The wheels of the bus

June 23rd, 2008

Yes, I still want you to listen to the podcast on motherhood and writing. But in the meantime, here is one more installment of my essay entitled “My Bus” from the new anthology, “The Maternal is Political.” I’ll be joining a trio of writers more accomplished than me at a reading and signing of the book this Saturday at 5 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Here’s how to find the first and second excerpts of the essay online.

It is understandable that in our colossal engine of American enterprise, every aspect of life has been reduced to a sales transaction. Everything is a product, every product is a brand, and every brand is a shiny bauble of marketing assembled by campaigners more clever than we.

So it was uncomfortably obvious to us, while my husband and I toured private schools, that we were the customers, and we were there to be sold something. We were being sold an educational philosophy. We were being sold a community. We were being sold social values. We were being sold security. We were being sold success. We were being sold a different kind of world, fabricated out of kids who looked alike and parents who thought alike. We were being sold on the most ambitious and fearful part of ourselves. It seemed phony and even un-American.

Of course, it wasn’t un-American in the least. It was the dark and corruptible soul of America. We whispered to one another as we paraded the pristine hallways, “Where are the schools like the ones we went to?” We might as well have been asking, “Where is the country like the one we grew up in?”

In our newly cynical view, all the assurances of product excellence and consumer protection seemed disingenuous when applied to education. We were aimless and unconvinced as the decision deadline approached.

Then our daughter took the wheel.

After three years of schlepping 16 miles roundtrip to a fancy preschool, pushing on even farther to the rarely accomplished playdate, and routinely crossing multiple city limits to attend a birthday party, my daughter staged a mini-revolt. “Where are my friends?” she wailed on one particularly woeful weekend, stuck in the wonkish company of dear old mom and dad. Looking up, we saw her point. We had gone hunting for her brilliant future, and we’d overlooked her front yard. We’d been chasing her birthright and had ignored her birthplace. This was where she lived. This was her world. This was where she wanted to belong. Where were her friends? We scheduled a visit to the public school down the block.

There, in the porticoed walls of an 80-year-old building, on a rolling lawn under leafy grandfather trees, amok with hundreds of ordinary urchins, awash with the inimitable aromas of dirt, disinfectant, and cafeteria lunch was the school like the schools we remembered. The hallways were a little scruffy. The classrooms were bustling. The teachers were educators. The parents were participants. The kids were just neighborhood kids. The money was scarce, but the opportunity was wide open and free.

We were reminded, once again, that this was the best our country could offer. It was the best our country had ever offered. And we had turned out okay.


  1. Whew. Thank God. As teachers in our state school system, this story is not unfamiliar to my husband and myself.”The money was scarce” rings true.Thousands of us in our home state were on strike a couple of days ago over this. It should never be that way. Enjoyed your writing.

    Comment by Pam — June 23, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

  2. We struggled with this decision this spring for our oldest son. The school he was currently going to (and to which I was driving nearly an hour round trip…thank goodness for carpooling) was…well, the board of directors was having problems. So he’s going to the new public school this fall…the one directly behind our house. It’s going to work out for everyone just fine.

    Comment by laughingatchaos — June 23, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

  3. this is right where we are…struggling with the school decision. we both attended catholic schools all the way through highschool. my husband even attended a catholic college. now we are torn. we are torn between the tradition of the catholic school…and what might only be the facade of greater security (for lack of a better word) and the public school. a good, reputable public school – which our tax money funds obviously. i don’t know what’s worse the guilt of not sending him to a catholic school when they are already desperately struggling or the fear of failing him by not sending him to a catholic school – like he might miss out on something (that’s assuming they improved from when i was there, b/c to reflect on my own education – twasn’t anything worth the money my parents spent). it’s torturous.

    Comment by Sarah — June 24, 2008 @ 2:00 am

  4. What made you look away from the public schools in the first place?

    I find I hear many rumors. I hear that SM schools are decent but that Pasadena schools are not. Arcadia schools are excellent, but watch out for Monrovia … here, again, it’s the same.

    But if you delve into those rumors, it often seems to come down to poor test scores. Rather, a “high” percentage of students are performing poorly on standardized tests. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the teaching, or about our students. It probably is an indicator of what percentage of students come from a disadvantaged background. In other words, an indicator of diversity? Is that what the hearsay is all about? The only thing for it is to go investigate. Is the school friendly and familiar, or foreign and fearsome?

    Thanks for raising this issue, and important one to many of us.

    And … now that I’m between books, maybe I’ll pick up a copy of this one.

    Comment by RocketMom — June 24, 2008 @ 2:59 am

  5. This sounds a lot like the scenario that played out in my home 25 years ago. I had been accepted to a prestigous all girl Catholic school, 45 minutes from my home. Why had I applied there to begin with? Because that is what the students from Catholic grade schools did. I applied, tested, got accepted, and ultimately turned it down.

    They reason being that I would simply have no friends. The girls at that school were not the girls in my neighborhood. I wanted friends over to my house, at birthday parties, someone to go to the beach with. Not some lame 45 minute commute to a school that could offer me college prep but no community. I will never regret attending the local public high school. It wasn’t prestigous, but it felt like home.

