~a month in the life of a lifelong learner~ middle school debut

~august 23 – setpember 23, 2018~

i picked quinn up from his dad’s, and received the tour of his self-built kayak, including the original concept drawing, the official plan drawings of the eleven, and the 11-foot-long boat itself! quinn explained the parts he did himself, including drawing the centerline, and then taking measurements off of centerline from the plans and inscribing them onto the plywood. he showed me his favorite power tool, the screw guns, and performed a paddling demonstration. by the end of the first week of school, they had it finished, painted, and varnished, and had launched it for a maiden voyage in beaver creek.


 during our final week of summer vacation together, quinn and i attended family boating for the final two sessions of the season. we had the family of aragorn over for pizza and trampoline fun. quinn also ran one unofficial cross country practice, culminating in the 3 kids who ran tossing blackberries into each others’ mouths. i walked up to the middle school with quinn to get his schedule sorted out, but also to practice walking up, making sure he knew where to go and helping him feel confident it wasn’t too long of a walk.

quinn’s first day of middle school arrived! i delivered his laptop to him, hugged him and wished him luck, and snapped a photo of him distracted by the spider web behind him on the bush. “spider math!” he sang, and marched up the hill to sixth grade.

right after practice on friday there was excited/happy talk about school, schedule, classes, lockers, friends. after cross country we headed to the karate party centered around dessert and jump tag. quinn took me step by step through his day: he has first period spanish, second period language arts, third period math, fourth period band, then lunch/recess/homeroom, fifth period social studies, sixth period p.e., and seventh period science. he has been eating lunch with the fellowship.

everything he said was upbeat. he got his locker combo down by day 2, is getting to classes on time, and knows what to drop off and pick up and when. he likes every single one of his teachers, his language arts teacher being his favorite.

lots of games of jump tag and several cookies later…. he had a fairly extreme meltdown as soon as i parked in our driveway. the floodgates opened and he had a lot to say, and a lot of emotion to emote. we sat in the car for maybe 45 minutes while he poured it all out.

a predominant theme was that he was lied to, he was told his friends would be in classes with him. he only has legolas In one class, p.e., and zero classes with either gimli or aragorn. middle school is basically the worst place he has ever seen. there is almost no time for lunch, and even less time for recess, because all you have is the time leftover after you eat. he only has aragorn with him for cross country after school, and that isn’t even very fun. he feels like he is slow and the last one to finish every time, and hates when they clap for him coming in last and would prefer no attention at all. he doesn’t want to do activities where he isn’t going to be pretty good at them by maybe the 3rd or 4th practice. he feels like maybe he has signed up for more than he can handle. he needs at least a one month break from everything, and especially from middle school, which he would actually like to just drop out of completely.

i tried not to problem solve any further or argue any of his points right then, but instead told him it seemed really normal to be quite overwhelmed after his very first week of taking on so much new stuff. middle school and cross country basically in one week. a new school building, 7 teachers instead of 1, 7 different classrooms instead of 1, figuring out a locker combination, being in an upper level math class with a teacher giving lectures about how she won’t slow down for them. (never mind that he doesn’t need her to: the class is pre-algebra, 3 textbooks of which quinn read to himself this summer. he began reading the first algebra text in the life of fred series at the time he started middle school, because by golly he is in a hurry to get to geometry. the boy can solve for x. there is no issue over content or pace.)

he calmed down a lot after he got to vent all of it, agreed not to try to tackle it all in one sitting, and agreed he wanted to keep trying. it was time for a bath and bed. once he was in bed, he talked to me more, and was back to happy and positive. he has a crush on a girl, and he was happy about having a couple classes in common with her.

“can i ask you some advice? i mean, you were once a girl. now you’re a woman but… what i’m wondering is how do i even approach her?”

he’s absolutely right, i was once a girl. i told him not to put any pressure on himself in this area of his life. i said girls are just like boys and all they want in a friend is to know someone cares and is listening. you pay attention to things she says until a natural common interest comes up, then you strike up a conversation with her about that topic, with good reciprocity. i said it’s realistically going to look pretty much like a friendship at this stage/age in his life, so not to worry too much about gf/bf stuff right now. i also told him about a friend of ours refusing to date his good friend freshman year, because (even though they are of an age to realistically go on a date) he didn’t want to damage their friendship by dating, and then maybe breaking up and not even being friends anymore, as he had seen other friends do.

