Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

No, I'm not!

Friday, January 22, 2010

So, am I sorry that I took my kid out of private school and put him in public?

Nope. There was something about the influence of private schools that I just did not want on my son. And I myself couldn’t take the scene.

One balmy evening last summer I was having a chat with the mother of one of my son’s friends. We were talking about choosing middle schools. This very well-intentioned woman was trying to convince me that I should consider sending Jack to a private school. “It’s not about you,” she said, “it’s about what is best for him.” I didn’t really feel like arguing with her at that moment – warm summer evenings are too rare for us San Franciscans for me to want to waste it arguing a point. So I nodded as I nursed a cold beer. But I think she was wrong on two accounts: It is about me too, first. And second, I’m not sure what is “best” for my son is what is easiest.

The decision of where my kid goes to school is about me in a number of ways. The most important one has to do with the question of values. There’s no question that we transmit our values to our kids – who can deny or renounce that? We can’t put who we are on hold when we have kids. I don’t value people based on their income, skin color, or their sense of entitlement. What I value is openness and toleration and a certain degree of humility. What I especially value is people feeling free to be who they are, instead of being cowed into submission or uncomfortable in their skins trying to live by others’ standards. I find this sense of freedom more among public school people than private school.

And the question of what’s best for my kid… The funny thing is that a few years ago the husband of this very woman had said something that I always quoted. When they had taken their kids out of public school to put them in private he was not overjoyed about it. “I want them to grow up with some street smarts,” he had grumbled. I had identified with this comment. I definitely want my son to pick up street smarts too. I don’t want him to grow up in an insulated and protected environment that not only shuts out anybody who is not privileged enough to afford it but never challenges you with facing the not-so-pretty sides of society.

What do I mean by street smarts? I mean being able to think fast on your feet and rely on your own resources – and not social privileges – to survive and prosper. I think functioning in a democratic society requires street smarts. And like all aspects of a democratic society this requirement can either encourage personal merit or teach you to hustle unscrupulously. The choice is yours – and, again, it’s a question of values. A dog-eat-dog mentality certainly has its own rewards, but how important are those rewards to you?

In other words, it’s up to you to teach your kid to become self-reliant and develop personal merit – or sic him, as it were, on to other dogs in pursuit of bones succulent with fresh flesh and blood? (I suppose you can detect my own values here!) Forgive me for getting a little cynical, but I sensed that private schools engage in dog-eat-dog mechanisms through their screening. Then they leave their children and “communities” to pretend there’s an even playing field out there and hustling is beneath them. (And of course this service costs some money.)

I think you’re not a swimmer until you can swim in choppy waters.

Then there is the question of what’s interesting. I find diversity – real diversity – far more interesting than homogeneity with some color thrown in. In public school you encounter lots of people who not are only different from each other, but different from you. To the extent that children get socialized in school, there’s a lot more to discover and learn – and maybe, possibly, appreciate and enjoy?

This is the long explanation. The shorter one is this:

Early on I got the hunch that my kid was not going to much like school. So I figured, if school is going to be an unhappy experience why pay tens of thousands of dollars for it?!



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