I SEEM TO REMEMBER, AS A CHILD, my mother being overtaken by euphoria each year as summer came to a close. She bought my brothers and me Big Chief tablets and crisp new clothes with abandon; she accepted her carpool duties with gratitude. And why not? After a summer of deploying three kids to swimming lessons, drawing lessons, Spanish lessons, acting lessons, and lessons I’d just as soon forget—masked and padded, I suffered through a fencing camp one July—school was starting at last. She could turn us over with the full confidence that the teachers who were responsible for our education would do their jobs well and—no less important—allow her to go about getting her life back, at least from morning to mid-afternoon.
As a parent of a thirteen-year-old son, those days now seem almost heartbreakingly benign to me. My brothers and I often walked to and from our neighborhood elementary, cognizant of but never really fearing someone called “the Friendly Stranger.” Our school served a hot lunch every day that consisted of a meat and two vegetables instead of junk food; we learned enough from publicly supported institutions to attend very good colleges. We did our homework in our rooms, without help. Our teachers were smart—mostly women who today would be doctors and lawyers—and their authority went largely unchallenged, because our neighborhood wasn’t then full of anxious parents worried about everything from childhood obesity and ADD and Columbine II to whether their children were learning enough to get into a prestigious college.
In contrast, I seem to be living in an age in which there are two kinds of parents: those who don’t care at all and those who care too much. Because I fall into the latter category—not always by choice, as you will see—I often think of my mother’s role in my school life with envy, largely because she didn’t have one. Maybe she went to the Christmas pageant and an annual parent-teacher conference, but that was it. She worked part-time jobs and volunteered for community projects, but she was there, unfrazzled, when we got home from school. My father, who supported the family on his income, could get away with forcing me to sign a statement promising that he would never again have to attend the PTA’s annual Mexican Supper fundraiser, after he endured the first one.
That is not the story of my life. Even though I have a full-time job, I have been right there alongside my son since he started kindergarten, nine years ago, slathering mustard on hormone-filled hot dogs at fall carnivals; soliciting donations for the school auction; serving as room mom and occasional substitute or assistant teacher; shoveling out sand and shoveling in gravel to make the new playground lawsuit-proof; anteing up for teacher coffees, field trips, and capital campaigns; coaching a history fair team (to victory) two years in a row; and of course, helping with homework that required family participation.
So when my mother called the other day and said, “You must be thrilled,” after I mentioned that school was starting in a few days, she couldn’t have been more wrong. “Thrilled” was not the emotion I was experiencing. Dread was more like it—dread at the commitment of time and the exposure to the problems of schools today that lay ahead. Summer has always been a gift in our house because it has meant an escape from this constant pressure. My son and I have no arguments about going to bed late or getting up early. We watch CSI and try to guess who did it and, near midnight, walk the dog on empty streets, watching steam rise off the pavement after a rain. All that will end in a matter of days, when he heads for the neo-Gothic structure where both he and I will begin eighth grade.
Maybe, in reading the above, you are thinking that I am one of those overly anxious, overly ambitious, “enmeshed” moms satirized on TV sitcoms. One of those parents who take solace in books like Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America or Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It (whose jacket flap so comfortingly explains: “Whether they’re thinking about school violence or getting a child into the right college, American moms and dads are a pretty worried crowd”). I am a worried parent, but not about school violence or whether my child will get into Harvard. I’m worried about whether he is getting a decent education in a chronically ignored and underfunded public school system. I’m worried that the time I have to spend to ensure that he gets what he needs is taking a toll on my work and my family life. Finally, I’m worried that in telling my story of public school, I will expose my son to ridicule and myself to retaliation. I’m not kidding. So think of me as “Mommy X” and of my son as “Oliver,” for his—and my—somewhat Dickensian journey through public school. After nine years of service, I’m in grave danger of flunking the rest of my life.
TWO YEARS AGO, WHEN OLIVER was in the sixth grade, I happened to come across a project I had completed when I was his age, in 1966. It was titled “India,” and I was amazed at how clear my memories were of completing it. Alone in my room, I had papier-mâchéd and painted a map of the subcontinent and glued it to the cover folder; inside I’d written essays about “The Culture,” “The Land,” “The Animals,” “The Religions.” The pieces were all about a page and a half long, written impeccably in bold blue ink with my beloved Schaeffer cartridge pen. I’d supplemented my own illustrations with photographs from the newspaper and National Geographic. I got an A, and from the vantage point of several decades later, I seem to have earned it.
I couldn’t help contrasting that project with all the family involvement that has been required