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?