    Comment by Kristin H. — June 24, 2008 @ 3:22 am

  6. Good to read as I get ready for my son to start school in the fall–just a few blocks down the street, public, and great.

    I only hope I can stand it.

    Comment by mapelba — June 24, 2008 @ 5:15 am

  7. testing is such a touchy issue. in our state there was talk for awhile (and might still be … i’ve be out of the ball game for a few years now) about basing a teacher’s salary and potential raises on how his/her students performed on the test. but the testing would be a grade level standard, not on an individual basis. if a student comes in a little (or a lot) behind, there’s only so much the teacher can do in the year. a student can only progress 1 years worth in a year; if they start out behind, they’ll still be behind. but if they’ve moved on from where they were, that teacher is doing his/her job well. the tests just won’t show it.

    and really there’s only so much any teacher can do in his/her classroom. if nothing is going on at home, then of course kids can’t succeed in school. i student taught at a title 1 school in MD and saw a lot of that going on. too much of it.

    i hate the testing, period. i hate the “teaching for the tests” that goes on. but i don’t think the catholic or private schools are immune from that either, anymore.

    pardon my venting/thinking outloud. this was really such a timely post for me. reading it and the comments is actually helping me sort through things a bit.

    Comment by Sarah — June 24, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

  8. Rocketmom – I think you hit the nail on the head. Often – less than stellar test scores are simply an indicator of diversity. The schools in our neighborhood with perfect test scores resemble much more the cookie cutter, rich and prosperous model of the private school world. We too contemplated which way to go. My daughter just finished 3rd grade in one of the most diverse, socially disadvantaged schools in town – and she is getting a great education, in a loving, supportive, encouraging environment where it ISN’T all about the test. It is a happy place to be. Give me diversity and committed caring teachers over prestige any day!

    Comment by Renae C — June 24, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  9. I agree with Sarah, it’s much less about what school they attend and more about what goes on at home. Parents tell their kids how important education is in word and by example. Public school was great for me and my soon to be first grader thrived and excelled in public normal regular kindergarten. School is so much more than learning how to read. If parents really want to provide their children with learning opportunities, they’ll let them see and experience the real world, smart and slow, priviledged and under, lazy and hardworking. Let them be great in some areas, struggle with others and work through the challenges.

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — June 24, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

  10. OMG. I love that you posted about this. Almost nothing fires me up more than this subject, as an ex public school teacher. It’s not just about our public schools, either, but about the commodification (is that even a word?) of humanity. A person is worth the money that they have and the things that they buy, and the labels that they wear/drive/string after their names. I have so much to say that I can barely be articulate.

    And also the concept that there is something wrong with being ordinary. We’re all ordinary, even the extraordinary among us.

    Of course, we’re all also extraordinary.

    I was however, waiting for you to say that all those other “accomplished” people weren’t better or more than you…

    Comment by Rowena — June 24, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  11. You are so right Rowena. But you’ll note that I didn’t say they were better than me. Accomplishments (activities) are accomplishments; people are people; one has nothing to do with the other! I cover my ground, and I bow to all my teachers, including you!

    Comment by Karen — June 24, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  12. well, in all its infinite wisdom the heart knows best. after finding out today that the public school only offers full day kindergarten, i asked my son if he wanted to go all day or only half day. as we both started to cry, he stroked my cheeks and said “mommy, i want to go half day. so you won’t be lonely and miss me so much.” i’m selfish and want my baby home as long as i can have him…so we’re saving the public vs. private decision for first grade.

    Comment by Sarah — June 25, 2008 @ 1:17 am

  13. Sarah,
    I know that so well. Georgia wasn’t ready to leave her preschool and told me so. The next year, her public school kindergarten program was half-day, about 2 hours less than her preschool program, so when she entered K I got a bonus year of time with her. As I see it now, most public schools have reduced or eliminated half-day K not because of teacher preference or curriculum, but because of parent preference.

    Comment by Karen — June 25, 2008 @ 1:31 am

  14. I return to your last line so much as a mother. When I failed at breastfeeding, it was the only comfort I had — knowing I was a smart, healthy woman. I think this now as I prepare to leave them in day care. I spent all of my time in the care of others and I loved my mother no less, and I’m no less smart for it.

    There’s a lot to be said about the way things have always been done.

    Public school is a definite for us, too. For the same reasons and more.

    Comment by Shawn — June 25, 2008 @ 1:36 am

  15. This is a very smart essay. I especially enjoyed it since I have a little one who will go to school one day, and we often talk about different options. Though, I think, the best option is to let him go to public school and as you said, we’ll supplement his education. We’ll be involved.

    Comment by Shelli — June 27, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  16. I needed to read this one…trying to have kids and studying Waldorf education while knowing deep down I won’t be able to afford to send my child to one of those schools…it’s an important lesson in noticing what’s in front of you.

    Enjoying the heck out of your blog, just discovered it today!

    Comment by Melanie J. — February 5, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

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