Back to School


Having mastered the intricacies of kindergarten to a good and sufficient level, Athena has been invited back to attempt the rigors of 1st grade. Naturally we here in the Scalzi household wish her all the best in this difficult endeavor.

Yes, of course I’m being ironic. The other day at the school’s open house I got a look at her reading and math workbooks and flipped to the back to see what she was expected to have learned by next June. Been there, done that, wrote the Whatever entry. For a current estimation of where Athena is on the learning scale, here’s a question she asked me yesterday: “Daddy, if black absorbs all the light and warms things up, and white reflects all the light and stays cool, is red somewhere in the middle?” She also complains that she doesn’t know all the planets any more since they found that new one and they haven’t named it yet, flounce, flounce, huff. Having geek parents has its own set of challenges, I suppose. So we let the teacher know Athena might be just a little ahead of the curve there.

But we also let the teacher know Athena is, indeed, six years old, and prone to the usual six-year-old bouts of stubborness, silliness, sulky moments, antic outbursts and general “look! I have toes!”-ness that six year olds have — i.e., no matter what she knows already, she’s still a kid, to be treated as such, and more to the point, allowed to be such. Athena needs socialization as much as any kid her age, and at this point I’d rather she have that than to worry whether she’s learning enough algebra in the first grade to get her into Harvard a little over a decade from now.

The teacher seemed to get what I was asking of her: Try to keep Athena from being academically bored, but also try not to turn her into the class freak while doing so. Athena’s kindergarten teacher did an admirable job striking this balance, so I have high hopes we can do it again. We’ll have to see. Athena no doubt has her own opinions about the matter as well; I expect we’ll learn what they are presently.

27 Comments on “Back to School”

  1. Not until she learns the principles of internal combustion and/or fuel cell theory, Jim.

  2. Speaking of planets, my favortie way of remembering them comes from Heinlein:

    A&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspAsteroid Belt


    BTW: Does this comments program support tables?

  3. “Does this comments program support tables?”


    I’ve never quite understood the point of mnemonics. It’s always been easier for me just to memorize the terms. But I’m willing to accept the idea I’m a freak.

    The only mnemonic I find useful is “Oh Be a Fine Girl, Kiss Me,” is the mnemonic for star type classification, and that’s because what the words represent is simply the first letter in each word.

  4. King Philip came over from Germany Saturday.

    Otherwise I would never have remembered whether a class is a larger division than an order than a family. Kingdom, genus, and species I never had a problem with.

    I think that’s the only one I ever really found useful.

    By the by, I’m with Athena. Name that planet, already.

  5. She also complains that she doesn’t know all the planets any more since they found that new one and they haven’t named it yet…

    Long time reader, first time commenter, here. I just have to say that the above sentence makes Athena the coolest six year old on the planet. That made my day!

  6. Only a uber geek (*bows* – I am not worthy) would use “Terra” and include the asteroid belt. For the rest of us, “My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Napoleon’s Picture” has always worked for me.

    (although the problem with the names of new planets is still there)

  7. Aidan, going into grade 4, has been the go-to kid for his teachers when it comes to science questions. Indeed, a few times he has corrected them (rightly), and to their credit, they’ve all taken it well (all thought it was pretty funny, actually). There was a parent supervising lunch, though, who decided to challenge the kids with science trivia and got something wrong, and she batted Aidan down pretty fast when he tried to correct her.

    Brennan is Athena’s age, and while he’s on the ball and will likely do well academically (as academic as grade 1 requires), he’s going to be one of the class jocks. I’ll just have to work harder to teach him to be respectful.

    School doesn’t start until next Tuesday for us, though. One more week of them underfoot, desperately looking for something to do.


  8. I will take this opportunity to point out that I nearly flunked kindergarten because I couldn’t skip, or so my parents and I were told. What followed was several days of me practicing at home to get skipping down right.

    Of course, this was from the same kindergarten teacher who warned my parents that I was poorly socialized because I would hug other students, and told them to have my IQ tested because I wasn’t paying enough attention in her class. She was worried that I wouldn’t do well in school. My mom took a special delight in informing her years later that I’d finally finished that Ph.D. in physics.

