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 of us since Oliver started school, in 1996. Last year, for instance, along with the usual hurdles of working, running a household, and helping a child through the emotional torture chamber that is middle school (one boy demonstrated his sexual prowess by making jokes about the other boys’ shoe sizes), there were the semester-long crucibles of the history and science fairs. There was also the hypervigilance about grades in general, since my son must reapply this year to the advanced academic program he’s been in since kindergarten, as he had to do when he entered middle school. (His application for sixth grade was as demanding as an Ivy League school’s; ten-year-olds had to write essays and take a battery of standardized tests.) Then there was all the volunteering: for the PTA, for a capital campaign to refurbish the school grounds, for the annual fundraising party, for field trips and special events. By the end of the year, stressed to the max, I found myself haranguing my son about not studying for an upcoming history test on the night he was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. This, clearly, was not the kind of mom I had hoped to be—a combination of Cruella De Vil and the Madwoman of Chaillot.
I didn’t start out this way. My husband and I, both products of public schools, were not the kind of people who agonized over post-birth Apgar scores or registered for a chichi kindergarten before their child came home from the hospital. We bought our house in a rapidly gentrifying, close-in neighborhood with the understanding that the nearby public elementary was good and getting even better. It had an advanced program for gifted and talented children, which had been designed by the district a few decades earlier to give smart minority kids a boost and stem white flight from the public schools. At the time, we couldn’t imagine sending a child anywhere else. The teachers were enthusiastic, and so were the parents; the school was racially, ethnically, and economically mixed. Even as childless newcomers to the neighborhood, we planted trees on the playground and judged the science fair because the place seemed so warm and inviting. We wanted to be part of that community.
Getting into kindergarten proved to be anything but warm and inviting, however. Admission to the advanced academic program was dependent on passing a standardized test. If our four-year-old failed, neighborhood moms warned me, he would be exiled to “regular classes,” which they described as a cross between an Adam Sandler movie and a juvenile detention unit. I was then a much younger, much newer mother, so the test and the potential fallout didn’t strike me as patently insane, as it does now.
Instead, we did what all desperate, savvy parents do today: We enrolled our son in the neighborhood nursery school with a prep program—yes, that’s a prep program for toddlers—that virtually guaranteed admission to the advanced kindergarten. On test day, we were confident. We strolled the two blocks to the school hand in hand, a tiny, happy family of three, and tried to appear calm and composed as we met the woman who would be deciding Oliver’s fate. She was cheerful and bustling, with very red lipstick. Within an hour she returned with Oliver, managing to be both reassuring and noncommittal. I soon found out why: Oliver had passed the test with flying colors—and won the first spot on the waiting list. The competition for kindergarten slots in the advanced program was so intense that, despite our proximity to the school, the district relegated him to a comparable program in an elementary several miles away, with poorer academic standards, for racial balance. When I heard that a neighbor was transferring to Alaska, presumably taking his already accepted five-year-old with him, I did everything but offer to help him pack.
Oliver was formally admitted to his neighborhood public school just a few days before classes started. The Greek chorus of neighborhood moms congratulated me for having volunteered to help plant playground trees and write a few fundraising letters while Oliver was still in diapers. That had probably tipped the scales in our favor, they said. The lesson to me was clear: If I wanted school to work for my son, I had to work for school.
In this way I was introduced to the world of what’s known as “parental involvement,” a term that, like “flight attendant” and “administrative assistant,” has been devised to make people feel better about work that can be difficult and thankless. Early on, I could see that this was not going to be my mother’s volunteer work, which involved little more than bringing cupcakes on my birthday, canned goods at Thanksgiving, and an ornament for the class Christmas tree. Somehow, between the time my mother became a parent and the time I became one, all that had changed.
