Justine Henning

“Can we start with history?” Clio greets me with these words nearly every morning. When she doesn’t, the others fill in for her. I find that kind of enthusiasm so refreshing that the answer is nearly always “Yes.” So we begin school today by gathering in the living room, John curled up under his worn-out security quilt, the older kids sitting up for a few minutes at a time on the couch, then gradually slumping into John’s position, until a teacherly reminder starts the process over again. I read to them about John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Joy Hakim reminds her readers that Adams and the other Federalists feared the Democratic-Republicans’ faith in the American masses and that they were less sure than was Thomas Jefferson that people are basically good. “Do you think that most people try to be good most of the time?” I ask John. He nods, explaining that “if you don’t be good, then you’ll be grounded.”

Everyone seems to agree that most people do try to be good, but for material reasons. People are good, says Jack, “to get things.” I ask which things he means. “A car, a house, a computer,” answers the boy whom I’d barely managed to separate from his new laptop this morning.

Clio agrees, comparing the American people to the kids in her family. “It’s like we act good so we can get candy.” When Jack objects, she adds that without candy, “I would act good … but not as good.”

Returning to the book, we find Hakim taking on Adams’ anti-populist analysis with an example from Adams’ own life, reminding us that he represented in court the British soldiers who shot at the rioting crowd during the Boston Massacre. When asked what that was, Rachel vaguely recalls Indians ambushing townsfolk in New England. Clearly some review is necessary. Clio and Jack fill in the basic facts for the younger kids, Clio drawing upon her impressive memory for text. She then places most of the blame for the violence on the colonists. “It’s kind of like what we do to Jack and then he hits us and then we go to Mom.”

“Except I don’t kill you,” says Jack, somewhat wistfully.

We move to the dining room. The kids take out notebooks and begin writing accounts of Jack’s bar mitzvah, comparing the weekend’s festivities with the anticipations I’d had them write out last week. John draws rows and rows of rods topped by circles and then writes, “Al of As OR STDinG uP JACK is ReDing His PoRsHiN.” He finishes first, so I pick out the letters that should have been lowercase and the misspelled words from his picture, and then turn them into a handwriting exercise.

Jack stops writing shortly after his parents leave for work to ask me whether I would ever let my son get a tattoo. “It won’t always be my decision,” I answer first, scoring a point or two with my oldest student. Then I admit that I would never allow either of my children to get a tattoo, for two reasons: 1) Their personal aesthetics might change one day, and 2) I think nearly all tattoos are ugly. “Find another way to assert your independence,” I suggest, when Jack explains that while none of them have any “yet,” all of his friends want tattoos. He quickly comes up with “body-piercing.” Wanting to regain the points I’d lost with the second half of my answer and also, perhaps, to stir up some trouble with Jack’s nouveau-Republican parents, I add that I’ll let my son get an earring (if he wants one) when he’s 15.

When Rachel finishes her writing, she shows it to me, we add a few words to her spelling list, and then she asks me to pare it down, as I’d done weeks ago for her older sister. Of the four kids, Rachel’s the second youngest but the strongest speller and proud of it. I test her on 50 or so words, leaving her with just 18 that need further review. I imagine that it’s things like their personal spelling lists and quizzes that my students’ parents appreciate. They’ve told me that they pulled their kids out of private school because they were “wasting so much time” there. At home, no one has to spend time studying spelling words they’ve already mastered, reviewing math concepts that pose no difficulty to them, or rewriting anything that’s already polished. They also don’t have to move on to new subjects when they haven’t yet understood the last ones. This is part of what I love about my job, thinking of it as pure teaching. Each day I review what the kids did for school in the past day or so, asking them to work more at anything with which they had trouble and moving them right along once I’m satisfied with their progress. Last week I discovered that Clio and Rachel were both misusing apostrophes. I took them to the foyer (where a huge blackboard hangs on the wall and their parents have set up two beautiful leather-upholstered chairs with writing surfaces attached), explained the two functions of apostrophes, created worksheets at their computer, and set them to work. By the end of the day, they were apostrophe pros. This morning, I was somewhat dismayed to discover that the title on Rachel’s journal piece was “Jacks Bar-mitzvah.” But when I mentioned that there was a missing apostrophe, she quickly fixed it.