he also asked me at one point whether i would be volunteering in his class? “there is a science class, you know.” so he still wants me around.

quinn interviewed grammy and grampy and made an outline to remember what he wants to write for the historical interview assignment. (watching astronauts hit golfballs on the moon!)

paring pears

i was distressed about leaving town for 2 weeks having only had 5 days of his first month of middle school to cram in all the logistical skills (which browser to use to get connected to school wifi?) and coping skills as he makes this enormous transition. he had a sleepover with aragorn the day we left for oklahoma, and ran in his first cross country race while we were gone. i received photos from camp boss/stand-in mom (there’s a reason why she’s my emergency contact) of both his start and a strong finish! he was pleased to not be last, though we’ve talked about it not being about rank/placement, but about your own process of improving and strengthening, challenging yourself to complete a race and accomplish inner goals.

during our drive home from oklahoma, there was a text marathon between quinn and i, mainly concerning the procedure for charging his computer. apparently, he wasn’t as competent on that as i thought, so i walked him through finding the charger, plugging it in, and waiting an hour for it to be ready to try to turn on since no one had charged it in the ten days since i had last done so. while he waited the hour, we played emoji chess. i had a sinking feeling about what i would find when i got him home.

after the two weeks at his dad’s, quinn brought home zero materials and a completely drained computer, having quit the cross country team. he had an F in math and a slew of missing assignments. i only found that out the day before he came back to me, when i hacked into the school’s gradebook interface. the school has yet to mail out the log in info to parents of new sixth graders as of december, but i found my id number on school registration papers, and i did an end-run around by claiming i forgot my (never issued) password, and miraculously, i was emailed a link to reset. so i did. and then i promptly went to visit his math teacher, who reaffirmed his belonging in this level, and was very open to hearing what strategies i felt would help her help him.

he got to decompress for a little while, then started at square one on the math homework on friday night. sometimes he was in good spirits, other times were more angst-filled. he finished block 1 sunday afternoon, and he got started on block 2. we went over some of the questions he had been psyched out about (“i can’t multiply decimals”) until he was comfortable. both rich and i reminded him of how “i can’t read! i’m never going to read! reading is impossible!” turned out for him in the end. once he regained confidence, he started blurting out non-obvious answers left and right.

“Ivan has a board that is 5/8 yard long. He plans to cut the board into smaller boards that are each 5/32 yard long. How many boards will he be able to cut?”

almost instantaneously quinn said, “he gets 4 boards.” then it took him around 10 minutes to write out the problem and show the work to solve it. we discussed strategies for types of problems, like identifying the operation to perform based on key words in the word problem. none of this is new, but he hasn’t needed to think much about it yet. his learning style is such that he goes straight to the 100th story, then has to build the 99 floors underneath his levitating self. another strategy that seemed helpful was verbally articulating the steps to someone else who doesn’t automatically come up with answers like he does… how would you say this to a kid if you were their teacher? i think he likes to fancy himself in the teaching role, so that perked him up in between bouts of grumbling.

then i found him reading his life of fred algebra textbook in his bed tent. (an excerpt below in case anyone is curious about fred.)

he came to the kitchen later in the evening and asked, “do you know carl gauss?”

“um… well i think he died about 2 centuries ago but i know who you mean….”

“well, he was a problem for his teacher because he was bored, and the teacher sent him to the corner to add 1 through 100 including 1 and 100. the teacher came back later and gauss was just sitting there, not doing anything and the teacher accused him of not working on it but he said, ‘i’m done, it’s 5050.’ and the teacher went to the board and began doing the equation and it took a long, long time and sure enough, it was 5050 but he didn’t realize the way gauss did it was to add 1 and 100, 2 and 99, 3 and 98 (all = 101) and quickly realized that would happen 50 times, and therefore multiplied 101 times 50 to get 5050. and that was how he did it so fast. he was such a funny guy, carl gauss.”

special thanks to vi hart for telling him that story. also, why are we fighting about you being able to do math homework, son????