The parental ideal, in the eyes of professional educators and professional school parents, can be found on the PTA Web site. “Every day offers a fresh opportunity to get involved with your child,” pta.org insists. In a brochure titled “100 Ways for Parents to Be Involved in Their Child’s Education,” suggestions include: “Know school staff’s extensions and office hours”; “Request that information be available in all relevant languages”; “Help establish a parent center at school and use its resources”; “Assist in developing parent support programs/groups and attend them”; “Help create and/or contribute to a school newsletter on parenting”; “Start a parent book club to discuss current publications”; “Build a child file with medical records, pictures, fingerprints, etc”; “Talk with your child’s teacher on creating home learning games and activities.” Start a parent book club? Who has the time to read with all the effort that must be devoted to school? Home learning games and activities? Wasn’t I doing enough of that for Oliver’s assigned “family homework”? Baseball bingo to teach math facts, tiny puzzles to improve hand-eye coordination, family autobiographies to get down to business on those writing skills? As he progressed through elementary school, I began to notice that I was spending less time enjoying my child and more time educating him. I reminded myself of those severe, demanding Puritan proctors I’d read about in books about early American education.
Not at first, of course. When Oliver entered kindergarten, being involved in his school life seemed like a wonderful idea. I believed the PTA gospel that “decades of research show that when parents are involved, students have increased motivation, better self-esteem.” (Now I read that and think, “If only childrearing were that easy.”) Though I had a full-time job, I worked at home with what I told myself was a flexible schedule. I imagined that I could be some sort of hybrid mom who could maintain a demanding job and still be one of those caring parents who show up at school on a moment’s notice. It wasn’t that hard to alter my day, at the school’s request, to read to Oliver’s kindergarten class for half an hour once a week, especially because it followed his twenty-minute lunch period, where I was also encouraged to visit, oh, four times a month. It wasn’t that hard, either, to stock the class gift basket for the annual auction. Or to pull weeds in the school garden. It appealed to my sense of community; the parents were nice, the teachers appreciative, and I loved being with the kids, especially my own. If I became a little more stressed—going back to work at night, after Oliver went to bed, to make up time lost during the day—well, being a parent involved sacrifice. But I did begin to wonder just why I was so involved with his schoolwork and his school.
Some of this, no doubt, has to do with competitive parenting. Most women I know want to be better moms than their own mothers, and most men are happy to let them labor—fruitlessly—under that illusion. In the era of hyperparenting, there are also concerns that didn’t exist in the early sixties: about drugs and alcohol, about health (childhood obesity), about safety (guns), about college admission. Adults worry about their own uncertain economic futures and project those fears onto their children, pushing them to perform at a level that will get them into Stanford, or at least UT.
I also have concerns about whether, in their insistence on parental involvement, professional educators are overstepping their bounds by trying to off-load some of the societal difficulties that wind up in the classroom, trying to solve, from eight-thirty to five-thirty, what they regard as epidemics of apathy among parents and low self-esteem among children. They are trying to eliminate bad parents by forcing them to be good parents, which won’t work but may have the effect of turning good parents into bad parents because they are stretched too thin. (What happens to families when working parents really cannot leave the office, store, or factory to make that morning recital?) It would be nice if issues of self-esteem could be solved by having Mom read to the class, but they can’t. Whatever happened to the days when children developed healthy egos by trying things on their own and learning from their failures? When kids were mortified to have their parents show up at school? I know Oliver’s teachers wanted to teach instead of remake society. I’m on their side.
Finally, I have concerns about money. The state has cut our school district’s budget by $90 million in the past three years, so making up the difference falls to those parents willing and able to write grant proposals and cadge donations from other parents and local businesses. I have had the opportunity to witness what cuts in public education mean day to day. When Oliver was in the fourth grade, for instance, the administration decided his class could save money by using work sheets instead of math books. When we complained that we couldn’t help Oliver with his homework—I didn’t remember, offhand, how to multiply fractions—his teacher suggested that we buy an instructor’s manual for $300 or borrow hers and copy each page. My husband gave up an afternoon of work to do the latter. When the school couldn’t afford to bring in a special writing program for third and fifth graders, a parents’ group raised the money for it; we also raised money to buy additional computers, digital cameras, new playground equipment, and more.
