As I write this, I have no idea where my fifth-grade daughter Samantha will go to middle school in the fall. By the time you read this—I will know.
If this doesn’t strike you as riveting, edge-of-your-seat drama, you haven’t attempted to raise a kid in the city of Seattle. So you might not know that just a handful of the public elementary schools rise above the field—and that they’re the ones in the expensive neighborhoods. Or that a couple of the public high schools perform exceptionally—for kids who score into the smart-kid tracks. Or that the public middle schools, well…completely suck.
Or sorta suck, or pretty much suck, or mostly suck, depending on whom you talk to. Mind you, I have zero evidence to back this assertion. In fact, the WASL scores for the public school Samantha has by now likely gotten into, Washington Middle School, are on the respectable end of adequate, and heading north. The principal there is uniformly regarded a superstar. My husband Tom and I know plenty of kids who have graduated from Washington and gone on to lead normal, healthy lives.
So why is it that the only middle school data running on endless loop through my brain are the anecdotes gleaned from 10 years’ worth of cocktail parties and soccer sidelines? “Did you hear that Zoe has 32 kids in her eighth-grade English class?” “Dinah’s youngest got offered drugs on her way out of her middle school orientation!” “We just went to our son’s parent-teacher conferences, and his science teacher didn’t know which kid he was.”
It’s every local parent’s parlor game of choice: Share and Compare Your Seattle Public School Nightmare, a game Tom and I have been addicted to since researching kindergartens for Samantha seven years ago. That’s when we began to learn that in Seattle, “school choice” meant “have your pick of any unpopular school!” That south enders like us, being geographically distant from the more moneyed northern neighborhoods and their higher-achieving schools, had a rich and varied spectrum of unpopular schools to choose from. And that it was, in fact, possible for an overeducated parent with the right blend of high academic standards and untreated OCD to tour 25 public elementary schools and seven private ones in the space of nine months.
“I am checking my watch, Kath,” my sister, the Bellevue dweller, declared from the hallowed land of Superintendent Mike Riley. “You will move to Bellevue by the time Sam hits third grade.” To be honest, Tom and I—philosophically urban to the marrow of our smug little bones—considered it. We considered it when we realized that in that superior district there were fewer dud schools. We considered it when Sam got assigned our 12th-choice elementary school. (We’d listed 40. I know. I know.) It was a very highly regarded school an hour and 15 minutes across town by school bus. Each way.
We considered it even harder when Sam got accepted into both of the private elementaries we’d been obsessively sending flowers and chocolates to all year, and we toted up the six-year tuition tab: $48,000 for one, $90,000 for the other.
Perhaps we had misjudged suburbia.
Instead we desperately played the last Seattle card we had left, and schlepped down to the enrollment center at 7am on the one July day the district allowed applicants to change the school for which they were wait-listed. Only the craftiest kindergarten-search nerds like me, who had the luxury of making the quest a full-time job, knew of this tactic—a fact that simultaneously filled me with guilt of privilege and a frisson of ruthless opportunism. (It’s a crying shame almost nobody knows about this. Thank God almost nobody knows about this.)
We waited. And waited, finessing non-answers to Samantha’s chirpy questions—“What’s my teacher’s name?” “Will my kindergarten have monkey bars?” When at T-minus-two-days till school the phone finally rang, the voice on the phone registered in the fuzzy slo-mo of the miraculously unlikely: “We have an opening for Samantha in the class of 2009 at [high achieving public school in moneyed northern neighborhood].”
I sank to the kitchen floor and sobbed.
Perhaps I should feel embarrassed to admit this. It was only kindergarten after all. But for a parent, the stakes are unutterably high. Elementary school launches a child’s whole educational trajectory. It’s the first place Sam would be labeled a leader by an insightful teacher—or not. The first place she’d be bullied on the playground—or not. What we asked of kindergarten was a nurturing teacher, challenging creative stimulation, and peers who were being raised to value kindness by like-minded adults. Seemed like basic requests to us.
But now, seven years later, we were not prepared for how the middle school search would take those high stakes and crank ’em. What we wanted now, absolutely, was fewer than 32 kids to a classroom, a minimum of post-orientation drug offers, and a science teacher who—please God—knew our daughter’s name. But this was middle school, that lawless land of rebellion and hormones-times-1,000 students, where trash-talking mean girls and trash-minded pubescent boys roam halls and restrooms bedecked with cinematically detailed graffiti and used tampons. Compared with this, kindergarten felt like…well, child’s play.
About a year ago I sprang awake from a dream in which Samantha brought home a tattooed lounge singer for a playdate. “Tom, Tom, wake up!” I gasped. “Whatever it takes to get her a good middle school—we have to do it!” In the morning when I blinked awake I realized with certainty that this absolutely included trading away my principles. We were already old pros at this, having thrown over our mediocre south-end neighborhood school (which desperately needed our volunteer energy) in favor of an excellent north-end out-of-my-neighborhood school (which did not).
Of the valiant neighbors who stayed south, few in my acquaintance found academic satisfaction. One friend complained that chronic misbehavior in her son’s classroom kept teaching to a minimum. “He’ll be happy,” she said mordantly. “Dumb…but happy.” She considered enrolling him in private school. If they bagged vacations, fired the housecleaner, and stopped their 401(k) contributions they could just swing it. Instead she chose to live the public-spirited values she espoused.
I stand in awe of my friend’s integrity. But if the last seven years and my middle-of-the-night epiphany has taught me anything, it’s this: that in any grudge match between my liberal piety and my child’s well-being…the piety was going to be the one hauled away in a stretcher.
And so Samantha and Tom and I spent January filling out private school applications. To heighten our slim chance of getting in—one school accepts 18 of 75 applicants—Tom and I have been whoring in earnest, volunteer-teaching journalism at the one we want most. If Samantha still doesn’t make the cut, then we’ll attempt to land her in the more challenging smart-kid track at the public Washington Middle School. If she doesn’t gain admittance through the district-administered test, then we’ll scrape up the dough for a private test. (This test costs around $700, we’ve heard. Many kids who fail the public test get in through the paid test, and we are quite sure we don’t want to look too hard at why.)
And then in three years we’ll be at it again. But for that we’re a little more sanguine, having already strategically abandoned our beloved south-end neighborhood in favor of one that guarantees access to our first-choice public high school. At least we won’t have to resort to the tactic of some of our friends, and fake our home address on the application.
Not that we wouldn’t.