I went to kindergarten at Sunnyland Elementary, a mere two blocks from my parents’ house. I’m not aware of any famous Sunnyland alumnae who have walked on the moon or starred in their own reality show, but nonetheless it was a good school that did its best to produce decent citizens. Half of my teachers were exceptional, some dialed it in, and a few had one foot in the grave, including the school nurse, aptly named Mrs. Cross. She was meaner than a cat with Scotch Tape on its tail. Kids would swallow their own vomit before ever considering going to her office. The school had the best attendance record during her run. But overall Sunnyland was a safe place (once they built a playground to code, thus removing the one made entirely of rubber tires held together with fraying wire), and eventually I even learned to read and write (and play the recorder – sort of). I never learned math, but I’ve never needed it anyhow.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Next year my daughter will enter into kindergarten. Our neighborhood elementary school is across the street. I wouldn’t enter that school to seek refuge from a tornado, let alone send my child there for school.
Now, public school officials and teachers can get as fired up as they want about my unwillingness to send my child to our neighborhood school. And they’d be right if they said that I haven’t done my homework, haven’t given the school a chance. I’ll take chances by ordering shrimp at Mexican food restaurants. I will not take chances when it comes to my child.
Ava will spend the majority of the next 13 years in school and, if that goes well, she’ll elect to spend another 10 in college (I like to aim high). The very least that I can do is make sure that she spends this time attending schools with which we’re both comfortable. I’m learning that “happy” might be overshooting my expectations. You see, in my city we have the option to attend the neighborhood school (um, no) or lottery into several “magnet” schools. These specialty schools are still considered neighborhood schools, but they also reserve spaces for students interesting in attending from another district. These positions are literally filled by lottery–a name is drawn out of a hat. Easy, right? Hardly.
Think Bingo Night at the old folks’ home, but more dicey. Instead of frail bodies getting all worked up, we have frantic mothers worried that their children are going to be stuck in a crusty cinderblock building (are they all made of cinderblocks?) run by teachers that scream like wardens. I want a little less San Quentin and little more Harvard Yard. So over the past two weeks I’ve been touring schools, attending open houses and signing up my daughter for entrance exams (yes, for kindergarten). We had a back-up private school option until, after having a two-hour in-class visit with her would-be schoolmates, Ava walked out of the building and declared, “I am not going to that school.” As it turns out, there was an embarrassing milk-spilling accident and when they began the Spanish lesson, Ava broke into her very un-PC “pretend” Spanish, which sounds a little like yodeling. Apparently leaving our Spanish lessons up to Dora isn’t working out.
Today she had her first “screening test” for a public school that I’m interested in. I thought it would be a 15-minute interview in which the administrator would discover my child’s many gifts–like her ability to snap her fingers, tell a knock-knock joke and draw a rainbow with one puffy cloud on each end. I sat outside the testing room, straining to hear what was happening inside. I worried that my daughter was stressed. I worried that her hair was in her face. I worried that she would toot and refer to it as her “secret weapon.”
The administrator came out and informed me that Ava had passed the test by knowing her name, birthday and alphabet. “But,” the woman said sweetly, “Keep working with her on the sounds of the letters.” Huh?
“You mean like how ‘F’ sounds like ‘eff?’” I asked.
“No. ‘F’ sounds like ‘fuh.’”
I stared at her.
“Fuh, fuh, fuh,” she repeated in earnest, like I was an idiot.
Maybe I am, because I spent the entire drive home trying to figure out the sounds that letters make. I mean, I get “P” sounds like “puh,” but what about “I”? It could sound like “eh” as in igloo, or it could sound like “eye” as in “ice cream.” I have two masters degrees, one in English and one in writing. I couldn’t pass the damn test.
So now on top of worrying about my child getting into a decent school, I’m worried that she’s never going to read past a 1st grade level and worse yet, I won’t be able to help her because apparently I can’t either. I’m worried that some teacher is going to be saying “Fuh, fuh, fuh,” at her until she drops out of school to pursue her 4-year-old dream of becoming the newest member of the Power Rangers.
The bottom line? I’m not ready for all this. I’m not ready for her to struggle academically or socially. I’m not ready for a teacher to tell me that there’s things my child “needs to work on.” And most of all, I’m not ready for my baby to be in someone else’s care for 7 hours a day. Regardless of how I feel, it’s going to happen. The truancy officers tell me so. But educators, administrators, and fellow parents, beware: I’m going to have a say in how this all goes down. At least for the next 13 years.