The Nation's Pulse

Thinking About Schools

Why do parents worry so much -- and feel helpless?

By 6.10.05

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Parenthood may be characterized as a continual process of disillusionment. I had supposed, for example, that I could train my boys to be musicians, like me. Instead, at ages 10 and 5, they cannot yet carry a tune. My wife had envisioned studious prep-school types. Instead, she confronts ruffians inclined to hair-trigger Balkan hostility toward one another.

What to do about schools, now and going forward?

Our older son, Bud, was born in Boston, where public schools were, post-busing, impossible. Let alone bad, they weren't even safe. So we thought to prepare the way for his enrollment at one of Boston's toney private academies. We filled out applications and we paid visits. Bud was "interviewed" -- at age three and four. And he was turned down. Some of his pre-school classmates got admitted to some of those same schools. Those boys did not seem awfully different from Bud. What accounted for Bud's rejection?

Most likely, Sally and I somehow struck the academic gatekeepers as "Not our kind, dearie." It may have been the "diversity" bugaboo. I recall one question on an application: "Is your child a person of color?" "Yes," I suggested to Sally, "he's kind of pink."

Ultimately, after an unhappy two-year interval at a religious school in New Jersey, Bud has ended up in public schools in the Boston suburbs. The size suits him. With two fairly big classes in every grade, Bud has plenty of scope for making -- and sometimes losing -- friends without the enforced hothouse closeness of a tiny student body. The school has lots of land to run around on -- something private schools lack. He has taken up wrestling, the first extracurricular activity he has really loved. And, though we hear horrors from other cities and towns about sex ed being taken over by gay activists, in our district things seem to be handled responsibly.

FOR BUD, THE MAIN FACTOR in his school career has been his birthday, August 26. That puts him just before the September 1 age cutoff for assignment to a grade, and results in him being the youngest kid in his class -- socially anxious, striving, and worried about his status.

For our younger boy Joe, his birthday works the other way around. His comes on September 22, so he's always the oldest in his cohort. He's a social champ, the hero of any group he walks into. We'll never have to worry about Joe getting along. Ironically, that "person of color" thing may come into play. We adopted Joe from Guatemala, and he's short and brown. Put that together with his confidence and obvious athleticism, and he may end up attending one of our local prep schools, maybe even the President's alma mater Andover in the town next door.

What strikes me so far about school for both boys -- any and every school -- is how hard the children work. Joe, at age five, in a pre-K class, already reads better than I read in first grade. Bud has been doing homework since first grade. Now, at the end of fifth grade, he is doing what amounts to a term paper, with a protocol (on the school district's website) for the citing of references and requirements for library research. He resists this process, with its delayed gratification, and I'm not surprised. I got no homework at all through grade school, and found it a kind of shock when I entered junior high school. Today, Bud will go over to the "middle school," as they call it, for an orientation session. His multi-class career will start a year earlier than mine.

The homework, too, seems often to be needlessly complicated, math in particular. For one thing, it ought to be called "arithmetic." For another, contemporary mathematics curricula mostly seem devoted to deconstructing thousands of years of numeric learning rather than simply learning it. Why should you learn to multiply two- and three-digit numbers, for example, by drawing a diagonal grid across the numbers and transposing places?

I certainly can't explain to Bud why he should do things that way. I can barely help him figure out how to do them.

MODERN EDUCATION AND MODERN HEALTHCARE come in for a lot of grief. Structurally, in the macro sense, both institutions deserve every bit of it. Yet nearly all of us know good teachers and good doctors, and we have found ways to get along.

For us, as parents, our own childhoods hardly provide a clue. Parents' night in my grade school, for example, was marked by the stamped tinfoil ashtrays the school hospitably put on our desks. The next day, we often found those ashtrays still on our desks, sometimes with cigarette butts in them. Parents today find themselves on the receiving end of a blizzard of paper: calendars, notices, permission slips, incident reports, menus. I joked once with the headmaster at Bud's New Jersey religious school that if the Second Coming were announced in Bud's take-home packet, I'd miss it. He did not laugh.

We do our best. We pray with our children every night. We eat dinner together and talk about our days ("Two good things and one bad" is our invitation to tell the day's events), and we work together on school projects. We read. We do homework together. We discuss ideas.

Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that we barely know what we're doing. And that we ought, somehow, to be doing it better.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.