Thursday, June 25, 2015

Passing a torch

So the last day of school in our town was a week ago today. In case you’ve lost track, this only affected the little guy as he finished up first grade, and the effect was minimized by the fact that during the school year he would either ride the big yellow bus straight to school, if my wife had the day off, or he would be dropped off at daycare with his little sister and brother if my wife had to work, and daycare would send him on a little shuttle bus to school a bit later. The little guy still has to go to daycare on days my wife works, he just spends the whole day there instead of going back and forth to his school. Fortunately for him, the first day of summer vacation last Friday was a day my wife was not supposed to work, so the little guy got to sleep in and stay home. He then proceeded to spend the entire day playing school, setting up stuffed animals in chairs and handing out worksheets (materials his teacher had given the class to work on over the summer) and setting up activity centers and whatnot. All of which was pretty freaking adorable.

I should back up a little and acknowledge that overall the first grade school year was full of victories and setbacks and challenges to be worked through of all kinds. I confess I may have been looking forward to summer vacation as much as the little guy, maybe even moreso, so that I would get a break from worrying about whether or not the little guy was mastering the ability to focus in class, from reminding him to do his homework, from the ongoing struggle to implement appropriate positive incentives and negative consequences, &c. &c. Sometimes it can feel like a slog. I assumed it felt the same way to the little guy, and in early June I asked him if he was excited about being done with school for a while. And he very earnestly said, “No, I like school.” Which warmed my heart and made me feel a bit petty all at once. Still, I was willing to take it.

His attitude is not the problem, then, which is a relief. And that in turn makes it easier for my wife and I to at least try to keep him at least adjacent to school-mode over the course of the next couple months. Plans have been in the works, plans to get him to spend a little bit of time working on his handwriting on a regular basis, because even for a six year old it’s pretty rough and we’d hate for that to hold him back. We’re also pretty keen on him continuing to read on a daily basis, which was basically his steady homework assignment all year long, read 20 minutes every night. Luckily the little guy is keen on reading, as well. But at the same time, we wanted to differentiate summer reading from school year reading. It just seemed like the right thing to do. So one idea we hit upon was to pick a children’s novel and read it to him when time permitted. We figured we could go back and forth, sometimes reading together, sometimes letting him read by himself, but the novel would be the special summer bonus, as it were. My wife and I had been asking each other repeatedly over the years when we were going to introduce the kids to Harry Potter, and it became fairly self-evident that if we wanted to do so in the form of parent-reading-to-child, we’d better do it sooner than later in the little guy’s case, before he gets to the point where being read to strikes him as too baby-ish. Thus, armed with a slightly used copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone acquired this past Saturday, we were ready to proceed.

But of course we had to get buy-in from the little guy, first. And he tends to prefer non-fiction over fiction these days, and is also highly reluctant to try new things, preferring to stick to what he’s already highly familiar with. Somehow, though, we managed to talk him into giving Harry a try on Sunday night. Just a little, we promised, and if you don’t like it we can stop. (There may have also been some negotiation about bathtime, as apparently the little guy was sick of taking showers and wanted to go back to playing in the tub, which I said was acceptable if he would try the reading together as well.)

Four days later and we are now almost done with Chapter Five (Diagon Alley) and, wonder of wonders, the little guy is totally enthralled. I mean, I kind of figured he would be. I didn’t think it would hurt the cause much that Harry is a little boy with glasses who has a pet snowy owl; our little guy also wears glasses and doesn’t have any pet birds but one of his favorite documentaries is about snowy owls. And I also suspected that the little guy would pick up on the alternate magical London world-building elements and be fascinated by them the same way he’s fascinated by learning about natural systems and such, and he has been. I’ve been mildly delighted by how funny he finds the book, in the exact spots where humor is precisely what Rowling was going for. Point being, it’s early but I’m willing to deem this plan a success.

(And for what it’s worth I am of course enjoying it, too, not just introducing my kid to something I really like but giving myself the opportunity to revisit the series via complete re-read, something I’ve been meaning to do but of course haven’t prioritized. It’s impressive how early a lot of the seeds for later payoffs are planted, and re-reading has been eye-opening. The hardest part has been resisting the urge to meta-editorialize as I read to the little guy, to avoid going all PAY ATTENTION THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER ON. But that’s on me.)

Sorcerer’s Stone is the shortest book in the series, of course, and I’ve calculated that we might get through the whole thing in another two or three weeks. This of course raises the question of what to do next, because I’ve already spilled the beans to the little guy that there are six more books. If he wants to dive right into Chamber of Secrets next, do we oblige him? Do we see how far we can get in the saga before school starts, and then pause for nine or ten months because Harry Potter is a summer thing? Or do we keep going all the way to the end, fitting it in as best we can around real second grade homework assignments? Do we make it a reward like weekly movie night, or a standard element like bedtime videos? Do we tell him, ok, we read you the first one, you have to read the next one on your own?

Reading the series as an adult, I always thought there was an elegance to the fact that each novel covered one school year. I envisioned having kids of my own someday and the possibility that they might not be voracious readers like me. I saw myself slipping them Sorcerer’s Stone around when they were nine or ten, almost but not quite Harry’s age, so that he would still seem cool by virtue of being a little older. Just read this, even if it takes you all summer, I imagined I’d say. And then the next summer they could read the next book. As they grew up, Harry would grow up, and by the time they got to the heavy scary stuff, when major likable characters start dropping like flies, they’d be mature enough to handle it. I never anticipated starting the books with a six year old, and a book-devouring one at that. So I really don’t have a clear idea of where to go with it. In all likelihood I’ll just get out of the way and let the child take the lead, staying nearby as a fallback resource when and if needed. I tend to think a lot of parenting is going to have to be like that.

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