“I tell them: you’re gonna be grown up for a long time,” she said
“And it’s not that great,” I chimed in. We laughed.
We were standing on the corner after morning drop off. Her kid and mine are in the same class at school. I asked her what she thought of it, and we agreed that the class is fun, the kids have fun, they like it, they come home happy. That’s what should happen when you’re 4 years old.
I signed C up for pre-K next year at the same school. After watching the pre-K debates, fears, misgivings, and waiting list nightmares unfurl on my facebook feed, I’d decided not to stick my toes into the waters of the New York City Public school system, not yet. We stuck with our little Catholic school.
The nursery through kindergarten years are not meant to be academically challenging. They’re meant to nail down the basics, like counting, the alphabet, telling stories, listening. They are meant to help the child learn to socialize and be part of a bigger community, to be a place where a child can try out things like independence, doing for themselves, making friends.
But what about first grade? What are the expectations? At what point does a parent start to really push their child academically? My fellow parent admitted that for lower school she’s going to look around and consider other options. She’s not sold on the academics at our little Catholic school. My concern has to do with resources: science labs, computer labs, music rooms, art studios, smaller class sizes.
My dad was big into education when I was growing up, and although I was bright, I was not the greatest student. When my report card came home with grades below a B, I knew I was in trouble. My dad would push, and I would fall down, at least according to the standards that were set in our house. By normal standards I was alright, and my report card showed a healthy smattering of A’s and B’s, with just enough C’s thrown in to keep me out of the honors classes.
My husband and I are very focused on C’s education, and while we don’t want to be overbearing about it, we want him to know that school is his top job. I don’t want to push so hard that he stumbles, but I want him to know how to be his best self, to the point where that’s who he wants to be. We want him to know it’s important to delve deep into your own mind and find out what it can do, and we want him to go to a school that really values learning and critical thinking.
How do you know if the school you pick is doing that?
I went to public school, then Catholic, then prep. And here’s what I learned: the kids in public school, and the ethos in general, in the regular classes, was not one of high learning, at least not in suburban Massachusetts. I will never forget the grammar lessons, but I’ll also never forget how Mr. Norton put on poker tourneys in math class, then quizzed us on algebra.
The girls at Notre Dame Academy, a private Catholic school, were incredible, and academic achievement was a high priority. There were real expectations, creative assignments, and in addition to the girls who only cared about flipping their pony tails and getting drunk on the beach, there were brilliant girls who worked hard, excelled, and thought about things in a real way. I loved this school. I wrote my first play in first year Western Civ. The assignment was to write a dialogue between Geoffrey Chaucer and a Renaissance artist. Raphael meets Chaucer was my first script.
After sophomore year, in a massive life upheaval, I ended up at prep, and the expectations were more ingrained. Every kid at GFS was going to do well in school, and in life; that was a given. Everyone would be going to college, no doubt, and pursuing something about which they were passionate, from transportation policy to global food issues to writing novels. There was no room to slack off, or to not care. There was no question that success would be achieved for all who sought it. This opened up a whole new world for me, introduced me to kids whose interest in achievement was so superior to my own. Their parents had expectations for them, the school had expectations of them, but the most important of all were the expectations these kids had for themselves. The world could go to hell but they’d still get their research papers in on time.
I went on to Sarah Lawrence College, and Columbia University, but the academic rigours of Germantown Friends School are still some of the toughest I’ve faced.
I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there, I hadn’t earned it. I’d talked my way in and my mom had paid the tuition (thank you mom), but I hadn’t come up through that system. It was like throwing a toy sail boat into the swirling eddies of the East River. I swirled and swirled until graduation, landing on the friendly, freaked out shores of Sarah Lawrence College, bedraggled and half-drowned.
My husband went to this same school. We met on the front steps of our high school, and in retrospect, it was understanding at first sight, although love wouldn’t come for years. He excelled in school without trying. He did the reading, and read around the reading. The work wasn’t even work for him; it was like if he weren’t in school, this was what he’d have been doing anyway.
The doors of learning were wide open for us. We walked through them knowing that it was a real, sincere privilege to do so, and that we could do anything we chose to do. Our goal is to make sure C’s at a school where learning is the top priority, with teachers who encourage him to be his best self. I want my son to know that the most important person to impress is himself, not his parents, or his teachers.
The point of education, as far as I can tell, is access. Being educated is not about getting a job, or getting into college, it’s not about earning a salary, it’s about access to ideas, resources, and people. Education is about courage and confidence as much as facts and figures, it’s about how to interpret fact, how to structure narrative, and how to generate ideas and ideologies for living, for life. Being a grown up is alot better when you have access to anything you could want, just by thinking about it.