Scene: Kindergarten screening for a private school with very competitive admissions. The assessment only lasts two hours, so every little thing counts as a first impression. Much like Sting in the creepiest love song ever: every move you make, every breath you take, they’ll be watching you.
A dozen hopefuls are sitting on the floor in a circle with an administrator who explains how the morning is going to proceed. “And then we’re going to read a story with a surprise ending,” she said, which prompted one poor kid to volunteer, loudly, the memorable line “I hate stories!” I swear you could feel not only the adult inhabitants of the room but the very room itself contract together in a collective cringe. That kid’s out, we all thought. So is the one screaming and crying and clutching his mom’s leg. We hoped our own kids would say something charming or nothing at all. Keepittogether keepittogether keepittogether. None too soon, a little girl swept away the tension-thick air with “I love stories!” and everyone let out the breath they didn’t know they’d been holding. And it was then, ladies and gentlemen, that Wombat introduced himself to the admissions panel with an effusive “And I love surprises!” and I’m not exaggerating (much) when I say you could hear the room itself and all its adult inhabitants come together in one adoring sigh so sweet it gave me three cavities. He really is the best kid.
(How dare you accuse me of being biased!) (Okay, fine, “Biased on Wombat’s Behalf” is my middle name. There’s never enough room to write out the whole thing on forms.)
By Friday we should have all the information we need to finalize Wombat’s school situation for next year, if not also the next six years, or even thirteen. As we approach the end of a process that I started
freaking out about researching three years ago, the best word to sum up how I’m feeling right now is relieved. We don’t hear back from the private schools until later this week, but on Monday we got our letter from the public district, which assigns kids to schools based on a lottery system, and it was with a whoop and a holler that I read the contents of that letter over the phone to Simon, both of us beaming with that aforementioned relief because we got into our first-choice school–the one we toured that made us feel excited and hopeful rather than depressed and anxious and “in a harakiri type of mood” (which, if I’m not mistaken, is a superb jazz classic made popular by the late, great Nat King Cole).
Before that letter came, our worst-case scenario was that we’d get into zero of our choice schools and would be assigned to the neighborhood elementary, which is conveniently located mere blocks away from our house, in the direction I don’t even like to drive through at a nice clip in the middle of a sunny day in a borrowed bulletproof Popemobile. Now that we’ve been given a spot at a good school (rated a 10 out of 10 versus the 2 of our neighborhood option), our new “worst”-case scenario–that Wombat continues in his family’s proud tradition of public schooling–is actually pretty awesome. It’s not private-school-with-a-generous-financial-aid-package awesome, but it’s a far cry from what it could have been, which was starting to look a lot like me advertising on Craigslist for a homeschooling sister wife. I’m dodging bullets left and right, it seems.
For those who enjoy going into way too much detail, possible scenarios at this juncture include:
(a) he gets into neither private school, so we send him to our top-choice public school, where he is happy and thrives
(b) he gets into one or both private schools but with not enough financial aid, so we congratulate ourselves on getting that far and then send him to our top-choice public school, where he is happy and thrives
(c) he gets into one or both private schools with financial aid packages that are not quite generous enough to make either one an obvious choice over the other or over the public school, so we congratulate ourselves on getting that far and then agonize over sending him somewhere less awesome but free vs. more awesome but likely to rob us of every indulgence, including those $12 trips to Chipotle when we’re feeling especially flush, and in the end we are red-eyed and missing most of our hair but Wombat is settled in a good school nonetheless and is happy and thriving, with or without Chipotle
(d) he gets into both private schools with sufficient and comparable financial aid packages and we congratulate ourselves on getting that far and then agonize over our bounty of excellent options until we come to a decision that ultimately results in Wombat being happy and thriving and we celebrate with burritos for everyone
Basically, it might not be easy, but we really can’t go wrong. So YAY! We don’t even know what our actual choices are yet and we’re already assured to end up thriving and happy (and possibly stuffed with cilantro rice), which is bully, just bully, as Theodore Roosevelt once said while discussing kindergarten with his Internet friends.