Every once in a while, my husband and I would visit a school in a wealthier part of town for a performance, lecture, or concert, and my heart would sink: There would be the sunny, well-stocked library of my childhood, along with the acoustically perfect music room and the beautifully appointed auditoriums. How could the disparity between public schools in various school districts be so enormous, I once asked a member of the school board. “Parents,” was the doleful answer. “They make up the difference.”
As Oliver progressed through elementary school, the parents, the administration, and the PTA found a handful of corporate sponsors to take up some of the financial slack, but not without a price. Anyone driving by could see from the enormous banner that a multinational corporation sponsored the school garden. Thus were five-year-olds enlisted in the lifelong battle for brand loyalty. Other kids enjoyed the fruits of a soft-drink machine planted just outside the cafeteria door. In that case, the school district received enough money to build a new high school stadium by being amenable to product placement, while our kids—many from poor families—got a jump on childhood obesity and diabetes.
Still, we persisted. As one education expert told me, “Getting your child educated is a team sport.” But by the fifth grade, the parents had all grown a little testy. A close friend volunteered to create and run the haunted house for the fall carnival and asked me to help out. There was a lot at stake: Every year, fifth-grade parents tried to outdo their predecessors by converting the school’s second floor into a scary—but not too scary—celebration of horror and death, in hopes of raising lots of money. My assignment: Go to the pet store and buy a dozen mice to stock a Plexiglas bridge the kids could walk over. Some instinct—a panicky aversion to rodents, a fear of PETA picketers on the playground—caused me to refuse. The hurt silence on the other end of the line was as foreboding as the blue norther predicted for carnival weekend. Suddenly, I could envision my hard-won Girl Scout reputation curdling into the Mom Who Wouldn’t Buy the Mice. I would mortify not just my own child but also this entire group of fifth graders and their parents, who would fail in their attempt to beat the previous year’s bowl of lychee eyeballs. I sent my husband out for mice.
By the end of that year, I felt part of a family that was slowly coming unraveled, and I don’t mean my own. I had grown close to many school parents over time; they had helped raise my child, and I had helped raise theirs. But just as school was ending, civil strife broke out over the planning of the graduation trip. The well-meaning PTA president had hired a consultant (yes, there are now school-trip consultants), who came up with a journey that featured a twelve-hour train ride to Big Bend. The parents’ meeting in the cafeteria reminded me of a Thanksgiving dinner that went on a little too long. The veneer of civilization began to crack, as old hurts surfaced and long-repressed fury came to the fore. Parents were outraged about the vacation time they’d have to sacrifice for a school function; parents were outraged about the choice of hotels (too cheap or too expensive); parents were outraged because they had already been there and done that. Squished onto my tiny cafeteria stool at my tiny cafeteria table, it occurred to me that the source of all this rage was not the actual trip but six years of “parental involvement” finally coming to a close. It was hard to think about celebrating. We were too wiped out.
At least, I thought as we graduated from elementary school, volunteering would drop off in middle school. Kids wouldn’t want their parents around, and I could get back to work. Not so. Middle-schoolers may prefer to act as though they were spawned in primordial swamps, but administrators and teachers are not ready to let go. We chose to put Oliver in his neighborhood middle school—one with the same advanced curriculum—instead of opting for more-prestigious programs in wealthier neighborhoods. We did this because, after visiting several schools, we came to a surprising conclusion: We liked our neighborhood school best. The teachers and counselors were enthusiastic, encouraging, tireless, and (my favorite) demanding. Unfortunately, the school looked like something out of Blackboard Jungle: soiled ceiling tiles and window shades in the auditorium, cantankerous air conditioning, mold in the principal’s office, rats on the third floor, and a dingy color scheme not quite as cozy as a cell block. Decorations included the sign on the front door, in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, that weapons were prohibited.
