With My Wife and Kids Back at School, I Wonder: Am I an Underachieving Parent?

We had no idea that certain types of scholastic proficiency are already required at kindergarten age.

An illustration showing Sayed Kashau writing "Shalom Kita Alef" on a blackboard.
Amos Biderman

The kids are back in school already. The school calendar here differs from state to state, sometimes from city to city, even from one school to another. My younger son has started kindergarten. I was stressed out by the schedule the teachers sent us beforehand. Besides the time slots devoted to “sciences,” “group reading” and “crafts,” what got me really uptight was the biweekly “creative writing” session.

I always feel guilty when it comes to preparing the kids for school. In Israel I was stressed because the older two entered first grade without knowing the alphabet – other parents and friends had sent their kindergarten-age children to first-grade prep courses. Now we’re uptight because of kindergarten here. We had no idea that certain types of scholastic proficiency are required at such an early age.

Reading bedtime stories to the little ones used to be a regular ritual that they loved and that I was especially fond of. They knew what the next sentence would be and memorized the texts without knowing how to read or write. Here it’s become a nightmare. I bought my son “The Pout-Pout Fish Goes to School,” and on the very first page, he corrected my English too many times for me to go on without worrying that I was ruining his Americanization.

What in the world do they teach kindergarten children in “creative writing,” I wondered as I tried this week – driven by guilt and by a sense of having neglected my offspring – to teach my son how to write the letter “A.” I have to say he was extremely creative in his efforts – so much so that the letter was completely unrecognizable. After spending five minutes trying to prepare the little fellow for life in academia, I sent him off to watch SpongeBob, so he could pick up some hints about critical television viewing.

My older son has entered middle school, which here encompasses grades 6 through 8. I discovered that when I drove him to his old primary school on the first day. “Dad!” he shouted, “I’m in middle school now!”

“I’m so sorry, honey,” I replied, “but you’re the middle one and I never know what grade you’re in.”

My daughter has now entered 11th grade. This “junior” year, as it’s known here, is the most meaningful in high school, or so I’ve been told by friends, because it’s the year when the application process for college starts; they’re contacted by schools, take admissions exams and start applying. I tried my best to figure out how the system works but was flummoxed. Maybe I’m too old, or maybe it’s a strategy my daughter picked up from me: to tell the same story in a variety of intersecting, parallel, contradictory versions that, nevertheless, possess an internal logic of their own.

I couldn’t figure out what SAT tests are, though everyone says they are extremely important, something like the Israeli psychometric exam, or how they differ from the ACT. AP classes left me in the dark; friends told me they’re college-level courses offered to high-school students, which can help them get admitted to the better universities. Somehow I understood from my eldest child that the best thing for her academic future is to play the piano in a jazz band, play the tuba in a marching band at basketball and football games, and play the flute in some other school ensemble. Besides that, she convinced me that in 11th grade they have a one-hour lunch break and are obliged, according to the school “contract,” to go with friends to a diner where a meal costs $20 including a beverage.

“And if you want me to succeed,” she informed me, “drop me off two blocks from school, because I don’t want my friends to see what a junky car my dad drives.”

My wife has also gone back to school, but she travels to the university on her own. She’s doing something on trauma and Winnicott and Arab women. In the courses she takes, the lecturers teach how to make an Arab husband feel that he’s guilty, brutal, a denier of rights and someone who prevents progress, liberation and development. It’s not much different from the accusations that were directed at me in Israel, only in English it sounds more persuasive, a lot more authoritative. What it all means in practice is that either I start to cook or I stop every day at a fast-food joint after I pick the kids up from school. A week has gone by, and I’ve already taken them to McDonald’s, Meatheads, Steak ‘n Shake, Taco Bell and Buffalo Wild Wings. As long as Winnicott is happy.

This week someone hung a huge sign at the entrance to the neighborhood, with a drawing of a man kneeling down and holding a box with a ring in it. The text read, “Jennifer would you marry me?” and it was signed: “Billy.” That amused me, that sign did, as I drove home after dropping off the children.

The drive back alone in the car to an empty house actually depresses me anew every morning. I write a little and smoke a lot outside, as long as the cold hasn’t set in and you can still sit in the garden. Occasionally I check to see what’s changed in Israel, go quickly over the list of Arabs who have been killed, and read about homes that were demolished, villages that were evacuated and the new settlements that were approved.

Afterward I read avidly about internal Jewish discussions, all of which are on a spectrum of feelings of supremacy and racism, and never stop talking about “Jewish and democratic” – and I wait for the kids to finish another day of school.