Books June 2005

Kiddie Class Struggle

One mom's breast-milk-curdling tour of lower education's higher end

Because, like many American mothers with children at home, I am a juggling, multi-tasking, somewhat less than full-time freelance employee, the hours I spent reading Camille Peri and Kate Moses's Because I Said So, Judith Warner's Perfect Madness, and Miriam Peskowitz's The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars also involved a lot of weeping in parking lots. In the spirit of motherly sharing, let me rush to explain why. It began with the—I thought simple—wish that our daughter attend kindergarten. In the strange voodoo that is California, although houses in our neighborhood have shot up to $500,000, the corner school's demographics are 95 percent Hispanic; 76 percent of the students are learning English as a second language, and 92 percent qualify for a free lunch. Like most families just one year into the crowded magnet system, we've been waitlisted for schools with more English-speakers; any openings materializing locally will be assigned by lottery, the odds notoriously poor.

So, we figured, the simplest solution was to move. The shining beacons of L.A. public education are La Cañada and Calabasas, lovely bedroom neighborhoods where single-family homes run from $850,000 to $1.5 million (giving rise to my new favorite real-estate phrase: "$1.1 million and it's on septic!"). One Sunday I saw a La Cañada listing at the Ikea-like Impossibly Low Price! of $830,000. The house was small, but checking on the Internet revealed that it had a surprisingly big lot. Surely no one else had seen this, had done the research … As we pulled up in our ever-so-slightly-pockmarked 1998 Toyota, my hopes crumbled upon seeing a mob of sleek-sunglassed parents, all business, plus their children, piling like vermin out of gleaming black Mercedes and Lexus SUV Horror-Mobiles, tossing ever-escalating sealed bids—like jaunty paper airplanes—over the squat house's peeling windowsills.

"If it weren't for all these Asians!" I hissed, crumpling the Los Angeles Times real-estate section in my fist. I confess that even more flew out, to the tune of "Asians—they overfetishize education, drive up the real-estate market, and P.S., I hate their tile!" It concerned my husband that in our quest to secure our daughter a quality education, to forge her into a forward-looking citizen of the world, I—myself of Asian descent—was becoming a frothing, snarling racist. Wasn't there another way?

Fortunately, yes. In our darkest hour we turned to religion. Upon learning that tuition at parochial schools is half that at name L.A. private schools (where it runs from $14,000 to $26,000 a year), my husband and I—recalling that we have two kids to spring for—dropped our Left Coast Democratic leanings and immediately found God. Any God would do. We weren't picky. Here was a glossy Baptist flyer showing happy children: "Picture your child attending a school where every subject is taught from a Biblical perspective!" Here was a Catholic one, with a photo of the pope—for whom I experienced a stab of affection, thinking, "People put down the pope, but he has actually made some pretty good points. Can't remember what they are, but look at the tuition—$4,500!"

We eventually settled on the middlebrow Lutherans and their middlebrow Luther Hall, considered not top-tier but certainly decent, with no recent shootings. Which I like to think describes our middlebrow 1998 minivan family as well—"Not top-tier but certainly decent, with no recent shootings." Comparing Luther Hall's $6,500 a year with the $10,000 property tax on the La Cañada tear-down, I felt the pressure releasing. The kindergarten had openings; we were applying in time; and the only thing standing between us and an acceptance letter was a twenty-minute evaluation. Said evaluation was a sleepy one-on-one with a teacher, involving simple questions ("What's your favorite ice cream?"), the replicating of some block arrangements, pencil work ("Can you write your name?" Yes), and the copying of shapes of increasing difficulty, culminating in a grid I can only describe as "the British flag"—which, with almost pencil-breaking effort, my daughter actually did. When asked to name some animals, she opened with "Lion, tiger, hippopotamus …" I thought this showed style.

Indeed, I was just going through my address book, phoning everyone with news of my daughter's genius ("She said her favorite ice cream was mango!"), when word came that Luther Hall felt my daughter had failed the test, that she was not developmentally ready for kindergarten and would actually have to be held back a year. This is the 2001: A Space Odyssey moment when lights and colors around you smear into tunnels. My gut turned to ice, and I vaulted into the minivan, bouncing crazily down the rainy boulevard like a wild-eyed mother tiger, through stoplights flaring orange, my knuckles turning white, to Luther Hall, to … well, apparently to go question by question through my daughter's awful pink Gesell readiness assessment. At the top was her age, 4.4; below was a sea of ADD-type phrases: "intermittent eye contact," "not focused," "attention seemed to wander." Next to "Conversation," "Blocks," and "Pencilwork" was an age-appropriate spray of 4.0s and 4.5s, "but by February," the administrator said, "we want to see more 4.5s moving into 5.0s." The British flag was a 6.0. But because she did not then want to try the much simpler diamond: a 4.0. The animal naming was timed—twenty seconds, forty, sixty. You're not supposed to peak at hippopotamus, or wait for praise. You're supposed to press on and on and on …

In the parking lot, in the rain, in my white Toyota minibarge of failure, I cried, because I now saw the error of my relaxed, irreverent ways. All those hysterical Los Angeles über-moms I used to mock (call them the Suzanne Vandenburg-Kiplings), with their shining yoga faces, Mozart in the womb, natural birth, Baby Einstein, scary brain-stimulating black-and-white baby mobiles, getting on extended waiting lists for super preschools, piano lessons at two … They were actually right! Any one of these tricks would have gotten us over the hump of 4.3s to probably more like 4.7s and 4.8s at age 4.4. If her mother had been paying any attention, I thought, my daughter would not be sitting alone come September with no kindergarten to go to, One Child Left Behind.

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Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace.

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