And speaking of you, good people of the web, since many of you have expressed interest in tracking the crazytrain that this process is (maybe you anticipate going through it yourself, maybe you just like to point and laugh), what follows are entirely too many words on what we’ve learned about the public and private systems during this process:
1. I was plenty nervous about the public school process, but it’s worth noting that while we were relieved to get our top-choice school, we weren’t entirely surprised by the news, as recent statistics said the district was managing to get more than 80 percent of kids into their first or second choices; they call it a “lottery,” but it’s a lottery with pretty good odds. What’s baffling, then, is that we’ve since heard that two of our friends got into none of their choice schools (you’re allowed to pick as many as six), and were assigned to their crappy neighborhood schools and are understandably upset. What made the difference? Who knows. As a last-minute Hail Mary, we’d attached a short letter to our lottery form, knowing that it was likely to go unread and/or dismissed, but I wonder now if that’s what did the trick. It’s just as likely it was dumb luck courtesy of the computer system, and we’ll never know either way, so I’ve already spent too much time thinking about it. Perhaps the worst part of this whole thing has been feeling so helpless and blind and at the mercy of administrators and computers who, it turns out, don’t really care about–well, can’t really care about–what’s best for any individual child. That, it turns out, is entirely the job of the parents (and I hereby propose a national continuing-education program titled Parental Advocacy for the Mild-Mannered, Assertiveness-Averse Adult.)
2. These private schools–the ones we looked at, at least–don’t really care how smart the kids are. We thought that in applying to schools known for their academic rigor that Wombat would have a better-than-average chance at being accepted, but it turns out the screening tests they do are only for basic kindergarten readiness (does he know most of the letters, can he hop on one foot, can he sit still during circle time and not gnaw the teacher’s ankle like a rabid woodchuck, etc.). They don’t care if your kid can read Chaucer or do matrices or give an oral report on modern dance in your choice of languages. They just want to see if he can do kindergartener things.
3. There’s such a thing as being too smart. One of the schools says they build their classrooms by assembling smaller cohorts of kids with similar qualities; “No kid should be an only,” they said, meaning they don’t want to have one student in the corner reading Shel Silverstein *ahem* while the rest of the class is working on consonant digraphs. What I heard is it’s good to be special, just not so special you out-special the others. Hmm.
4. What they’re really looking for is kids who will together build a balanced, diverse classroom in all areas. They want kids who are super-smart and average and even a bit behind, kids who were born at all different times of the year, kids who are from a variety of backgrounds (ethnic and otherwise), kids who are leaders and kids who are followers, kids who are outspoken and confident and kids who are shy. Diversity, we kept hearing, trumps all else.
5. Okay, well, diverse but not too diverse (there’s that cohort thing again), and also money. Money counts. The more you have, the better your chances of getting in, period.
In short, it turns out the admissions decisions are based less on who the kids are than what the schools need, and although I love this commitment to diversity of all types–indeed, diversity is part of why we like living here–it’s hard not to think this factor makes it less likely that a smartypants middle-class white boy with heterosexual parents will secure one of those coveted spots, especially when he doesn’t come with the ability to pay full tuition plus give substantially at the quarterly fundraisers. That’s not a comment about the fairness of the system but an explanation about why I’m so nervous to be at its mercy. Our chances just aren’t that good.
There are fewer than twenty spots available, and even fewer for families who need financial aid. Is one of them ours? Wombat needs to fill a very specific niche. Wombat needs to be the right kid at the right time. Wombat needs to be lucky.
Wish us luck?
Okay, this is kind of fun. I have a few weeks off of work work and am finally taking care of some of the important–ahem, “important”–non-work things I’ve been wanting to do. Like bake a giant cake for no reason at all? Yes, exactly like that.
A while back I was looking for cute cake ideas to help out someone on The Prowl, and I came across this checkerboard cake kit. (Affiliate link, yo.) The example shows one made with yellow cake and chocolate cake, but since St. Patrick’s Day was the holiday proximal to my having a free morning to bake a giant cake for no reason at all, I tinted mine accordingly. I bought two boxes (yes, boxes; I’m no hero) of the same white cake mix and then busted out the food coloring. I used about thirty drops to get that nice medium green color. When you’re counting out THIRTY drops, it seems like a lot, but trust me and my extensive experience in green-cake baking. (This is not my first time; this is.)
The process wasn’t hard, but it was a little time-consuming and made me wish (also not for the first time) I had an extra arm. I had to press the rings down into the pan with one hand while scooping and spreading batter carefully into the sections with the other hand, and I think I pulled my abuctor digiti minimi muscle. (That’s my pinkie finger.) If you end up doing this alone, it will help if your batter is nice and thick rather than thin and runny, or if you know how to grow a third arm.
Hey, it worked! Even I enjoy a little suspense in the kitchen provided it doesn’t involve open flame.