also from vi this month, quinn became obsessed with scutoids, the latest and greatest new geometric shape. vi’s video introduction to scutoids was as engaging as ever, and complete with a paper pattern to download so you could build your own pair of scutoids. he got out his sharpies and tape and set to work. the video featured pomegranates, and the way their seeds grow in the shapes that they do, and the fact that indeed, some of them grow into scutoid shapes, to fill the space as efficiently as possible. some of the seeds may be underdeveloped, so some of their neighbors may have 5 instead of 6 sides, to accommodate the spacing, whereas in other sections, 6 sided arrangements may pack together nicely. vi mentioned wanting to learn more about the way the scaffolding inside the pomegranates develops, and how the decision process for seeds becoming who they are works. i couldn’t help but see a metaphor in the intricacies of development and scaffolding and how they become ever more fascinating, the deeper you look.

that saturday i had farmer’s market, and left him a jellybean fraction multiplying problem and had him do a few problems before we went to the farmer’s market crew party where he had a lot of fun playing with magnatiles. he wanted me to play d and d with him during his “breaks” between doing homework all weekend, and sunday as he was waiting for me to play he sat contemplating his 20 sided dice, and realized “i know how many sides our magnatile creation had on it now!” because his 20 sided dice was the same, made of triangular faces that come together in sets of 5.

we also took a bayou walk and played his version of outdoor pokemon. we walked around and he told me what pokemon i could find and catch. we saw some actual wildlife so it made it more fun to say what pokemon they represented; i caught an ekans (snake) a kabuto (we saw a spider; kabuto is a fossil of some kind but he said it looked the closest to him) a poliwag (frog), a pidgeotto (hawk) and a caterpie (dragonfly).

that weekend also included me finding an egg (which hatched a triceratops).

i ask him if i can peruse his binder, and he says yes. some of his “just write” entries for language arts:

monday morning i had him write himself a post-it note listing what he needed to do that day: hand in math homework, schedule test retake, bring home music books and binder/planner. also, text mama if retaking the test after school that day. having him come up with the things needing to be on the list was pulling teeth, but he got there eventually.

he is going to work on keeping his planner filled in (the two weeks were pretty sparse), and told me of difficulties with that in some of the classes, for which we discussed solutions. he also had missing assignments from spanish and social studies, including his historical interview write-up.

that day of the sticky note, he completed every step of the to-do list, up to and including send me the text! we have been working on establishing some two-way communication via phone, so this was a win. when i picked him up after his retake, he was all smiles. carrying his binder, he hopped in and said his day was, “great!” i asked whether he felt that he and his math teacher had turned over a new leaf together and he said, “well, it’s more like it’s the same leaf, but less brown. it’s kind of light green now.”

he told me he went in after school and “she gave me a brand new test and i just did it all!” and i asked if he felt confident he knew how to do all the problems and he said, “yeah, it was like almost all fractions.”

um, yes my young genius, i know that, i just spent the entire weekend making you do the homework on all the things to do with fractions. he is such a wonder. later while taking a bath, he refused to close his book because, “i’m right in the middle of fred solving some fractions!” totally a reason to let your bath water get cold.

he felt great about it all, told me how he got his whole planner filled in with no problem, and immediately opened up the seaweed snacks i had bought while at the grocery store and devoured the whole package. we made sweet tangerine positive energy tea and he ate 2 more boxes of seaweed snacks. i figured he’d finally get over his cold.

we drank our tea and played d&d. he is taking me through an adventure (celvin, a dwarf wizard and starlefea, an elf cleric are the characters he is having me play) and i get to listen to him say lots of pretty phrases, “he regained his feet…” and pretty words “burnished, escarpment, cistern” etc. some of it is by the script from the book, but it’s a lot to keep organized (sort of choose-your-own-adventure on steroids) and yet he weaves it all into a story with appropriate inflection, and enough specific details to verbally orient you in the dungeon physical space and tell you how many doors go off in which directions and what your options are… he’s fun.

sometime during the evening, i logged onto the grade book and sure enough, his math teacher had already updated his grade. 37% F went to 88% B, quite literally overnight.

middle school operates on 6 week grading periods to give the kids a chance to get the hang of it all. he is not the only one to ever struggle with this transition. in order to minimize stress, there is some flexibility with retakes and grace periods with due dates. and also, a chance to start fresh if all else fails.

