finally feeling a little more settled in at school: with the tour and having made some friends in class. Was moving him the right thing? How would I frame it to him? The counselor talked through the options with me. I realized that what Cavanaugh was feeling good about had nothing to do with his current teacher and that we still weren’t getting the communication from her that we needed. Only two weeks into school, though moving to someone new felt like starting over in some ways, it could make a huge difference for the rest of the year.

So I looked up the new teacher on the school website. I called Cavanaugh in to see her picture. I said, “You know how you’ve been saying you like your teacher yes and no? Well since the counselor has met you and really sees what you’re like, she has a teacher for you that you’re going to like yes and yes. It turns out there’s someone that’s a really good fit for you.”

Cavanaugh’s question: “So I’ve been in the wrong place this whole time?”

“No. You went to the teacher you were assigned to so you’ve been going where you were supposed to be. But different teachers work better with different kids and now that the counselor knows you, she has a teacher that is going to be a great fit.” We looked at list of teacher favorites, which the PTA compiles for staff appreciation. “Do you know what her favorite colors are? Blue and green.”

“Those are our favorite colors!”

“And do you know what her favorite candy is? Chocolate. And her favorite store is Target. I think you’re going to like her.”

So we talked through how the next morning he’d go to the counselor’s office and she would take him to his new class. He was so excited that night he couldn’t fall asleep. The next morning, as we walked into the building, we were telling our neighbors about Cavanaugh’s class switch and what we knew about his teacher.  I said, “We think they’re going to have a lot in common.”

Cavanaugh said, “That’s because we do.”

Our neighbor asked, “Are you excited about going to a new class?”

Cavanaugh yelled, “Yeah,” then covered his mouth with his hand and whispered, “I’m not supposed to yell.”

I took Cavanaugh to the counselor’s office. She told him his new classroom was next to his old one and said that now that he knew his way around the school, he could show her how to get there. He started to go in the right direction and then turned to go the opposite way. She followed him. She didn’t tell him he was getting it wrong. She pointed to the front office, to the cafeteria, named where they were. She followed Cavanaugh until he figured out the right way to go. He looked so proud of himself to be figuring it out. The counselor’s plan had been to introduce Cavanaugh to the new teacher and then to some of the kids in the class so he would feel okay about going to a new place, but when they got to his class, she said he looked at her like, “Okay, I got it now. You can go” and walked right in.

He came home reporting that the new teacher has a son who likes Star Wars LEGOs too. That was a Friday. He told me more at the end of that school day, about just that day, than he had said about the previous two weeks combined.

The new teacher’s welcome to kindergarten letter had me in tears. She wrote “I know that sending your precious child to school for the first time can be a very anxious and exciting time for you. I want your child to LOVE Kindergarten and come away with positive memories for a lifetime. I believe that children need to feel safe and secure in order for meaningful learning to take place. I will dedicate myself to making your child feel respected, cared for and safe so that he/she will be responsive and ready for learning. …This is their time. It is the beginning of their future!’ Okay, I was in tears again type it now. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect teacher for my son.

She gives hugs, has a reading loft in her room, has a stuffed frog named Kelso to help the kids make good choices. She has three kids of her own and tells stories about them related to what the kids are doing in class. Cavanaugh’s been in the class for 13 days now and his feeling about school is totally changed. Though he still isn’t crazy about waking up so early and going five days a week feels like a lot, he is writing his name, has made friends, and is navigating school and feeling safe to do so. My best imaginings of what kindergarten could open up for him are all happening.

It reminds me of the poem “What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali. Cavanaugh’s new teacher is that kind of teacher. Just watch this.