Thursday, December 6, 2012

Merry Chanukah

I've been spending most of my time recently issuing clarifications about the season to our two daughters. No, Santa Claus isn't Jesus, all grown up; no, the elves who make the toys are not the apostles. On the other hand, there's no mezuzah nailed to the doorway outside Santa's workshop either. But it's likely that I'm more confused than my daughters. Two-year-old B has recently begun singing this merry holiday ditty, blissfully unaware of the cultural and theological paradoxes contained therein:

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas,
I made you out of clay,
And when you're dry and ready,
With Christmas I will play.

I am (nominally, by baptism if by nothing else) a Christian; my wife is Jewish. Matters of faith however rarely arise when it comes to our kids. Back when Woody Allen told jokes, he had a pretty good one about how he, an atheist, and his wife, an agnostic, used to have bitter fights about what religion not to bring the children up in. We are taking a similarly hands-off tactic. The pre-school that they both attend has a curriculum which teaches them about Jewish cultural traditions, and that's fine by both of us -- I don't care what religion they reject when they get to be teenagers, as long as they know what they're rejecting.

At home the two holiday traditions co-exist pretty happily. We try to keep the menorah far enough away from the Christmas tree so we don't set the entire co-op on fire, but other than that there have been no real conflicts. And now that the girls are old enough, I've been trying to introduce them to the two holiday television shows that I regularly watched when I was growing up. They're both non-denominational, thankfully, up to a point. At my age, I find that the most disturbing part of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the condition of the Grinch's teeth, but I don't have any theological quibbles with the show otherwise. A Charlie Brown Christmas is okay too, at least up until the point where Linus goes all evangelical on the gang and offers a reading from the Gospel of Luke, not exactly a part of the Torah (though the Whos weren't a member group of the twelve tribes either, if memory serves).

They're old enough for cartoons, not quite old enough for sectarian debate. This, no doubt, will come. But until then I think A and B are far more interested in the presents than the dogma. That's going to be a tough one. Though Jesus was Jewish, things get more complicated from there. Until then, dad will be very very happy just carving up the Chanukah ham.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Testing, testing

To childless adults, the phrase "G-and-T" is a promise of comfort, conjuring up a refreshing cold hard-alcoholic drink that puts you in mind of blissful summer days and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style marital arguments. But to New York parents, it's a construction that strikes fear into mothers and fathers who already doubt their own intellectual acumen.

I am referring, of course, to the New York City Department of Education Gifted and Talented program, which "provides challenging instruction to children with exceptional academic capacity." This is the season for applications for admission to this elite. When I was a kid, potential Mozarts and Einsteins were tossed in with the rest of us dullards, left to sink or swim in a sea of pre-pubescent mediocrity. It's also the first confrontation with the encyclopedia of testing acronyms which will follow our kids through their entire academic careers. OLSAT and NNAT2 may mean nothing to the childless classes (except as the names of NASA satellites that explode on the launchpad), but to the rest of us, it's the first step to Harvard.

C and I think our daughters are brilliant and special. All parents think their children are brilliant and special. They're all right. We want to give our kids every opportunity for an excellent education, and if an education is targeted for the "gifted and talented" among us, how can it not be excellent? It takes the DOE to winnow the wheat of humanity from the chaff these days, and they do it with tests.

So I sat down with A, our four-year-old daughter, last week to administer the practice test thoughtfully provided by the DOE, and before too long I was wondering whether any of the experts who put the test together had ever met a four-year-old. The assessment comes in two parts, a verbal and a spatial evaluation. So I patiently sat A down, opened the test booklet in front of her, and asked her the first practice question.

"Okay, here we go," I said, pointing to an illustration on the first page. "Look at the building blocks next to the little chair. Find the number that is right below a heart," I read. "What number is right below a heart?" Then — following the instructions in the booklet (at least I'm good at following instructions, one of the things the test is supposed to evaluate) — I paused for her response.

"Poopy," A responded.

"You're guessing," I gently corrected her. "The correct answer is 'two.' Let's go to the next one. Look at the next row. Look at the box next to the rainbow. The box has letters and circles in it. Tell me the letter that is inside both the circles."

"Poopy!" A suggested.

"Ah, not quite," I said. "Only the letter 'C' is inside both circles. Maybe it's the letters and numbers that are confusing you — let's try one more. Move to the next row. See the pizza? Peter ate the two slices of pizza that you see at the beginning of the row. David ate exactly as many pieces as Peter did. Now, which picture shows the number of slices that David ate?"

"POOPY!" A insisted.

Hoping that colleges still provide full athletic scholarships, I sent A off to another session with The Backyardigans, and with former Lounge Lizard Evan Lurie playing in the background, took a look at the spatial assessment of the test. Pretty soon I was mumbling the blunter adult equivalent of "poopy" myself. The first graphic I turned to was this:

As anybody who knows me will tell you, I'm about the last person to turn to when you need to fit a square peg into a square hole. I like to think of myself as someone who thinks outside the box — but here I was, in a world of boxes. And seeing how my daughters rip apart the cartons from FreshDirect, I know they're no fonder of boxes than I am. Gifted and talented I clearly was not. Soon I joined A on the couch for another thrilling episode of Curious George (whose talent for plumbing equals my own, I observed) and thought I'd better leave this to her mother, who is far more gifted and talented than I am, as life keeps reminding me.

Whether my daughters wind up in the gifted-and-talented program is something, clearly, that's going to be up to them. But even if they don't — if they wind up in the blockheaded-and-moronic program like their father — they're still going to be the most brilliant and special girls in the world. As for me, the next time I have to give the practice test to my girls, I'll make sure I have a bottle of G close to hand (easy on the T, please) to get me through it.