Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Her Own Private World

So yesterday my fourteen-month-old decided it was time to help with the laundry. He grabbed up a pile of his sister’s clean and neatly folded laundry and made off with it, cackling like the inconsiderate little dirtbag he is. I yelled to him to stop, but these days there’s nothing that makes him accelerate from T-Rex Stomp to Ass Afire like someone frantically yelling “Stop!” in his general direction. He made it all the way to the pee-soaked dirty diaper bin, where he gleefully tossed the laundry. The bin has a swinging top to it, a fierce Object of Desire for him; on a given day I’m fishing any number of my possessions out of it, which is probably why I smell a little funny when I go out in public, something I try not to do if I can help it.

I texted my daughter the details of her latest victimization, because I thought it would provide some amusement in her day. “Your baby brother is a douche,” I said in signing off. Her new friend Simone was reading over her shoulder.

“Your mom used douche in a text to you?!” she said. “Wow, your mom is cool.”

My daughter cocked a skeptical brow. “Not really, trust me.”

“Well, this summer I was grounded two weeks because I put my yogurt cup in the trash instead of the recyclables. My parents think recycling is very important.”

At this point I’m sure my daughter looked at her like she was an alien. Not that we don’t recycle, I hasten to point out; why, just the other day the toddler decided to recycle all the pots and pans, and dumped the entire contents of my cabinets into the bin. But the idea that somebody in our house would be punished for putting something in the wrong place is kind of amusing, for anyone who has ever visited our house. My friend Maureen claims it's my house's only rule, that somehow or somewhere, a pair of underwear must be scattered within twenty feet of the front door. 

The truth is, my daughter is the one who’s an alien, in her new high school. Most of her friends there have parents every bit as tightly-wound as Simone’s. Not only are her parents much more loosely-wrapped than your average private school family, but she’s also a faculty kid—the child of two teachers, in fact. The halls of her public middle school looked quite a bit different from her current school; her frames of reference, her views on the world, and most importantly, her budget, are all more or less alien to her new friends.

For now, this makes her an exotic, and one whose company is sought-after. But we don’t kid ourselves that all social differences will be ironed out smoothly. There will be plenty of difficult times ahead for our daughter, as she navigates this strange new world. Putting her in a competitive private school was not an easy decision, and we wrestled with it. Being private school teachers ourselves made us less inclined, I think, to put her in a private school – we know the seamy underbelly of private education in this country, and it’s unlovely. Private schools siphon off incalculable amounts of financial and intellectual resources from our nation’s public schools. The idea that a better education, like better medical care, can be had for more money is personally repugnant. The quality of your education, and the opportunities that flow from it, should not be dependent on your zip code. Consumer-driven curriculum models are equally distasteful, and the kind of pandering private schools have to engage in should sicken anyone who studies them. I can tell you horror stories about our mission to kids being impeded time and again by our mission to coax checks out of their parents’ pockets. I will only say that every ugly stereotype you have in your head about private education has some basis in reality, and many private schools remain hotbeds of racial, gender, and sexual identity discrimination.

So why would we choose that for our daughter? For one thing, we wanted her exposed to the quality of teaching you find almost exclusively in independent schools these days. That’s not because public school teachers are underqualified, but because they’re overworked (see “drain of resources,” above.) We wanted her to forge strong personal connections with her teachers, in smaller classes. We wanted to widen her exposure to the world through travel abroad (frequently subsidized by this school) and through knowledge of a socio-economic culture different from her own. And as the product of a competitive private school myself, I wanted her to experience how varsity-level teaching and intensely high expectations can rewrite your hard drive, and inspire you for life.

When I was teaching at the school my daughter is now enrolled in, I helped out with admissions by doing student interviews, and I watched groups of parents being led through on tours. They always asked lots of questions, and a lot of those questions were about colleges. Ivy League Anxiety loomed behind their eyes, and implicit (and frequently explicit) in the parent-school compact of a place like that is the idea that private school will help your son or daughter get into their dream school – or at least, their parents’ dream school.

The truth is, that’s not really true. The reality is that if you really want your gifted kid to go to Princeton, send her to the local public high school. Not only will her grades probably be higher (and her teacher recommendations  therefore more glowing) but she is more likely to stand out in her class. And when it comes down to it, most highly competitive colleges would rather take the bright public school kid than the bright private school kid, because of their assumption (whether true or not) that the public school kid is more well-rounded and has had to work harder for intellectual achievement, rather than having her meat cut for her.

But like I said, college admission is not the reason we’re sending our daughter down that road. We know it will be a rocky one, and for every advantage, there will be a disadvantage lurking around the corner. My main fear looks something like this:

 It’s a slight variant on my fears for her at public school:

Few of us want the life of the Lamborghini for our kid, just like few of us want the life of the flat-bed pick-up. Most of us, when we imagine our kids’ futures, envision something nice and safe and dependable, like a five-year-old Honda Accord with low mileage, working AC, and side curtain airbags. We fear the extremes, because our adult experience knows that danger – as well as, yes, adventure – lurks at the margins.

“May she be granted beauty,” wrote the poet William Butler Yeats in his Prayer For My Daughter, “and yet not beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught, or hers before a looking-glass.” What parent hasn’t prayed that prayer? Make her pretty, Lord . . . but not too pretty. But Yeats’s fear wasn’t, finally, the outside world. He didn’t ultimately worry about the drug-dealers or bounders or skanks whose eye might be drawn to his daughter’s beauty. He worried about the effect of inordinate beauty on the inner life. He worried that beauty existed in inverse relationship to kindness, and even to the capacity for intimacy. And he prayed for her privacy, her integrity, and her stability:

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place. 

That’s all any of us are trying to do, no matter what educational choices we make for our kids. We want their minds rooted in one dear perpetual place, and we want to help them build an inner sanctum of peace they can retreat to when the going gets rough, so that maybe when the meth junkie or the coke-snorter or the abusive boyfriend or the seven-figure dickwad pulls up beside them, our kids will know what to do.

Which is, of course, CALL MOM.

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