i feel it is important for team quinn not to encourage or feed into the negativity that he can sometimes default to, like any of us, when he is hungry/tired/thirsty/overwhelmed. he does not need help developing negative storylines he can latch onto… such as “he feels like he is being treated like an object and expected to perform.” “he feels pressured” was mentioned so many times with respect to cross country and math, and i believe he was encouraged in feeling that way and jumping to an extreme “solution” of quitting to alleviate it, rather than allowed to endure a small amount of positive encouragement to persevere aka “pressure”. i think quinn needs guidance from people who care, who know his goals and have his happiness in mind and his well-being as our most important priority. i am visualizing being a container for quinn to help keep his river in the proper channel and help it keep from spilling out over the banks or getting all dammed up. it’s a balance of not being too rigid, flexing enough so he cannot be bent out of his own shape by the “pressure”, but firm enough to keep him from spilling out and abandoning his own path.

another day when i picked him up, he was in a bad mood. “i know more about science than my science teacher. and i have lunch detention tomorrow.”

a kid in the lunch line said that day’s lunch detention was canceled and would be happening wednesday instead, and that quinn was also in it. and quinn believed the boy. i explained that only a teacher can tell you if you have lunch detention,  not another student (it took a while to establish that no teacher told him he had done anything wrong, nor had he had 3 tardies or whatever else you can get detention for… and knew of nothing he had done to earn a detention) and i said i thought the kid was messing with him. “ohhh.”

quinn disagreed with things his science teacher said about the water cycle, and he refused to fill in the worksheet because he wouldn’t write things he didn’t believe to be true, and he would get an F if he didn’t, so it was all bad. i talked to him about focusing on what he did believe of the article, or writing “according to the article” and giving the answer the teacher wants, even if according to you it’s a little off. (the article was not inaccurate but was oversimplified, and quinn is very strict about abiding by the laws of physics and logic… he just doesn’t apply it in every situation, such as when a kid tells him he has lunch detention.)

he listened to some sparkle stories to unwind, had hot dogs, cauliflower, kefir and bbq potato chips for snack (hangry much?) and did a few math problems before karate. when we got to karate i went on the back mat with him to try to help remind him of techniques he was fuzzy on from being away for 2 weeks, and he wouldn’t do it, and said, “it’s just… the math. you’re not listening to me. i can’t do it, i shouldn’t be in the class, i should be in the other class…” all over again. we argued about that for a bit, then he joined his class as it was starting.

stalling and complaining notwithstanding, he had no trouble with the second homework on integers and finally ended up blazing through the last page of it and going to bed to read… math. specifically, the quadratic equation. he didn’t need to “study” or do the even problems this round, as there was nothing he “didn’t know” how to do on this whole assignment. at one point i made up a harder problem to enable him to articulate the steps to “someone” because he couldn’t explain how to add -6 +2 other than saying “‘you add 2 to negative six” so i gave him -1694 +252 and then he could say, “subtract the smaller number from the bigger number and assign it a negative sign because the bigger number is negative” because then there was actually enough to justify an explanation. again, he was saying the answer immediately as he got done reading the questions… and then had to write out the “work”.

the math class was still being debated. it is hard for him to hear from me that the other class isn’t the answer to his woes, that it would require just as much busy work on his part, (it’s still a middle school class), but it would be on topics he already knows and would get bored with.

“buddy, do you want to spend a whole year getting to this topic you’ve already mastered??? you’re ready for the pythagorean theorem.”

“i already know the pythagorean theorem,” quoth he.


i asked him to trust me that i know something about what goes on in middle school classes, and what the options are, and why he was placed this way; to trust mrs j from last year, trust mrs z (current teacher), because all of us are saying you belong in this class right now.

i tried to give him perspective that it would soon feel less overwhelming, since he had just done the first month of math homework in 4 days. i gave him kudos for working hard to get caught up, but also the assurance that doing one assignment every 10 days or so will feel a lot more doable.

when i asked him about his unit 2 math test after school, he told me he probably got a perfect score. he hadn’t seen his grade yet but she had told them it would be on the gradebook already so we could look it up. 100% on the test, 100% on the homework, and now a solid A at 94% overall. he grinned when i showed him. i said, “are you convinced you’re in the right math class yet?” and he said, “you know i am.” i took that as acknowledgement that i had believed in him even when he doubted. i am hoping we can put the “i need an easier class” argument to rest now for good.

rich teased him later, “i hear you’re going to change math class after all… to college math.” it was one of those moments where quinn was confused briefly (“you like spicy food, right?”), then caught on. still the same boy. he took his bath then put on his hexaflexagon shirt backwards. i found him still wearing his glasses in the morning when i went to wake him for an all-day outdoor school field trip on the beach. he had stayed up late and finished his algebra textbook by firefly jar light.

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