A Reflection on Motherhood & Schooling: Happy Birthday, My Dear Eleven Year-Old Daughter

Goya Belén

Today, in the early morning hours, my first born, Goya, celebrated her eleventh year on this planet. I emphasize “on this planet” because Goya has never felt 100% grounded, never fully impacted by gravity. Invoking my husband’s words, “She is like a fairy flittering around with angel wings, never touching the ground.” Goya is a creative, innovative, right-brained individual who does not conform to most of societal norms. She is someone who needs to be reminded to eat, drink water, and trim her nails. Where her younger sister, Paloma, is acutely aware of her physicality and is interested in everything tangible and material, Goya generates a narrative – a storyline – to make the mundane palpable. If asked to do chores, Goya cannot simply make her bed or sweep the bathroom floor, she needs to transform into a character who she associates with the work. Recently, I found her wearing an apron while sweeping and cleaning. She was donning a faux French accent while fluttering around with a feather duster. Catching a few words here and there, I surmised that she was a maid in a large mansion fulfilling her duties for the wealthy owners. In this case, the owners were somewhat nasty and had forced her to clean the girls’ toilet as well as the rest of the bathroom. She was very vocal in her protests while, at the same time, made sure that everything was shiny, clean, and tidy.

As a mother, it has not always been easy to nurture her imagination and fantasies while trying, at the same time, to assist her in grounding her energies. There have been difficult, heart-breaking moments where I have had to temporarily ‘bind her wings’ – so to speak – so that she can attend to the everyday world. In a world that traditionally has valued the practical over the fanciful, living with and learning from Goya has and continues to be a lesson of questioning, resistance, and balance. Because of my love for her and her enormous capacity to dream, I have realized more and more the preposterous nature of schooling. As an educator for over twenty-five years, I have always questioned our educational system and the ways that it sorts and segregates children by categorizing them against a dominant norm. This is the work to which I have always been committed – to fight for children and families who are detrimentally impacted by this system and the ways that it privileges specific norms that only a certain few can attain.

Though Goya is privileged in many ways, including that she has two parents who are educators, her unique approach to being and living in this world makes her (and her father and I by default) question every single educational decision and practice her teachers are implementing. This past year Goya has been attending a new school that, overall, ascribes to a strict behavioral model that rewards very specific behaviors. From day one, Goya has resisted conforming to these expected behaviors because she does not feel that they are aligned with who she is and what she believes in. She questions the reasoning behind giving homework that is not meaningful to her everyday purpose which, essentially, is to be alive to assist the Earth, the animals, and nature in healing (Yes, this is her mantra). She is earnest in her passions and convincing in her arguments. Though she is driven and focused on her goal of helping Gaia, she is inconsistent with the daily ‘expected’ schooling responsibilities of staying focused, specifically in math, and turning in her assignments on time. These behaviors rooted in normalized schooling routines are judged and assessed. Consequently, it is not a far stretch her grades sometimes fluctuate.  

Her father and I, being the educators we are, assist and work with her on math, science, and on her executive functioning skills. She is improving and doing better in school. This improvement, on one level, of course, is important. We commend Goya for her efforts and continue to guide her. However, on another level, I have to ask myself if schooling is changing our dreamer. Here I distinguish schooling from education. Goya loves education and loves to learn. What she struggles with are the norms that schooling places, like parameters, around the ways she is expected to learn. Along these lines, when Goya comes home from a long day at school and then is confronted by 2 hours of math homework, she questions why she can’t have more time to focus on what makes her happy.

It’s a challenge because on one hand her father and I know she needs to learn math to succeed in this world, but, on the other hand, we believe that homework should enhance learning, not drain the student of their excitement for learning. For example, giving Goya two hours of homework on long-division problems that are decontextualized from the purpose or the WHY behind long-division is not beneficial for her, a person who is driven by idealistic, humanitarian goals. If she could be given an understanding of the importance of long-division as a necessary skill for an endeavor in which she may be engaged in the future (i.e., running a business to help abandoned animals) then, perhaps, her evenings doing math wouldn’t be so often marked by tears, frustration, and exhaustion.

I am hardly the first parent to question the purpose of schooling. In fact, I know and have worked with hundreds of families who face similar, if not the same, dilemmas. I am honored to know many families whose children, like Goya, think differently and find it nearly impossible to conform to traditional schooling expectations.

On this auspicious birthday, 02-02-2020 (a palindrome), where Goya is beginning the first year of the second decade of her life, I feel it is important to acknowledge her beautifully audacious and inspirational spirit. She is nowhere NEAR the norm nor do I want her to conform. I speak to all the parents and families out there now who feel the same about their children. Maybe to find balance means to NOT give into belief systems that structure success in narrow, limiting ways. Maybe, because of our amazing children, we need to resist certain practices that feel oppressive and stifle our children’s zest for life and living. Maybe it’s time to question this daily grind and to imagine, in the way our children do, the unimaginable happiness that can arrive with purposeful and meaningful learning.

Maybe we need to rethink everything.

With much love for all of you and your children,