I had some white batter left over, so I tinted it yellow and made twenty mini-cupcakes, which, minus their tops (*gobble*) look cute as discs of leprechaun gold.
Speaking of leprechauns, if you’re doing this for St. Patrick’s Day and want to incorporate more of a rainbow element, this would also be cute with green cake and funfetti cake. Or there’s this groovy tie-dye cake mix, which I’ve never used but it looks pretty amazing. Obviously you can also adapt the technique for whatever occasion and using whatever colors. I want to host a tea party and make a lemon cake checkerboarded with yellow and pink. Using red, white, and green would be awesome for Christmas. Or green, purple, and yellow for Mardi Gras? There’s still time! Get on it! Someone should volunteer to make a gender-reveal cake and then checker it pink and blue just to mess with everyone. Ha.
This time around, I added my rainbow by shaking sprinkles against the side of the cake and calling it good. And it was good.
Psst. It looks better than it tastes. White cake isn’t my favorite, but what can you do? Besides, cake is still cake. CAAAAAKE.
This was really fun to try, and obviously I can’t wait to show it to the boys. (Ooh, a black and white cake for a racecar-themed birthday party? Maybe Fox will be into racecars? Maybe I can make him be into racecars?)
I have a feeling there are going to be lots of checkerboard cakes in our future.
Thank you so, so, so, so, so, so much for your advice and/or commiseration and/or sympathetic ear (er…eyes?) on the post about…what should I call it? The swirling vortex of chaos that is life as an adult? Yes, that sounds good. Remind me to trademark the phrase.
As I reread your comments, let me see if I have everything straight: I do indeed need to wake up an hour early *groan*, and also two hours early, plus hire a housekeeper, and clean as I go, and devote one day to meal-planning, and re-re-recommit to Fly Lady again, and get a bigger house, and get a smaller house, and get a live-in grandparent, and teach my children the fine art of toilet cleaning, and drink as much water as Cameron Diaz, and throw my t.v. out the window, and lower my standards so far they’re underground, and take drugs, and be a shark. Is that all? I think that’s all.
(If you haven’t read the comments, you should. Gold stars all around.)
The thing is, even if every single tidbit shared wasn’t good advice specific to my situation, it’s all good advice for someone, and of course I think we can all appreciate it on the level that is Hot damn, how nice it feels to be reassured that a lot of us are struggling with basic, stupid, everyday-function stuff, even if we’re all struggling in different–whether slightly or vastly different–ways. We’re not alone! Now everyone put one hand into the circle and on the count of three chant with me: Ya-ya, ya-ya, ya-ya sisterhood! (I never read the book, so I don’t know if that’s even relevant here, but I figured chanting we needed a team cheer.
Random aside: A few weeks ago, I was possessed by some mischievous demon (it’s the only explanation) and I decided it would be a fun thing to learn Jan’s cheerleading audition from that one Brady Bunch episode where…Jan…auditions for cheerleading. I don’t know what I was thinking (was I going to…bust it out at a party or something? I honestly have no idea; like I said: demon), and although I’m happy to report I didn’t actually spend any time pursuing this “goal,” I did make the mistake of writing out my intention on a scrap of paper, which I unwisely left on the kitchen table in plain sight of my husband, who saw it and made me explain what “learn Jan’s cheer audition” meant and then, rightly, pointed and laughed until I threw a dish towel at his head.
There’s no point to this story except perhaps to prove that I’m a repeat-offender embarrassment to myself but people still love me in spite of it and that’s nice.
But back to the life-chaos vortex and advice-giving: Earlier this week I had to (had to) give some advice to an author who was having a hard time letting his book go off to the printer because he wanted to make sure every tiny, insignifcant, no-one-will-ever-notice-that thing was absolutely perfect, to the point where he was driving me bonkers (although for a price) and, more significantly, risking his book not being printed in time for a coordinating art exhibition, at which he hoped to sell the vast majority of the copies. I ended up having to be really straight with him and say, “Look, no one’s going to care if it’s perfect if they never see the book because you didn’t get it printed in time.” I shared with him some advice my wisest-of-the-wise boss gave me: “Books don’t get ‘perfect,’ they get ‘done.’”