We had left a school where parental involvement was encouraged for one where it was desperately needed, which meant that, come August, I was headed back to school. I raised money for a redesigned campus drop-off point—kids narrowly escaped being hit by cars—and brought in speakers and helped with theater class cast parties, the PTA, and reading classes. One of the early PTA meetings began with the principal’s plea for still more fundraising so he wouldn’t have to cut art and music teachers. I wanted to believe in the school, but my long-held faith in public education was being severely tested.
“If you were at a private school,” a pooped friend suggested, “you could just write a check. As long as it was a big check.”
DID I CONSIDER PRIVATE SCHOOL? Almost every day. Oliver loved his middle school, but despite the fact that most of his teachers were exceptional, I was still beset with the guilty feeling that I was cheating my son out of a good education. “You don’t want your kid to be a social experiment,” said a friend who was worrying about keeping his own kids in public school, and his words began to haunt me as I recalled my years as a school volunteer and a witness to financial deprivation. I wasn’t sure I could steel myself for more semesters in which books were lacking and class size was sometimes stretched to the maximum—in elementary school, two unlucky fifth graders had bivouacked on a tired sofa for the year because of a desk shortage—and student teachers were scarce. I had helped teach science every Thursday morning for an hour for an entire year in elementary school. I loved it but couldn’t help wondering whether someone who had fled from dissection in high school was really the best assistant teacher the kids could have.
I was also worried that the emphasis on standardized-test drills (lest the school get a bad rating at TAKS time) and self-esteem-building would continue in middle school. I was happy to see that Oliver’s spelling and punctuation improved dramatically after his first semester of middle school, where rules of grammar were strictly enforced. The elementary school had used, and subsequently abandoned, a curriculum that valued freedom of expression over rote learning. Spelling tests (and many other tests), with those right and wrong answers, were deemed damaging to a child’s self-esteem. (“There’s always spell-check,” one of his teachers told me cheerily.) Before he was eleven, Oliver had learned in detail about the evils of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol, and the Thanksgiving feast inevitably contained lessons on the oppression of Native Americans (as opposed to the religious oppression that drove the Pilgrims to America). He was also asking me whether Sweden was a part of Scotland.
As he got older, Oliver’s school-sponsored self-esteem began to suffer as I demanded that he spell and punctuate and do the reading logs that he suggested were “mostly” optional. Other kids didn’t do their homework, he said, so why should he? We hired tutors—a math whiz working her way through med school and an “organizational expert” who could teach my child how to keep track of his assignments and study for tests. Our homework battles declined, but so did our bank account.
Where was the covenant between families and the public schools my parents had known, that they could turn over their children for twelve years and the schools would return them possessing the basic skills and knowledge necessary for adulthood? Vanished. Yes, I could join a campaign to get the soft-drink machine away from the cafeteria entrance and raise money for a climbing wall on the playground, but I still could not be reassured that my son would ever learn that Sweden was not a part of Scotland. Unless, of course, I told him myself.
So we looked at a few private schools, thinking he might switch in the seventh grade. “Oliver only has one education,” yet another friend, this one with a child in private school, warned. In that moment I thought, briefly, of letting her have it, of telling her that if people like her still had kids in public schools—and still invested their time and money in the same—I wouldn’t have to be considering a change.
Instead, I fell in love with places like the one she had chosen for her daughter. The teachers had impressive credentials. The campuses and classrooms were beautiful, and there appeared to be plenty of money for all the extras Oliver’s school lacked. With so many parents chipping in, I thought, maybe I could do less. But no. From canvassing my friends with kids in private schools, I found that they have similar curriculum battles, and most moms are volunteering just as often as I am, going on field trips and babysitting during teacher teas—and they also get asked for $10,000 donations on top of their $12,000 annual tuition.
