School of Thought

The decisions are made. The die is cast. After six months of researching school options for our kids, both of whom enter new schools next year, we’ve made our final choices. No going back. Go Toros! Go Bulldogs!

You can tell I’m nervous, right?

Where I grew up, there was none of this “Which schools are you applying to?” crap. Every last one of us went to the local public elementary school. Then the middle school. Then the high school. Yes, there was a parallel parochial system that drew all the Irish Catholics in my neighborhood, but once those kids got onto the Holy track it was the same thing for them: first Lady of Lourdes, then Queen of Peace, then Our Lady of Mercy (girls) or McQuaid (boys.)

What a golden era. Entire tranches of our young brains were spared the indignities of “shadow visits” and researching afterschool clubs and language requirements, and could instead be devoted to memorizing lyrics by Hall and Oates or devising strategy for epic games of bike tag. Where am I going to go to school? Why, where my brother went. And my sister before him. When I showed up for kindergarten, the teacher said, “I remember you! Your sister brought you here for show and tell when you were a newborn!” I don’t think parents spent nervous hours worrying whether it was worse to impose adult edicts and crush a child’s tender spirit, or to defer to the educational preference of a person who, given the choice, would eat a 100% sugar diet.

Now, for all I know no one who grew up in my birth ZIP code still follows the same lockstep process I did. My niece and nephews who live there did, though, and one of them even had the same German teacher as me. The public schools I went to were excellent, empirically excellent. I remember getting to college and thinking how much easier some of the classes were than in my high school.

But in Oakland, one has choices. One must consider the choices, given the vagaries of state educational funding and the decimation that Prop 13 has wrought on the quality of California education. (Adjusted per-pupil spending – We’re Number 47! Thank god for Alabama making us look good.)

So that means Sunday school open houses, Wednesday night information sessions, conversations in the grocery store aisle with fellow parents about what they’ve heard about this school or that. It means applications, recommendations, interviews. It means driving by the school during let-out time, to see if it’s as chaotic as you’ve been led to believe, and stopping by ostensibly to drop off paperwork but really to see the school in action when it hasn’t been buffed to a high sheen by an admissions director.

It means frank family discussions about budgets, goals, worries. What kind of a future do you want for your child? What school is best suited to get her there? Who else will be attending, and is that a community in which you can envision yourself? Where do you see yourself in another four or five years?

That’s a discussion I was hoping to have with and about the kids when they were 18, not 11.

To their eternal credit, my kids were reasonable, calm, and determined throughout this process. One knew from the get-go where she wanted to attend and just had to bring her parents around. The other was open to all possibilities and, because of that, made us particularly proud of the confidence with which she made her final choice.

They’re going to public schools, just like their dad and I did. But we sure took the long way ‘round.

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