Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Trouble with the Rat Race

It's the season I have come to dread as a Los Angeles parent: magnet season. In our byzantine school system, parents spend an inordinate amount of time parsing the difference between magnet schools and SAS programs, charters and academies, trying to find the perfect school for their child. Some are looking for the right middle school or high school; some are merely looking for what seems like a better alternative than their local elementary school, or trying to position their kids to have more options later on down the road. I've had enough conversations to last me a lifetime about the ins and outs of applying to our local elementary school's magnet (a gifted/high ability magnet, which requires a teacher recommendation or other formal recognition of giftedness) and about the art of applying to magnets in order to be rejected and get wait list points to help your chances of getting into the school you really want later. And this year it's even more fun--we have to find Son #1 a high school for next year.

I absolutely hate this process for two reasons. One is that the plethora of confusing choices obscures a central fact that I feel all parents should be aware of: there are no perfect schools. And the other is that I get sick of the atmosphere of competition involved in trying to make sense of this morass. For once in my life, I'm deliberately opting out of much of the competition, and while I feel like I'm doing it for the right reasons, I kind of feel like a slacker.

For starters, my husband and I both want to avoid putting Son #1 on a bus. If you live outside a certain radius of the magnet school your child gets accepted to, your child can ride a school bus. Due to budget cuts over the years, though, what this means in practice is schlepping your kid to a nearby school at some ungodly early hour so that they can spend upwards of an hour on the road before they get to school, and then spend a similar amount of time on the road coming home again. Add that to a high school homework load, and poof!, there goes any chance of Son #1 having a semblance of a life outside of school. Plus, with three kids in three different schools next year, it doesn't require much imagination to figure out the kind of logistical problems having Son #1 in a distant school could present.
I'm reasonably sure LAUSD's school buses are better than this.

So we're looking as close to home as we can manage, which still leaves a fair number of choices. Next comes the round of school visits, where we get to try to parse the college-admissions-like rhetoric of each school to figure out what it means in practical terms for our son. The local high school that sports three magnets with impressive API scores? Son #1 liked the presentation they made at the recent meet-the-magnets night we went to, but I worry about exactly how lost he might get in their relatively large student body. I liked the homey feel of the smaller journalism magnet's presentation (and their much smaller size), but had to concede that their program didn't seem to offer as much as I'd like for my math/science-oriented boy. And we both came away overwhelmed by the highly gifted magnet's presentation, where the coordinator boasted of the kids' taking sixteen AP classes and staying on campus late into the night on a nearly daily basis. Granted, the teenage years are already showing promise of being trying for all of us, but as this earnest man tried to sell his program I couldn't help but think, I'd like to see my kid sometime while he's in high school. Many considerations to juggle, and we haven't even toured any of the charters on our short list yet.

The problem with opting out (sort of) is that you have to have a pretty strong stomach for the endless questioning that comes with it--both from others and occasionally from yourself. When it was time for Son #1 to go to middle school, I didn't even consider applying to the most popular local magnet. Its performing arts focus was definitely not his bag, and the thought of putting him in classes of 40 students each made me cringe. Instead, we applied for and got him into an even closer math/science magnet on the campus of a decidedly Title-I middle school with a largely Hispanic student body. One friend of mine, who also sent her son there a year after me, drolly and accurately remarks that people look like they're about to throw up in their mouths when she tells them where he goes to school. But she did the math the same way I did and came up with the same result: responsive and wonderful magnet coordinator + school-wide grant for small class sizes + school within walking distance + small, personalized magnet program + sane homework load = school worth sending my kid to. It's far from being the most popular magnet program, and most people who haven't truly considered it assume the school campus is somewhere buried deep in the hood, presumably next to gang headquarters where tattooed thugs cook up batches of meth to sell to the students, when in fact it is in suburban Sherman Oaks, across the street from a very posh assisted living facility. Given that Son #1 has had a great middle school experience and is developing the independent organizational and study skills he's going to need for high school, I wouldn't change our choice even if we could. I doubt he would have done as well in a school that piled on the work or slammed the gas on an accelerated curriculum. (AP classes in middle school? Maybe that works for some kids, but I confess that I fail to see the point.) But boy, do I get tired of patiently explaining again, and again, and again, why I put him where I did.

B.S. aside? I resemble this remark.

The conversations swirling among the parents looking at high schools are already shaping up along lines like the ones we used to have about middle schools. Is my son preparing audition pieces to go to the latest hot performing-arts charter school? Hell, no; he couldn't care less about performing in anything. Does he currently complain that his work load is too easy, and lobby to be put in a tougher program? Hell, no; he's grateful to have time to talk to his best friend on the phone and to play Xbox. Let the kids who really have the ambition for those programs go for it. I'm already warning Son #1 that life is going to be different in high school, but I'll be honest; I'm not looking for the toughest program out there for him and I'm not angling to get him into the Ivy League. I'm not going to drive him to the ends of the earth in the hopes that a particular high school's name on his transcript is going to impress some future dean of admissions. I want to teach him instead that there is such a thing as "good enough," and that he's better off doing a few things well than trying to pad his resume with accomplishments that are only there to impress other people. His habit of writing fan fiction may not be as easy to brag about as if he was, say, inventing cold fusion for the science fair, but it is something he cares about. I want him to have time to write; I want him to have time to talk to his friends; and I want him to go to a college that he wants to attend for reasons other than its ranking in U.S. News & World Reports annual list. And if he isn't ready for a four-year university at the end of high school (as one friend of mine confessed she thinks her kid might not be)? Then I hope I'll be clear-sighted enough to see it and help him find a path that works for him. But boy, sometimes I do wonder if I'm making a huge mistake--that all of the frantic parents with the insane enrichment-class/tutoring/music lessons/sports team schedules had it right all along and my son is going to be left behind.

Burnout. It's not pretty.

Above all, I want my kids to be good people. I want to encourage them to excel but not to push them. I want the kid who stands on the stage accepting his high school diploma to be smiling and excited to go on to the adventure of college, not burned-out and exhausted at the thought of having four more years of education to go. I want his high school years to be filled with fun, and yes, some youthful stupidity, not anxiety over how many AP courses he's taking or how much tutoring or test prep he needs to boost his scores or his grades. As it has been said, the trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. Here's hoping I have the wisdom to know the difference between encouraging my boy to be the best he can be and pushing him to become a rat.

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