Now, “done” means something slightly different when you replace “books” with “housework” or “email correspondence” or “craft projects [that are not for work],” or whatever. (If you care, in the first instance “done” is an adjective, in the second a past participle. I think? I’ve already spent too much of my precious time thinking about it.) But parts of speech aside, “done” is still “done,” and the overall message is the same: You do the best you do and then you stop and move on. And sometimes “best” won’t mean “the best you’re capable of in the best-case scenario” but “the best you’re capable of in a real-world scenario.” And sometimes that real-world “best” is really, really far from what anyone would call “best, objectively.” As someone who’s in the business of professional perfectionism, this is hard to remember and even harder to put into effect, but maybe, just maybe, if I don’t try to perform this “intentional imperfection” in a completely perfect way, I might have some success with it. And now my brain resembles a pretzel.
Also important to remember: Sometimes life is not “and” but “or.” It sucks, but it is what it is.
I think what it comes down to is that I feel so happy and lucky both emotionally and professionally that I get frustrated when the outside doesn’t match the inside. It’s kind of a reverse Dorian Gray, where my heart and home are full of love and sunshine but my hair is in knots and the children are sticky and the floor is covered with mystery crumbs. The bedroom floor, where no one ever eats. Even though all the Stuff that Really Matters is the quiet eye of the tornado, it’s hard not to focus on the tornado, you know? I look at all the swirling madness and then I look at someone who’s pulled together and whose children dress like J Crew models and who leaves weekly reviews on GoodReads and who churns her own butter from the goats she keeps out back, and the way I translate that in my head is “If she has time to do all that ‘extra’ stuff, she must be totally on top of all the basic stuff that I can’t seem to manage, even while sacrificing things I consider ‘extras.’”
But of course that’s not true. The woman who has time to perfectly accessorize every outfit does not necessarily have a spotless kitchen. The woman who has time to create elaborate scrapbooks for each of her children doesn’t necessarily know where her car keys are. There are women out there who seem to do it all, and who seem to do it all well (I know some of them, and they’re lovely, and also possibly wizards), but those people are not the majority. The majority of us are…us. (Is us?) We the majority are not getting enough sleep, our bathtubs could use a scrubbing, and we have things lurking in our refrigerators that are pushing the line between from fuzzy to furry.
(I also know there’s a not-small contingent of people who spend a lot of time making the outside look good as a way of making up for/covering up the mess inside, and I’m definitely glad I’m on the other side of that shiny gold coin of discontent, thank you very much.)
We’re us, and that feels good and right (ya-ya!), but we’re also those other women, at least some of the time, aren’t we? Sometimes we’re the mom who has clean hair and full makeup and a cute outfit. Sometimes our children are dressed in adorably trendy clothes. Sometimes we make dinner spreads straight out of Saveur, with dessert too. And sometimes–maybe even most of the time it happens?–we’re choosing those things over laundry and/or yard work and/or dealing with the stack of mail two feet high. Sometimes we even choose those things over sleep, although I will probably always struggle with that one.
“Maybe you’d have more time if you spent evenings working rather than relaxing with your husband.”
“Maybe you’d have more time if you didn’t cut your kid’s cheese slices into animal shapes.”
“Maybe you’d have more time if you didn’t write 1700-word blog posts about how you don’t have enough time.”
These aren’t things people have said to me (at least not directly), but these are things I say to myself all the time. It’s like I tell myself I don’t deserve those little things, those “extra” things–clean hair, cute lunches, an hour staring slack-jawed at a glowing screen–if I have papers to file and dishes to handwash and kid clothes to mend and emails to respond to. And work to do. As a freelancer, there’s always work to do.
But that’s the thing: As a parent–hell, as an adult–there’s always work to do. If I wait until all the must-do are done, I’ll never, ever get to the want-to-dos. If I wait until the house is perfectly clean to have guests over, we’ll never have guests over. If I wait until the attic is organized before I allow myself to play with my kids, I’ll never play with my kids. And I want to play with my kids. But I also want the attic organized. (Hamlet, I have your rub right here.) But for me, right now, this is an “or” instead of an “and” situation, and I just need to remember that I’m making a choice, and that in making that choice I’m not merely choosing the option but choosing its consequences as well. Instead of grousing about the attic being a mess, I can say, “The attic is a mess because I chose to play with my kids instead,” and that makes me feel better. I mean, the attic is still a mess, and I’m not happy about that, but I’m happier that I chose to play.
This is the evening after Wombat’s birthday party (during the day) and before Simon’s birthday party (that same night) (I know, right?). The house was trashed with plates of food and empty glasses and toys and crafts and decorations, and we had a few friends coming over in a hour, and this is what we did about it:
It was a trashed house but a happy house. We chose this. And we cleaned up the next day. (More or less.)