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Back to School

I have a six-year-old grandson, a newly minted kindergartner. The trajectory of his recently launched educational life is a cautionary tale. My daughter and her husband live nearby, in an affluent East Bay suburb where parents literally over-mortgage their souls so their kids can go to the local public schools. (“Suburban schools are best” is the prevailing wisdom.) An only child, he spent three years in pre-school before landing on this first rung of his “formal “education, Bay Area style. My daughter is a high school English teacher in the same district, and has agonized mightily over her son’s education. None of this “Today’s the first day of school” stuff and walking hand-in-hand a couple of blocks down to the local public school. At the tender age of six, “J’s” education had become an outsized project, kinda like deciding if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief (to quote the very old, very politically incorrect childhood rhyme). I refer to him by an initial because schools these days are as concerned with security as they are with education (O the pervs and pedophiles “out there,” you can’t be too careful these days…so the mantra goes), and his preschool was a maze of locked doors and keypads with secret codes. My daughter would kill me if I ever revealed his name. Ditto for her own name. Ah, the promises wrested from writers by their kids… 

Chatting over a cup of coffee in her immaculately organized kitchen about a year ago, my daughter made the astonishing announcement that she would not be sending J to the local public school. Even more astonishing, she said that several of her teacher-colleagues were doing the same thing with their kids. I’m pretty sure I cried. I went to public schools in the Bay Area straight through to graduation from Berkeley when California’s public school system was the envy of the country. Had things really gotten so bad? So bad that public school teachers themselves in affluent Bay Area suburbs won’t send their own kids to the schools where they teach?

This defection’s outward manifestation is parental fear, of course. Fear that their kids won’t qualify for the ever-diminishing number of spots in the freshman classes at top colleges and universities, for one. When my own son applied to a state college I enrolled him over the phone. No more. It’s like your kid will be doomed to eternal barista-hood without a degree from a prestigious university (which he or she is likely to eventually end up anyway, but with a hundred grand in college debt). And as if the whole top-college stress isn’t scary enough, parents look out on the crumbling outside world and shudder. Drugs, eating disorders, rising teen suicide rates, and general angst loom large among kids these days, and are further magnified by mindless social media chatter and reported on ad nauseam by the drama kings and queens of the mainstream media. The overall effect of all of these potential disasters is that suburban kids like J are insulated in bubbles created by their parents, bubbles meant to protect them from the ills of the outside world─which is, of course, impossible. 

Nowhere is this hoped-for inoculation against the world more obvious than in the schools, where interpersonal niceness and shared “feelings” trump interest in the outside world from the get-go. An example: At the tender age of five I picked J up from preschool to find the school’s director waiting for me. J had gotten into some kind of scrap with another boy, who suffered a nearly invisible mark on his cheek in the fracas, necessitating a formal written report to both my daughter and the other boy’s parents (this in preschool!). I asked if this was really necessary, or if it might be better handled  to simply have the youthful combatants apologize and shake hands, an option clearly not even imagined, much less considered. No dice, there had to be a formal record of this five-year-old-serial-killer-in-the-making’s transgression, which I in my apparent ignorance saw as a very minor tempest in a teapot at best. Helicopter parents rule.

Parents may well adopt this tight focus on their very young kids in the face of the dimming futures of their young progeny, and, to the best of their ability, attempt to navigate and micromanage a perceived minefield of social ills. Private schools are part of that overall picture, or at least provide the illusion of greater order and academic focus; after all, parents are paying through the nose for them. And though I’m sure many don’t see it this way, at its root this whole situation is really just another aspect of income inequality. You spend 20 or 30 grand a year on your kid’s private grammar-school education (my daughter’s father had a long and lucrative career in the oil and gas industry and offered to foot the bill), get your kids into a top-tier college to earn “marketable” degrees, then cross your fingers that they will one day be able to live independently on a livable wage earned from their corporate masters. Nobody likes to hear unsolicited advice from the old folks, I get that, but the specter of such a safe, limited life would have been unthinkable, even terrifying, to me when I was a kid (though a little older than six). “Study what you love” has become a quaint phrase you’ll probably only see on Hallmark graduation cards and embroidered couch pillows these days. 

A big part of the problem is that even upper-middle-class parents, accustomed to shouldering guilt for their kids’ supposed “failures,” are afraid to take any chances with their kids’ capitalistic educational paths which, true or not, many parents think private schools can more effectively deliver. And Democrats, the “education party” are every bit as guilty of this exodus from the public schools as die-hard Repubs or born-again Christians. The president of the local Democratic club here didn’t send her five kids to public schools, and her ultra-lib daughter sends her kid to a local private school that charges a hundred grand a year. Nobody wants to sacrifice his or her child for the greater good, but still…  


  1. Bill Kimberlin September 10, 2020

    If I was your daughter and read this you would not be coming to Thanksgiving dinner at my home. You seem to confuse the way things are, with the way you would like them to be.

    In Europe, bad test scores pretty much determine where you can go in life. Here it is not so preordained, but almost.

    There is a reason today’s young people will not be able to achieve the standard of living of their parents. The unprepared, follow their dream folks, are going to find a tough road ahead.

    Yes, your observations are correct, things should be different. Keep voting your dreams and the Republicans will bury us all..

  2. Ron Skurat September 15, 2020

    I went to Yale with a lot of these private school people. Their resilience and social skills are terrible. Also, those of my friends who made it into the Professional Managerial Class hated it.

    I really wonder how many of these parents are genuinely concerned with their kids’ future, and how many make these choices because their perceived peers make that choice.

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