Donald started middle school this year, at a VERY large school that draws students from the hills and the flats, with a student body as diverse and urban as Oakland. I've been worrying about it since he was in fourth grade. I mean, those eighth graders are HUGE! Fortunately, the school was "re-modernized" this summer, and looks more cheerful than institutional.
Donald showed up for his first day of school carrying a highlighted map, sporting a summer lice-driven haircut, and wearing a brand new, clean school uniform. His initiation began immediately, with "Stoney," a tough kid from the neighborhood, trying to steal his backpack for non-existent lunch money. Donald ran. Stoney sicked his pack on him. But when Donald turned around and asked, "Why are you chasing me," the leader shrugged. Donald asked, "Why don't you be on my side instead?" He shrugged again, and agreed.
It seems like things are finally starting to turn around for Oakland schools, and not just at Bret Harte. Remember all that fundraising we did for the Sequoia playground? It's finally been installed! (Thanks again for all your donations!) Horace Mann, where Dave teaches, has his computer lab up and running again after being in boxes for three years. He's got every kid in school learning independently once a week.
Donald is growing up. He's pulling a wheeled suitcase around with him every day (as if his vacation never ended). He's keeping track of homework for six classes on his own. He's making his own lunches now. He felt a little embarrassed at first that he was one of the few walking to school with his mom, but he knows that's what he needs right now. (He's not even shy about kissing me goodbye sometimes.) He also knows he's not ready for a school dance, even though a girl (!) asked him. But he's finally gotten out of the bathroom stall, when he changes for P.E.
On Back to School Night, he led us proudly from class to class. His teachers are professional, kind, businesslike, and they challenge him. We got to see where he spends his days — in freshly painted rooms with lovely new linoleum. In the gym, they were playing a slideshow of the first three weeks of classes. I played spot-my-babies, watching for the kids I've known since kindergarten. There was one, there was another, mugging with new friends, running in matching sweatsuits, enjoying their new independence. Simone's hair streaming out behind her as she speeds towards adolesence. Others sitting in circles on the gym floor; they all spent the first two weeks of school learning conflict management.
Setting the tone for the next three years with a class in social relationships? That's a sign of progress. And that may just explain why Donald eats lunch with Stoney now.