  9. Hmmmm I’ve never really thought about it, for me Terra has always been the “proper” name, and Earth more or less slang. The joys of Latin.


  10. John, this entire post is predicated upon the lie that Pluto is a planet. It’s way off the ecliptic, too elliptical, and crappily small to boot. The new one is worse in all but the last of those categories, I think. Jeeze, if we let that sucker into the club, the floodgates will be open.

    I know you want Athena to fit in at school, repeating the flatrap of her instructors, but there are times when one must fight the power, storm the barricades, and call a planetoid a planetoid. Four terrestrials on the inside, four gas giants on the outside–the way the Flying Spaghetti Monster intended it to be–is enough for any solar system.

    And if you don’t want Athena to be a Molotov of the classroom, have her explain that the Rose Space Center (attached to the Museum of Natural History in NYC) agrees with me. That’s the eastern Establishment I’m talking about, dude.

  11. Scott, you know I respect you as a writer and a human being, but your planetist attitude sickens me. You are of course no doubt aware that the majority of the extra solar planets discovered have orbits far more elliptical than most of those in our system, and yet you wouldn’t suggest they are not planets. After all, they are all gas giants. Or what about Mercury? Dude, that planet’s orbit is so elliptical that at one point in its orbit the sun goes backward in the sky. And there are moons in the system that are larger than Mercury. Yet I don’t see you and your Rose Center revisionists climbing the barricades to deplanetize Mercury. Pluto has a moon, which is more than Mercury can say.

    When will you planetists realize that your revolting hate of ice planets just makes you look small, and off the ecliptic of human decency?

  12. Until the IAU says different, the tenth planet will be referred to as Athena. On this site, I vote it be referred to as Athena in perpetuity.

    And we can work that very nicely into the last mnemonic:

    MY mercury
    VERY venus
    ENIGMATIC earth
    MOTHER mars
    JUST jupiter
    SERVED saturn
    US uranus
    NINE neptune
    PIZZAS pluto … with
    ANCHOVIES Athena

  13. Strictly speaking, it should then be called “Minerva” to be consistent with the other planet names. But thanks.

  14. Well they already broke the “Thou shalt name planets after Roman Gods” rule with Uranus StarChild (NASA) so there’s no good reason Planet X couldn’t be called Athena.

    Colm Mac

  15. Nah, make it Athena. I always thought the Roman names for everything sucked anyway.

    Except Mars. Mars is a cool name, but not as cool as Ares.

    Then again, you teach the average five-year-old to spell “Aphrodite.”

    OK, I take it back. We’ll call it Minerva.

    But I still say Athena is a cooler name.

  16. John, you too can be a fine human being, despite your sad devotion to the cult of Pluto.

    Of course, highly elliptic orbits are common among newly discovered planets, but that’s not a question of astronomical taxonomy, but of epistemology: those planets were discovered only because they make their suns wobble! That’s what elliptical orbits do.

    In young solar systems with oversized, easily detected gas giants, ellipticality is to be expected. But to compare our older, more ordered system with those upstarts is like comparing the assured strokeplay of Andre Aggasi with a rabid monkey clearing a tennis court with a machine gun.

    But issues of size and ellipticallity pale next to those of material origin. What matters most is whether an object falls within the ecliptic plane, revealing if it originated in the accretion disk, that mighty Frisbee of dust from whose material we are all composed. Planet-come-latelies like Pluto orbit at a severe angle from the eight real planets, sticking out like a crooked tooth. They are mere cosmic gypsies, captured randomly in passing. To admit their sort is to open the floodgates of taxonomic havoc, even if this one winds up being named after your daughter.

  17. Ahh…Pluto, et al. The single-wide mobile home version of planets :-)

    So disturbingly declasse in our otherwise homeowners-association-bonded, single-family-residential planetary neighborhood. And just when you think they’ve reached their limit, another one appears on the commons overnight. Shocking.

  18. PS – thought I’d let you know you’ve won over the hubster. He’s almost finished AATS and has reached a point where he has actually stopped reading it because he doesn’t want it to end. I keep telling him that you’ll write more, but the poor man is bereft. I hope you get that keyboard fixed – I’ve already pre-sold you for at least a dozen more books to soothe his loss. :-D

  19. I tend to find mnemonics useful to remember the order of a list whose items I know, but not as a reminder of what the items are.

