Justine Henning

Even though it’s a short commute (four blocks), I use the walk to work to clear my head of the early morning’s struggles (helping get the kids dressed, fed, and out the door … and having some breakfast myself as well, if I’m lucky) and begin to focus on my other kids: the four siblings who depend on me for their education. Their parents took them out of private school three years ago to try home schooling. Unlike most home-schooling parents, however, they had decided to keep their own jobs and hire a “professional educator” to teach their children. That’s where I came in.

Today is unusual, as 13-year-old Jack’s bar mitzvah is tomorrow. When I arrive, he and his father are making last-minute party preparations, so I call his sisters over, ask them who the Marquis de Lafayette was, and tell them to find out more about him. They set about reviewing the American Revolution in Joy Hakim’s History of Us, which we all love reading together each morning, and doing some extra research in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a staple of our little school. The sixth-graders at the private school where I used to teach came to me apparently ignorant of the alphabet, or so it seemed when I asked them to look up words in the dictionary or encyclopedia. “It’s not there,” was the most common thing they said, after a brief plowing through pages. Rachel and Clio may not have appeared on a nationally televised spelling bee, but these third- and fourth-graders find Lafayette with ease (OK, I have to explain that they should check under “L” and not “M” first).

John, the youngest child, immediately asks whether he can “play.” He takes out tiny wooden cubes and the rods and squares (made up, respectively, of 10 and 100 attached cubes; these are known as base-10 blocks and are handy for teaching kids about place value and all kinds of other math) that accompany them, and begins building a few small houses. I let him play, partly because the brief lesson I’ve planned for the morning is geared toward his older siblings, and partly because despite my gut feeling that playing is hugely important for kids his age, the work I’ve done with him this year hasn’t included enough fun and games.

This was John’s first year at what we’ve been calling the “Justus” school. The previous two years he attended preschool classes at the local private school while I worked with his siblings. Frustrated with the small amount the older kids had learned there in kindergarten (apparently they had spent the entire year gluing beans to large letter shapes prepared by their teachers), his parents decided to have him join us this year. He’d loved preschool but was eager to join his big brother and sisters, tackling math problems and other assignments around the dining-room table.

Suddenly I had to figure out how to teach someone to read, add, subtract, and count beyond 10. Before I took this job, I taught mostly middle-school-aged children. And I never taught math (unless you count a bit of tutoring I did in college … at a minimum-security prison in Boston) or science. Friends and former colleagues pointed me toward resources like those base-10 blocks, and then I made stuff up, perhaps guided by memories of my own elementary-school experiences. “John’s the easy one,” I’ve heard his parents say. With the model of the bean-pasting in their heads, they figure anything he picks up as I go about instructing the other kids is great. When they hired me, they seemed mainly concerned that I knew how to teach their oldest child. They take great pride in the achievements of all the kids, but when it came to hiring me, they focused on Jack.

At the end of his home-schooled kindergarten year, John is reading simple books, writing sentences, and doing basic math with ease, so giving him the morning off from more academic pursuits seems fine. But if he were playing with a bunch of other 5- and 6-year-olds, perhaps those little houses would be part of a vast city. Or the refuge of creatures whose appearances and activities I can’t begin to imagine. My own son’s spending the day playing with 15 other children, frolicking in a classroom designed with preschoolers in mind. There’s a water table, a child-size kitchen, all sorts of blocks, paint, clay, a huge doll house, dress-up clothes, a gym, daily trips to the playground, and, above all, those 15 other kids to teach him countless ways to exploit this stuff. I helped John learn to read, bursting his world open. But sometimes I wonder whether he might not have had a richer year if he hadn’t been limited to playing in his living room, beans or no beans.

I did manage to get him some exercise and sunshine this morning. Jack joined his sisters in discovering information about Lafayette (whose full name would put me way over my word limit here). They filled their chalkboard (a large, black rectangle surrounded by a gilded frame, put up in my employers’ foyer to round out the school without compromising the interior decorating of their home) with facts. Clio and Rachel said, “Wow” a few times, letting Jack know they were impressed with their older brother’s quicker note-taking abilities as he took up the last bits of space on the board. Then we all headed into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, at whose Ninth Street entrance is an early 20th-century statue of Lafayette, his horse, his sword, and his attendant. None of the four kids seemed quite as impressed as I’d hoped by the huge memorial to a man we’d studied, just steps from their home. Clio touched his sword, Jack leapt up to sit beside him, everyone counted the years from Lafayette’s death to the date he was memorialized here, and we all speculated about the symbolism of the tree by which he stands. “Great craftsmanship,” commented Clio, finally, pointing to a small bump on the horse’s leg. “Horses have a bone that sticks out right there,” she explained. She and Rachel take riding lessons each weekend near their “mountain house.”

With that, we hurried back to the kids’ babysitter, who oversees their activities each day after I leave and was about to take them for pre-bar mitzvah haircuts. I wished Jack good luck, cleaned up as many as I could of the Cheerios my daughter, who joins me at work Fridays, had scattered through his apartment, and headed home.