Eleven, my eldest son, is a kind and caring, accommodating boy who aims to please the people he cares about. As his mother, it is a struggle not to take advantage of that. He is also clever and witty, makes quick, creative connections and arrives at spot-on conclusions. He has a good memory and a curious mind. It is a struggle not to burden him with unfair expectations and demands that he do well in school.
Middle school in Italy is challenging, which makes for a shocking transition from elementary. Add to this the fact that my son went from a relatively laid-back private elementary school directly to a public middle school known for being one of the tougher ones in our town. He loved his elementary school, adored his teacher for grades 1 through 5 (in Italy, students have the same teacher and the same classmates all five years) and came to know his classmates as well as if they had been his siblings. He had fun. He was happy.
I worried he would be unprepared for Italian middle school. His teacher didn’t teach cursive. She didn’t teach much grammar. Geography? He still doesn’t know much, if anything, about the regions of Italy. Could he find Rome on a map? I am not so sure. It seemed like they kept studying the same, few things, over and over again. There was very little work in his notebooks, but his grades were good and he was happy. What to do? I took him to see other schools, in particular a public school very close to our apartment with an excellent reputation for academics. I gently suggested he transfer. He listened patiently and calmly replied, “I am not changing schools. Promise me I can stay at my school until the end.”
As has happened before, now that he is in middle school, I see how pointless it was to worry.
Fine, yes, he was completely unprepared for the rigors of middle school. The first few weeks were fairly jolting for both of us – so much homework, so much studying, so much sternness and threats of punishment from the professori. While I understand their desire to send a clear message that middle school requires diligence and discipline and respect, it can at times seem like they see our offspring as little criminals.
There was a meeting last week at school with the professori. We went to the kids’ classroom and two or three teachers were there to tell us how terribly behaved our children are at school, how they don’t write down their assignments correctly – or at all – how they don’t study enough, how they don’t complete homework or listen attentively in class, how impossible it is to get them to quiet down. They told us to provide a specimen signature to prevent forgery on the part of our young delinquents.
There was a beautiful view of the London planes in the courtyard from the classroom, which felt slightly cramped, and the fluorescent lighting gave everyone a sickly, orange hue. My son, I thought, spends six hours a day inside this box. Thank god he had five years at a school he loved, with a sprawling, grassy playground and teachers who loved him. How wrong I was to worry! As it turned out, that was exactly the nourishment needed in preparation for the horrors of middle school.
Up until the meeting with the professori, I had wavered back and forth at home, putting too much pressure on him, then giving him some slack, losing my patience when he got distracted, hugging him and assuring him that it would get easier, then scolding him when he read comics instead of getting his homework done and then found himself, at 10pm, tired and with a page and a half long poem to paraphrase.
When he came home with a failed test on Italian verbs for me to sign, having left it almost completely blank, and the few verbs he did try to conjugate, he got wrong, he was sheepish, he was bummed, but there were no tears or despair. “It’s OK, Mommy. The professoressa said we will have another test next week and she will average the scores. I’m going to study a lot.”
Everyday he comes home for lunch and talks and talks and talks. Never has he told me so much about his life! Never have I been so privy to all the little episodes that he finds funny or interesting! His life must seem to him suddenly so much more exciting than it ever was before because he is bursting with anecdotes and news and everyday I can’t wait till he walks through the door and picks up where he left off.
We are close again the way we were when he was so very young and my only son. We are close and he is happy. If I were the mother I would like to be, I would leave it at that, and let him live his life as he best sees fit.
And still, I struggle. When will I ever learn?
A few days ago, I was in his room asking him about homework and tests, and I said, “I am just worried you won’t have enough time to do everything with basketball practice… maybe you should skip practice? Do you think you should skip practice?”
He looked at me with that deer in headlights look he gets sometimes and I said, “What are you thinking right now? Tell me the exact words in your head.”
“Tell me!” Tell your crazy, hysterical mother.
“I think you worry too much.”
“You want me not to worry about this?”
“Okay, you’re probably right. I’ll try not to worry.”
I’ll worry instead about worrying too much.