    Of course I don’t need a mnemonic at all for the order of the planets, because I’ve had that burned into my brain since I was 4.

  20. If the definition of “planet” is already so incredibly vague as to include both Earth and Jupiter, I don’t see why we shouldn’t keep Pluto in the club, just to be polite.

  21. …she doesn’t know all the planets…
    I initially read that as plants, which made me think your daughter was some kind of botanical wunderkind. (Not that she isn’t, I’m sure, but it’s probably a lot easier to know the names of all the planets than all the plants…)

    My five-year-old nephew was reading his own birthday cards last year. And not just the printing-press part, but my chickenscratch scrawl, too. It’s fun to see the look in my sister’s eyes — part pride, part terror.

  22. Scott Westerfeld writes:

    “In young solar systems with oversized, easily detected gas giants, ellipticality is to be expected. But to compare our older, more ordered system with those upstarts is like comparing the assured strokeplay of Andre Aggasi with a rabid monkey clearing a tennis court with a machine gun.”

    Leave it to a planetist to obfuscate the point. This implies that every extrasolar system is inherently young, and while some are, some aren’t (indeed, not every system discovered has planets with wildly elliptical orbits — just most of them.

    Which is also to the point: the “wobble” is an issue with the barycenter of the planet-star gravitational system, not — as you imply — some sort of action where the star cosmically “ducks” as the planet swoops in. The barycenter of the Sun/Jupiter gravitational system hovers just above the surface of the sun, which means the sun “wobbles” more that 800K miles with every orbit of Jupiter. That’s a detectable wobble, my friend, and Jupiter’s orbit is not notably elliptical, relative to the orbits of the other planets in the system: Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Pluto all have more elliptical orbits.

    Admit that you’ve tailored your “facts” to rally the credulous to your planetist cause! But, as you can see, the truth is always the more powerful ally than fomenting ice planet hatred based on ignorance.

    But I see you try to deflect the argument with your “materialist planetism” scheme, suggesting that ice planets are not a natural consequence of system formation. However it is well accepted that both the Oort cloud and the Kuiper Belt are remnants of the same nebula from which our own system formed. Indeed, citizens of these regions of our system are valued because they are time capsules from this earlier age. We didn’t ram Deep Impact into that comet just for fun, you know. If anything, in this regard ice planets should be regarded more as citizens of this system then our own johnny-come-lately planets. They have seniority.

    Scott, can’t you see that the goal of rank planetism is apparent to all? Your exclusionary planetary policies are based on fear. Yes, fear: Fear of an ice planet. I say the conspiracy of the rock and gas planet partisan and their “Eastern establishment” allies to delegitimize our icy brethren shall not prevail.

  23. “My very educated mother just served us nine pies.”

    I guess it depends what part of the country you grew up in. Wikipedia has dozens and dozens to look through here.

    As for socialization vs. academics, my wife and I have this discussion constantly. Our older son is starting kindergarten next week (1 year behind Athena), but presents a similar problem (is already reading on his own, displays good logic skills with real-world problems, etc). His nursery school was very helpful in advancing his socialization, but like you, I worry that the academics in “real school” will get boring if they’re covering stuff he already knows.

    Our current plan is to encourage the teachers to challenge him as much as possible (what we used to call “extra credit” when I was a kid), as well as continue to challenge him with new & interesting topics at home (as you obviously do with Athena).

    What makes these kids special, IMHO, is not their ability to memorize the names of planets, or read/write ahead of schedule. It’s their sponge-like desire to learn new things. I think if we continue to encourage that in our children, they’ll always find something interesting to learn no matter where they are. In the meantime, what an awesome problem to have, huh?

  24. A MUCH more fun mnemonic for kingdom, phylum, et al., is: Kids Playing Catch On Freeway Get Squashed.

    the politics-of-ice-planets discussion is much-needed laughter in my day!

  25. Whatever happened to
    Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Silk?

    And then there are the often-risque mnemonics for the resistor color coding scheme…
    Black Brown Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Volet Gray White
    The middle is easy because it’s the visible spectrum.

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