Last night, my husband and I both admitted to each other that we’re terrified to send our kid to Kindergarten next fall.
Almost no one we know is choosing public school, and I have tried (am trying) to be a cheerleader for it:
It’s important. It’s a place to spend time with people from all different backgrounds. Teachers are amazing. Think of all the time we’ll suddenly have while our kid’s at school!
But as much as I’ve parroted these pros, the cons feel big and scary.
Yes, teachers rock, but do I trust The System?
My kid turns 5 this summer, so school’s around the corner, but I had never set foot inside her school until this month. None of the families we know had been in there either. I decided that must be why school felt so scary to me: Usually when we’re afraid of something, we’re really just afraid of the unknown.
The principal gave me a tour, and for the most part, it put my mind at ease. K-2 has its own building, with art lining the walls and a cozy library. They get three recesses a day. Yes, the Kindergarten classes are illegally overcrowded (which is a problem all over the country), but the principal seemed to know every student by name.
I was on the way out, saying goodbye, when she pointed out the holiday decorations:
“We try to decorate the front office every month. We might not always be the most PC about it, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t know what she meant. But I felt my heart racing.
“Like, we put up a Christmas tree, and we call it a Christmas tree!” she said, conspiratorially.
I’m a Jew. One of the hardest parts of public school for me was the We’re All Christians mentality. What I heard from the principal was that my Jewish kid would go through the very same thing. And she felt so fine about it that she was telling me, a person she didn’t even know. She assumed I’d agree with her; who does she imagine would disagree, who is the Other in her mind? I have no issue with a decorated tree in the school; it’s the way she talked about it that terrifies me.
I recently read So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo (It’s a must-read for white folks, even if you think you’re already an awesome ally). I was really inspired by the chapter about the school-to-prison pipeline. The book explained that, statistically, from a very young age, kids of color are disciplined differently than white kids. Widespread unconscious bias leads to way more detentions, suspensions, and involvement of law enforcement for students of color, even for the littlest kids. I cried when I read:
“We often focus on the outcomes of the school-to-prison pipeline as the ultimate tragedy — the high drop-out rates, future poverty and joblessness, the likelihood of repeated incarceration — but when I look at our school-to-prison pipeline, the biggest tragedy to me is the loss of childhood joy. When our kids spend eight hours a day in a system that is looking for reasons to punish them, remove them, criminalize them — our kids do not get to be kids. Our kids do not get to be rambunctious, they do not get to be exuberant, they do not get to be rebellious, they do not get to be defiant. Our kids do not get to fuck up the way other kids get to; our kids will not get to look back fondly on their teenage hijinks — because these get them expelled or locked away.”
— Ijeoma Oluo page 133 of So You Want to Talk About Race
I want to take up this call to action, to investigate if there are race-based discipline differentials at our school. It is very white where we live, so it really could be a case of the 1 or 2 kids of color in the class being treated differently from the rest.
But when I hear PC said in such a derisive tone, when I hear their focus is on this enrollment crisis and seemingly nowhere else, I am terrified that any inquiries I make will go nowhere and maybe even put a target on my kid. I fear that the school is just trying to survive, not thrive.
This underscores how important it is that parents like me don’t opt out of public school, that we go and we ask questions, but the terror remains.
We live next to the school with The Reputation.
When we bought our house, I ignored the whole issue of good schools and bad schools. I assumed it was code for racism and that any school would be filled with devoted teachers and all the local kids. So if we wanted to live somewhere, we’d be happy to go to school there too.
The thing is, no, the school is not filled with all the local kids. Enrollment is way down at our neighborhood school, down so low that the school is about to abandon the elementary school building and push those kids into a building with older kids.
To explain the steep enrollment drop, administrators are pointing to things like people getting waivers to go to neighboring school districts, which comes back to the question of what’s wrong with our school? Or, at least, what do people think is wrong with our school?
The reputation is that there was a lot of meth addiction in my community recently. People keep telling me, “Most of the kids at that school have issues from their parents being on meth. Is there any way you can get her in another school?”
These are the things I hear and shelter from my kid. These are the things I hear and try to reply:
“If we want our public school to be awesome for everyone, we can’t opt out of them ourselves.”
But what I’m hearing from my friends, even those in the neighboring school district, are plans to homeschool, or to put off Kindergarten til 6. Or, if they have the means, to pay to send their kids to one of two popular, secular private schools. Almost all of the elementary-aged kids we know go to private school.
Meanwhile, low enrollment means low funds; the school gets funding based on how many kids attend. So as more families with means choose private school, the situation worsens for the families in public school. And the school goes from what it’s supposed to be — a cross-section of the community — to just the families that don’t, or can’t, choose private/homeschool.
The Schott Foundation’s 2018 Grading the States report card shows that my state is one of the best for prioritizing public school over private, so I can’t even imagine what this public school crisis looks like in the rest of the country.
I understand the desire to homeschool, to unschool, to choose a magical environment that aligns with all your hopes and dreams for your kid, to build something better than the status quo. I’m hoping we can build that right inside our public schools, which are here for everyone. But, I’m afraid.
What if my kid doesn’t want to go?
