Here’s how my parents decided where to send me and my siblings to school: They found out where the school bus that stopped in front of our house was headed, and they put us on it. My parents bought our childhood home because of its proximity to an elementary, jr. high, and high school, all three in walking distance, because who’s got time to shuttle 7 children to and from school activities? Make those kids walk, man. But then in a stroke of terrible luck, it turned out we lived on the school district boundary line. So while our neighbors walked to schools close by, we languished on various thirty minute bus rides for 12 years. That’s a lot of hours of potty talk in the back of the bus, believe me. This also happens to be where I learned where babies come from, because school buses are the suburban kid’s back alleys.
A few decades later, here’s how I’m deciding where to send my three kids to school: Panic attacks, late night school district webpage browsing, and a level of soul-searching normally reserved for marriage proposals and Peace Corp applicants.
Why the angst, you ask? Why not just toss a rock and see which elementary school it lands on, since there seems to be one on every block in this town? Well, because these days, it’s not that simple. I mean, it could be, but us “modern” parents think our kids deserve what we didn’t have- a school that meets their every need and caters to their (our) special interests and specific scheduling parameters.
And miraculously, these preferences can all be met.
Should I send my 5 year old to the neighborhood school, a beautiful new brick building less than a mile from our house?
That can’t be the answer; too prosaic. She’s more special than that.
How about the arts charter school? What I wouldn’t have given for an elementary drama program that didn’t involve my music teacher plodding through Christmas carols on the piano while we all swayed on the bleachers in matching elf hats. My kids deserve more. They could learn to dance! To sing! To paint! To wear weird hats and take a staunch political stance in the fourth grade! I better get their name in the art school lottery, like, yesterday.
Or there’s the math and science charter school, committed to STEM, and to progress; how can I not offer that to my little girl and her future? Shouldn’t I give her all the math and science I can find, so that she can get a real job someday? God forbid she becomes a writer or something. Tech is the future; shouldn’t I prepare my kids?
I actually homeschooled my daughter this year. Her birthday isn’t until the last week of August and I couldn’t stand the idea of sending my 4 year old to kindergarten, but she wanted to learn, so I compromised and taught her at home. Don’t roll your eyes too hard, homeschooling isn’t what it used to be. We didn’t even have to join a cult or grow our own wheat. Although we do memorize a lot of poems and spend most hours “just playing outside,” so maybe it’s exactly what you’re imagining. While homeschooling is another viable option for us, because I work from home and love to learn with my kids, even homeschooling offers option after option after hotly debated option, from Charlotte Mason to Classical Conversations to Co-Ops to online public schools attended at home…it’s endless.
And these are just the free options! If I wanted to pay a college tuition rate for my kids to learn the alphabet, I could scoot them off to a private education. Maybe the Catholic school? They’d attend chapel each day, get a great education, and above all else, wear an adorable uniform. Navy blue jumpers! Crisp white shirts! The adorable uniform is a heavy factor here, I’m embarrassed to admit. Or, what about just a private school with cool rules, like no grading system, and calling teachers by their first name? Would I end up with a bunch of ski bums and (heaven help us) poets?
It’s March, school registration time, so I need to answer these questions soon. Will school next year be at our own kitchen table again? Or will my daughter be dancing with the art kids? Can I finally buy the tiny uniform and send her off to say prayers before class? Will she head to the STEM school’s engineering labs? Or will she walk out our front door and join the scores of kids skipping down the sidewalk to our neighborhood elementary school, just like my parents dreamed for me all those years ago?
These questions, of course, float in a pool of privilege. The fact that we have so many choices, that she has a parent who could drive her across town to a specialized school, that the specialized school even exists, that my little daughter has access to a free education in a society that (mostly) believes all girls deserve the chance at success; this is a life of privilege. I won’t take that for granted. I clutch the treasure of my children’s minds and future close to my heart, while resting in the knowledge that it is not the school that makes the kid, but the kid who makes something out of what the school gives them.
My parents gave me the only option available for school, whereas I have the freedom of preference. But here’s what hasn’t changed in the years since I stepped on that school bus in front of my house, and what never changes for parents: We are dreamers. We want good things for our kids, beautiful lives and better chances than we had. Sometimes we feel like world-makers, designing a reality out of school registrations and summer camps and sports teams and all the checks we write for all the opportunities…when really, we’re supposed to be guides. Our kids don’t need us to make a way, they need us to stay close along the way. So what if they end up in the weird hat, espousing misguided political views? So what if they wander away from the path we so carefully laid before them? Did we dream for them? Did we show them the way?
Then we did our job. They have to do the rest.
I’m sure whatever I choose for my daughter this fall, I’ll second guess myself. But she’ll thrive no matter what, because she loves to learn and because all of these choices are good choices. What a privilege to put on that backpack each day, I’ll tell her. What a life we have.