Monthly Archives: March 2012

big kid school


I’m sure every parent has a certain amount of anxiety over sending their child to kindergarten. But, I suspect parents of cancer surviving five year olds have a bit more of it.

In any case, I feel like my neurosis on this matter has kicked into full gear this week, with the appeals deadline coming up for Oakland Unified. You see, we live in Oakland, which is known for many things, most of them bad, including the schools.

Now, I love Oakland and it really is a great place to live in so many ways, but the truth is living in a city like this shows the true face of public education. There are good elementary schools, but they are pretty much always in the priciest parts of town, and in the Bay Area we are talking about homes worth around $1,000,000. They are good schools primarily because the parents are affluent enough to donate enough to the school fund to pay for things that Oakland Unified does not. Like what you ask? Librarian, PE teachers, art and music teachers, and sometimes even extra custodians. And the schools in the affluent areas also tend to have more stay at home moms who can donate their time in the classroom.

Our neighborhood school is a “good” school in a really bad district. We applied to get into our top choice via lottery, but did not win. In playing this game, one generally take into consideration the chance one has at any given school and then ranks accordingly. It’s rather complicated. I have written about it on one of my other blogs, if you’re interested about the process.

Back when I started out touring the schools, I thought back to my happiest memories and felt all warm and fuzzy about Diego starting his formal education. But somewhere between then and now, my thoughts changed to worry. Worry that I would no longer be there to protect Diego. You see, he  still pees his pants several times a week. We have spoken to the doctors and they seem to feel that it is trauma and nerve damage related. They have not given us indication on when/if it will clear up. The “if” part is what scares me. I know I shouldn’t think about the the “if”, but it is there. Diego had 5 abdominal surgeries in one year, who knows what’s going on down there. I’m encouraged to hear that it seems to be common among Wilms Tumor survivors, and parents tell me that it did clear up. So, I’m hoping…. but in the meantime what do we do?? Also, he still scares extremely easily (PTSD).

It seems our first choice in schools will probably not work out. This is the elementary next to the boy’s preschool, where the principal is young and compassionate and they have children with disabilities (wheelchairs) in attendance. A number of Diego’s friends will go there. But, spaces are scarce. When I called the school about the chance of appeal they told me that the school is over enrolled and it would not be likely, at least this year. I went to the school board office, and our second choice, also unlikely as that school would be absorbing a school closed for poor performance. For budgetary and performance reasons, the Oakland school district has closed a number of schools. this means more kids in each class, more competition and bigger schools. Also, its’ a matter of fact that Diego’s birth year (2007) was the biggest in American history. So all of these factors mean that should we choose to appeal we should do so strategically.

I decided to try to personally appeal to the principal of our first choice school. I felt perhaps with his story they could make room for him. But she said, it is really out of her hands and I would need to take it up with the student assignment office. So I drove down to speak with the Oakland school board to try to get more information about where the spaces might be, but I could not get much information out of them either, other than choice #2 probably wouldn’t work out either.

At this point I decided to explore 2 more schools which I had not toured in the Fall. To meet with the principals, talk to them face to face and talk to them about my concerns for Diego so I could feel out if the school would be a nurturing and supportive environment.

“Big kid school” for Diego has become such a big concern for me because I had a very bad experience in third grade, right after my father died. I was placed in a class with a teacher with zero sympathy to my situation. On that first day of school, and a new school at that, I was introduced to the class as Maja, the girl who’s father had just died. It was only about 2 weeks before that he lost his battle to cancer, and I burst into tears. And from that day forward, I was marked as an easy target. I endured so much teasing and bullying that year, and my teacher has no patience for me. I had a happy experience of school before that, but it was an incredibly hard year for me. And now, I’m sending off my little cancer survivor to a place where I feel I can’t protect him any more. I don’t want him to endure the teasing and the lack of compassion that I did, on his very first year of school.

I’m not sure if I’m overly worked up about this, but situations like this can bring things vividly back. The idea of Diego being teased or bullied breaks my heart. He endured so much, more than most adults in his short little life so far. I feel like he’s like a war hero in some ways, deserving respect and honor. He is not weak, he is worn down and still recovering from what can only be called a nightmare experience at any age.

Honestly, I felt really uncomfortable talking to the principals, but I felt for my peace of mind, it had to be done. It’s so hard to drop the C-bomb, and expose my child’s weaknesses. I think in some ways it’s counterintuitive to the way we’ve evolved from animals. Anyway, I felt if I spoke with them eye to eye, I could get an idea of how they would deal with the idea of a child with cancer, and how the school might support him.

I spoke with 2 principals at 2 different schools. The first, a woman, on Wednesday while the boys were at school. I led into the conversation by telling her that my son has a rather severe medical history and that he is a cancer survivor. She reacted about how I would expect. With shock but compassion. But the second principal, a man, reacted in an odd way. When I told him that Diego is a cancer survivor, he said “Congratulations!” And when I raised an eyebrow, he continued, “He survived!”

Ugh. Awkward. So awkward.

Now I know that the C-bomb takes people off guard, so I can be forgiving but it seemed pretty clear that the principal had a large amount of discomfort with the idea of children’s cancer. The rest of our conversation went really well, but it’s hard to really undo that first impression. I feel that Diego might have the best chance to get into that school, and it’s one of the top schools in Oakland. But, do I forgive the principal for that flub? Or would it always be weird?

It’s so strange. Having been through the experience of having a child with cancer and meeting other families, sometimes it feels like pediatric cancer isn’t so rare. Now, I don’t mean that in a scary way, more in a it’s-not-taboo-to-talk-about sort of way. It seems weird to me that these veteran principals haven’t had more experience with it.

I’m feeling guilt about not accepting his assignment of our neighborhood school, but I’ve been over it in my head many times and it just doesn’t feel right to at least try for a better placement. Our local school has a librarian, and a number of amenities, but not the solid funding base of some of the neighboring schools. Who knows where Diego will end up…

Anyway, it’s important to stand back and be incredibly thankful to be where we are right now: a family with a healthy 5 year old boy with his whole future ahead of him~

me with a bald head


I was letting Diego play with Photo Booth on my Mac tonight, and he saw some pictures and movies of himself from the hospital in 2010. Suddently he started giggling, “Hee hee hee. That’s me with a bald head. Ha ha ha- me with a bald head!”