We had one more option, of course: moving to a more expensive neighborhood with a more highly regarded public school. But as former University of Houston and UT professor Elizabeth Warren (now at Harvard) noted in her book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, many better public schools have become almost as expensive as private institutions. The high cost of housing plus chipping in for all the extras has stretched many couples to the breaking point, causing the bankruptcy rate now to surpass the divorce rate. “Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,’ but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district,” Warren wrote in 2003. In my city, $375,000 to $500,000 is more like it. As Warren told me, it is this, not parental neuroses, that “is just crazy.”
We didn’t want to send Oliver to a school, public or private, that was practically segregated racially and economically, but when he was accepted to the private school we liked best, I thought long and hard about making a change. (The school took Oliver despite the fact that in his interview he had asked the headmaster why the school had no Hispanic kids. “And, Mom,” he told me, “he didn’t have an answer.”) As it happened, that acceptance came on the day of an awards ceremony at Oliver’s middle school. All his teachers came—there were especially loud cheers for Oliver’s math teacher, a strict but vigorously devoted Taiwanese immigrant who offers tutorials before and after school every day, and his history teacher, a heroically patient Vietnam vet who has lined the walls of his classroom with GI Joes dressed as fighting men dating from the American Revolution to the recent war in Afghanistan. There was a lot of joy in the room for kids who, everyone knew, had struggled mightily against enormous odds—kids whose parents had very little money and spoke very little English, kids who had never known their fathers, kids who had lost siblings to drugs and alcohol, kids who know the value of an education better, I sometimes think, than my son.
If I had to say why we stay in the public schools, this diversity would be my explanation. In Oliver’s life, that word is a thrilling reality instead of a hackneyed political buzzword. He’s been immeasurably enriched by being around so many different kinds of people—people who, by the time he’s an adult, will be running things instead of being held back, as they were in my day. Oliver loves his teachers and his friends. He’s bilingual, makes good grades (with our relentless prodding), and can go on for hours about the difference between Sean John and Fubu jeans. He’s developed a healthy disdain for the sense of entitlement sometimes displayed by more-privileged kids, even if it can be a little misplaced. (When I asked why he didn’t let his hair grow long, like boys I’d seen at the mall, he gave me a withering look. “Mom,” my pale-faced son said, “that’s for white kids.”) I want to believe that somehow, for Oliver, being at home in the world is more important than knowing, in detail, about the Byzantine Empire by the sixth grade. But I still worry about my choice nearly every day.
I know too that there’s an emotional cost to the way my family has structured its life together, despite the PTA’s well-meaning advice. I worry that Oliver will always remember his mother as a woman racing six feet ahead of him, moving in a blur from one task to the next, rarely conveying enjoyment, rarely able to focus entirely on the job at hand. (This seems to be, still, the lot of women: Show me a father who chairs the annual school auction and I’ll show you an outsourced software developer.) I’m sure Oliver wishes for a mom who doesn’t panic at the news of a surprise homework assignment—”Mom, I need to bring ten family pictures by tomorrow,” he casually mentioned one night around bedtime—on the eve of a major deadline at work.
I do too. I would love to be the kind of mother my mother was, someone who had the time and patience to help me translate a complicated short story from Spanish to English or go over an excruciating chapter in the history book about early Texas settlements or (more interesting to me, then and now) dissect the psychological complexities of thirteen-year-old girls. But I made that choice a long time ago. I love my son, but I love my work too, and the price is living with the day-to-day impossibility of ever finding a balance, only intermittent compromise.
And so, what made me happiest about this past summer was that the Texas settlers didn’t come up and there was plenty of time to talk about why Oliver hated Hilary Duff and loved Alyssa Milano and to revel in not reverting to school mode. On a trip to Boston, we hiked the Freedom Trail with a friend, and when we got to Paul Revere’s house, she provided her eight-year-old daughter with a concise tutorial about his famous ride. I kept mum and bought Oliver a Red Sox cap instead.