So far, my kid has not wanted to attend preschool. Keeping our expenses low (and privilege) has allowed us the luxury of stay-at-home parenting, of letting her discover her independence at her own pace. And she gets a lot of socialization through library storytimes (including the one I lead), playdates, and dance class. I’m so glad we’ve been able to leave the question of preschool up to her, but we’ve presented Kindergarten differently, as something we’re excited is going to happen, not a choice.
But, when the time comes, what if she doesn’t want to go?
Until recently, half-day Kindergarten was an option, a way to ease in, but my state just mandated that all Kindergarten must be full-day. That’s 6 hours and 35 minutes every day, where I can’t help her, where I can’t amplify her voice when she’s feeling shy or scared, where she can’t chase her passions, because somebody else is deciding everything for her. Or that’s the fear, anyway.
What’s the Most Important Thing?
Questions (and answers) from a 4-year-old philosopher.
This has been the hardest part of managing my terror: I’ve made the choice to not let on about any of my fear to my kid. I’m really honest with her about most hard stuff, but I have put school very firmly in the Good, Exciting Adventure category. If she hears me, or any grown-up, trashing the school she’s about to go to, I believe it will significantly impact her ability to thrive there. I want her to give school a fair shake, to form her own opinion.
So I have picked out children’s books that make school look fun, have pointed out things in the books she likes:
“Whoa, they get to paint at school!? And do music!?”
And I have been happy that most of the adult conversations about school (and, usually why these other parents aren’t choosing public school) happen when the kids aren’t around.
If she goes, and she hates it, we’ll figure out what to do then; we won’t try to convince her that it’s okay if it’s not. But for now, we’re hiding all our fears.
How’re they going to treat my vegan kid?
We don’t live in a vegan world. But so far we’ve lived in a world of people who respect us and therefore respect that we’re vegan. With school, I’m not afraid of the kids’ opinions (in our experience, kids usually aren’t weirded out and are used to kids eating different stuff). The fear is about how much of my kid’s experience relies on the teacher’s opinion of our veganism. If the teacher respects it, we’re great. I can provide a stash of various vegan treats for the teacher to give my kiddo on days they’re all having some non-vegan treat. It can be a non-issue.
If the teacher doesn’t respect it, though, I’ve just put a high-maintenance sign on my kid’s back that could make the teacher treat her with annoyance, even if unconsciously. It’s a similar fear that stopped me from saying anything when the principal made that PC Christmas Tree comment: I don’t know if these people will be okay with Others; I don’t want to reveal our Otherness until I feel safe.
And I’m excited to pack exciting lunches, but if my kid starts wanting to buy lunch, we’re probably screwed. I’ve seen the menus, and it’s a big corndog party.
I started buying school lunch in junior high. My usual lunch was a roll and a chocolate chip chewy granola bar. Occasionally, I’d eat just a giant chocolate chip cookie for lunch, or an order of French fries. Wow, kids are resilient. (Repeat to myself: Kids are resilient.)
My experience with school.
If you ignore my marginal employment, I look like a public school success story. I was the kid with straight As, in the Gifted classes. I graduated high school with a National Merit scholarship and a full year of completed college credit.
There was bullying, all the way from elementary through high school. And that was just the status quo. Some people had it much worse than others, but who wasn’t bullied?
Most of my teachers liked me, but there were a few who didn’t, and those years were hell.
Then there’s the amount of time I spent watching movies and scribbling on dittos. The rare detentions I got were for laughing. School was teaching me to laugh less, to talk less, to follow directions, to walk in a line. As much as I want to support public schools, each day still starts with the Pledge of Allegiance. School teaches kids stuff, yes, but one of the main lessons is to fall in line, to be a cog.
In 2nd grade, I was chosen to be in a newspaper photo, working in the school garden, a Public School Success Story. That’s the only time I ever touched that garden, for the photo op. In 2nd grade, I also peed my pants and was terrified that everyone would know. The alternative was asking for permission and using the 2nd grade bathroom, with no doors on the stalls.
I want better for my kid.
Again, with all my fears, I don’t blame teachers. They’re doing incredibly difficult work for disturbingly low pay. But I’m afraid.
Are we just doing it because it’s free childcare?
Yeah, it sounds amazing to have more time to write. One reason we didn’t have a second kid was so we didn’t restart the clock on this someday-freedom.
Financially, we qualify for Head Start. We could have sent our kid to free preschool if we wanted. But we didn’t. Because we never wanted to choose a situation for her just because it was free. We want to give her the best — We all want to give our kids the best — and we want to help her become a wonderful citizen of the world, an ally.
I’m not convinced that public school is the best for her in all ways, but I do think it’s probably the best in terms of being an ally.
I’m not giving up on public schools.
Every fear I have about public school, I can spin into a reason it’s so important that we do go to public school, that we help make it what it should be.
I get that we’re not there yet; me telling you what I’m going to do is kind of like when a pregnant person tells you their kid is never going to eat sugar. Um, okay, good luck with that.
But here’s where I’m at right now:
I’m gonna keep this terror away from my kid, I’m gonna hope she enters Kindergarten with a completely open mind, and I’m gonna stay involved. I’m not giving up on public schools.
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