Volume 18 • Issue 40 | February 17 - 23, 2006

Talking Point

Long search for a high school nears graduation day

By Michele Herman

In front of the bank not so long ago, I ran into two moms I know. The first was a fellow mother of an eighth grader. Then up walked a mom whose kids are still in elementary school. With the innocence and eagerness of an acolyte, the mom with the younger kids asked us how the high school search was coming along. We eighth-grade moms just sighed beatifically. “We’re in a lull right now,” said my friend. “The lull is good.” I nodded in serene agreement. “We like our lull,” I said.

Alas, those days of sweet denial are over. Having handed in our applications for public high school in early December after three months of frenzied activity, we now walk around with our fingers crossed because the results are due any time now. The applications have a slot for three different tracks, the first two being optional: the seven geographically scattered specialized schools; La Guardia, the arts school; and the regular school schools, of which we were asked to rank up to 12 in order of preference. To place the kids, the Department of Education uses the medical-school model: the schools rank the students, the students rank the schools, and the computer matches the two lists. We are told the system works pretty well. We’re all worrying about the potentially life-altering implications of “pretty well.”

All fall we lived, anxiously, by the book— the fat spiral-bound guide to the schools that swelled as we added monthly calendars, brochures, entry requirements printed off the Web, and precious non-replaceable tickets from the guidance counselor (admit one eighth grader to the Beacon assessment). Good planning was essential, but zeal could backfire. My family learned that one Friday rush hour after biking across Houston St. in a soaking rain for a Bard open house that existed nowhere except on a Web site calendar I had apparently printed too early. Our 10-year-old back at home became quite competent at warming up dinner.

As the leaves turned and the rains fell, you could find us eighth-grade families shuffling down the halls of the three B’s (Beacon, Bard and Baruch), Lab, Millennium, ElRo (Eleanor Roosevelt), Brooklyn Tech. Each weekend was given over to a test, or an audition, or an interview, or an essay revision. Acolytes ourselves, we called all the parents we know with older kids and grilled them.

We parents are three years wiser now than when we made the rounds of middle schools, or maybe just three years more wizened under all that fluorescent light. Our jackets slung over our arms, we toured like pros, ducking silently to the rear of the classroom. We looked for the soul amid the cheerful sameness — the collages, the Einstein photos, the inspirational oaktag quotations by one Roosevelt or another. In our lucky moments in this world of “inquiry-based” education, we caught a bit of actual teaching.

The variety of tour styles was impressive. On the Wednesday when we finally got in the door at Bard, the soft-spoken principal himself took us around his re-treaded old elementary school building, promising us a peak at the one highlight, the newly renovated library. Alas, he couldn’t find the key. That Thursday La Guardia razzle-dazzled us with a two-and-a-half-hour Broadway-ready showcase. The principal and department heads delivered memorized speeches heavy on the words pride and achievement, but – suspiciously – they didn’t let us anywhere near a classroom.

The slightest variable could make or break our impression – say, if we happened to sit in the left rear quadrant of the auditorium and get passed off to the affectless tour guide rather than the bubbly, charming one. There’s an urban legend about Stuyvesant students who stalk the halls with a calculator, keeping a running tally of their G.P.A. I think it’s true.

Mostly we asked ourselves the essential, unanswerable questions: Would our kids be happy and productive and creative here? Would they find teachers and friends to love and understand and stretch them? Would they get in? Our own high school memories rose to the surface as baseline, or cautionary tale, or some complicated mix of the two. We were haunted by our own high school personas, or lack thereof. Often it struck me odd to give so much weight to these particular four years of life, which, to tell the truth, are less indelibly imprinted on me than the hothouse time of elementary and middle school, where the same 30 people spent so much time together we could practically identify each other by scent. High school is all about regrouping, about moving constantly and independently from one place to another. Ultimately it’s about finding – or failing to find — your niche.

Like a well-designed lesson plan, my 30th high school reunion fell right in the middle of the process. It poured that night too, but I wore my slinky sleeveless dress, hugged just about everyone in the room, and slow danced to “Stairway to Heaven” with my cute husband. I loved every minute, feeling far more comfortable in my skin, wizened though it may be, than I ever did 30 years ago. If only the warmth in that catering hall had flowed through the vast poured-concrete school itself back in ‘71, when the only help we got finding our bearings was a system of color-coded lockers.

On tour after tour last fall, we heard a lovely mantra from the student guides: we’re not cliquey; we’re diverse; we can talk to our teachers about anything and we do. I have no reason to doubt them, as much as their claims are the antithesis of all I know of high school. Like the five little ducks in the song I used to sing to my boys, current students assembled in each auditorium, the part of the tour I came to think of as the torso lineup: short ones, tall ones, skinny ones too. Fat girls with frizzy hair stood alongside skinny blondes, their tee-shirts every bit as unequal to the task of covering their bodies. The openly gay kid, the techie geek, the brand-new immigrant, the pipsqueak boy crossing his fingers for puberty — all stood at the front of the room, proud and happy to talk.

Where is the too-easy cynicism? Where are the poor losers, and the sore losers? Where is that virulent high-school breed, what we in the ‘70s so charmingly called the “snot?” Maybe Manhattan schools, where worldliness and curiosity are prized more than cuteness, really are different. Maybe all that bad human nature is lurking behind the façade of the tour, or maybe it’s in plain sight and I’m just too far removed to understand the symbology.

I don’t offer my son much advice. He’s a city kid. He’s smarter and more self-possessed than I was at 13, and he’ll find his way. For all the truth about the failings of the system, both his schools so far — P.S. 3 in the Village and I.S. 89 in Battery Park City — have encouraged him to think for himself and given him enough skill and knowledge to do so. As we emerge from the lull, the only advice I’ve offered is simple and nearly self-evident: wherever you end up, take advantage of what it offers. But I’m crossing my fingers that the pretty-good matching system places my son in one of his top choices, where his niche is ready and waiting to welcome him in.


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