Thank you to those who commented or emailed on the topic of schools, I can’t tell you how helpful it was to hear so many points of view. I feel like I have some specific issues to mull over instead of a roiling mass of question marks, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my own school experience.

I was a colossal fuckup of a student starting from a very young age, when I would consistently test as “gifted”—whatever that means—but earned terrible grades thanks primarily to my reluctance to do homework. Even in elementary school I spent a mystifying amount of effort lying about homework and not turning things in, causing my mother so much frustration she eventually sent me to a psychiatrist to try and decipher what in god’s name my problem was (where I mostly remember him teaching me how to play Stratego as we sat in his office together).

I don’t know why I was such a problem child when it came to something as basic as homework. I do remember hating certain assignments that involved, say, filling out page after page of near-identical long division problems (“Don’t forget to show your work!”), or reading five chapters of a textbook the night before a quiz. Thinking back on it, that sort of work seems less about actual learning, and more about rote repetition and brief, soon-to-be-mentally-jettisoned memorization, but that’s no excuse for flat-out refusing to do it. Into everyone’s life a little shit must fall, even during childhood, you know? And a kid who thinks it’s all too dreary to bear when they’re in fourth grade is definitely making their way towards a path of educational ruin, because oh man it’s not like it gets EASIER.

So that’s something for me to chew on: if I saw the same situation repeating itself with my kids, how would I address it? My mother was no uninvolved parent and I’m sure she did everything she could. By the time I was older I brought a whole new set of rebellion issues to the table; I will shine a brief and forgiving light on my past by limiting myself to the admission that I, ah, certainly caused a lot of strain in our relationship both from a scholastic perspective and otherwise.

Some of you mentioned the influence the right teacher can have, and I totally agree with that. I remember a teacher from my middle school’s reading class who doled out creative, fun assignments; I remember the cinnamon-dusted cardboard-worm diorama I turned in along with my book report on Dune.

Alternately, I will never forget the day my 5th grade teacher publicly chastised me for my ongoing poor grades and implied that she was dreading seeing me again next year, for I was sure to flunk. As I sat there in front of the entire class I could feel my face growing red-hot with shame, so much so that my glasses were becoming steamy, and as I took them off to wipe them clean she barked, “Don’t bother trying the waterworks with ME, missy.”

(Dear Mrs. Wright from Sudley Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, class of 1984 or whatever it was: 1) I was NOT CRYING, and 2) I would like to retroactively invite you to kiss my ass. Sincerely, the 5th grader who graduated to 6th grade just FINE and can now do long division with perfect accuracy using a handy device I like to call a CALCULATOR, so SUCK IT UNTIL YOU CHOKE.)

(Well. I have a little buried resentment there, apparently. Someone get me a shrink and a game of Stratego!)

I doubt my problems were a byproduct of the schools I went to. My schools had gifted programs, Outdoor School, language programs, music classes, all kinds of extracurricular activities, and excepting a certain 5th grade hell-bitch I’m sure the teachers were fine. Yet so many of my memories of school are negative, a blurry smear of bad feelings and shame and morning after morning of wishing I could be anywhere else on earth but heading to class.

When I was in grade school I used to lie about my report cards, telling my mom they were late, that they hadn’t been finished. I’d forge her signature and take them back in. Eventually, I tried to doctor them with pens and Wite-Out (presto-chango: a D becomes a B!). By the time I was in high school I’d started skipping classes instead of just skipping assignments, and the troubles piled up: detentions, incompletes, threats of suspension. Everything always, always came back to haunt me, I seemed always to be at the bottom of some awful hole I’d dug for myself.

Having made so many mistakes, it seems like I should be able to figure out what went wrong and thus possess some exclusive knowledge for how to help my own children not walk that same path, but the truth is I don’t know. I only know I hope with all my heart they do better in school than I did, and that I’m willing to make every sacrifice necessary to guide them towards a better experience. I think for me this has less to do with singling out specific schools based on ratings and scores, and more to do with being as involved as possible in their education as they grow older—which is exactly what many of you said.

I don’t like to think about how much pain I caused my mother for all those years, but it is one of the effects of becoming a parent: you face your own childhood with a brand-new set of eyes. I can’t imagine what it’s like to look back and see a bucolic, carefree existence; my past is full of millions of choices I hope my kids never make.

Comments

52 Responses to “Millions of choices”

  1. marilyn on April 5th, 2009 1:13 am

    One more late opinion on schooling — I loved school and my little brother mostly hated it, and he’s still not what my parents think of as “successful.” But lord, the kid is only 26 years old, and of course he wants to be a musician. So. He’s happy most of the time, because of the fact that my parents were pretty supportive of him, even if he wasn’t making A’s. And both of us always knew that our parents loved us. Even if they did act like nutcases sometimes.

    I actually just looked this post up because the NYTimes just put up a nice article on public schools and real estate in the current economy. Of course, they’re talking about NYC and not Seattle, so I’m sure some of it is completely non-interesting, but there are some things I thought were well-put:

    The Sudden Charm of Public School http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/realestate/05Cov.html

    (Also, I’m the marilyn you gave the link to the other night on twitter — about the free online Stanford course about phone apps. So I owe you at least one cool link. I should probably find something a little more entertaining than a snotty urbanite NYer opinion on real estate though, hm?)

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