Life Becomes Her
By Jesse Pearson
It typically begins in 7th grade. Sometime in March or April. Unfamiliar feelings. Wandering eyes. Vague insecurities. Burgeoning cases of FOMO. A dim awareness that other people are watching you, wondering what you’re thinking.
This isn’t the first sign of puberty. These are not the hormone-induced emotions of fragile 13-year-old egos. They are the sudden preoccupations of a group of confident, self-actualized 40-and-50-somethings whose children are about to begin of the high school admissions process. For the next 12 months, this small but elite group of adults will forget everything they’ve ever believed about good parenting. They will tell half-truths and outright lies about their own children. They will controvert their own values, ethics, and financial self-interest. All in the service of getting their kids into schools that will charge them up to $250,000 in exchange for a piece of paper that will not qualify their children to cut hair for a living.
I know about this because I’ve just been through it. In fact, I go through it every year. I am a middle school teacher at an independent school in Marin County. I am also the father of an 8th grader who just received an acceptance letter from the private high school we forced her to apply to despite her stated long-standing desire to attend Tam High, the well-respected public high school a half-mile from our home.
As I reflected on our application process, and in the wake of the recent college admission scandal, I began to realize that even the most decent, child-centric parents are a few self-serving rationalizations (and a couple cosmetic surgeries) away from Felicity Huffman. My students are not the children of William McGlashan Jr. or Todd and Diane Blake, the Marin County residents who were indicted for mail and wire fraud. But they could be. My daughter is not a product to be styled, packaged, and marketed. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I may have treated her as though she was.
My wife and I met at The Urban School of San Francisco in the late 1980s. At the time, it was an artsy, irreverent, independent high school that seemed to cater to brilliant misfits, intellectual rebels, and kids raised on houseboats. The four years I spent there were exceedingly formative, to say nothing of the fact that it’s where I met my future spouse. Thirty years later, Urban is not the place it once was. It is, by almost any objective measure, a much better school. It is harder to get into, more academically rigorous, and far better capitalized. The site, once a converted firehouse, rundown apartment building, and church gymnasium in the Upper Haight, is now inarguably state-of-the-art. The teachers are better qualified. The students are more ambitious. I can say with confidence that my eighth grade self would never have been offered a spot at today’s Urban. But I’m also not 100% sure I would want to go there. The school feels less diverse; not racially or socio-economically or same-sex-family-ly diverse, but by some other, unnamable metric that has something to do with kids and families who want different things from life, who have different goals, or even, perish the thought, who don’t really have goals at all. Today’s Urban is for strivers, achievers, students who know where they’re going and are willing to do whatever it takes (or whatever their parents demand) to get there. I saw all of this. I felt it on my visit. I knew I didn’t particularly like it. And then I all but begged my daughter to apply.
My daughter has never been a people-pleaser. More accurately, she has never been a parent-pleaser. Even as an infant, she seemed to deliberately defy our wishes. When a friend gave us a copy of the now ubiquitous parenting bible, Go the F*ck to Sleep, it seemed to have been written just for us. Not surprisingly, she spent two days at Urban and announced she had no interest in going there. I quickly chalked it up to her desire not to follow in her mother’s and my footsteps or to be perceived as a kid riding her parent’s coattails. I was wrong. She had real reasons.
“The kids just seem kind of stressed out,” she told me. “I don’t want to go to high school and feel like I’m competing all the time.”
“I get that,” I said, ignoring her point. “But I don’t think you realize what an amazing place Urban is. Did you look at the course offerings? Did you see that new gym? You love the City. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get to be in the City every day?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.” This was her way of saying I’m going to stop talking to you now because you’ve stopped listening to me.
Did I mention my daughter is brilliant? I don’t mean classroom brilliant. (Though she is a very strong student.) She’s the kind of brilliant that can’t be taught or easily measured. She knows herself. She sees through other people. She can spot bullshit (especially mine) a mile away. She chooses her battles. She possesses a host of skills and talents that cannot be assessed by any standardized test.
And so our search continued. My search, with her as my surrogate.
She toured San Domenico and University High School and Saint Ignatius. (She ruled out Marin Academy as too precious and pretentious. This was four months before their former board member, McGlashan, was indicted.) One by one, she thoughtfully enumerated her objections. One by one, I attempted (and failed) to overcome them.
She finally agreed to apply to San Domenico. She liked the kids. They seemed happy and kind and intelligent. They did not seem stressed out or freaked out or strung out. (It’s worth noting that none of her objections ever had anything to do with teachers. She hardly considered them. For middle schoolers, school is about how they experience their peers, not their classes, which is something I’d never really considered, despite being, or perhaps precisely because I am, a middle school teacher.)
I knew next to nothing about San Domenico, other than it had once been an all-female school of the Dominican Catholic order situated on a 515 acre horse ranch, which, as an all-male Jew with a hatred of jodhpurs, made it both unappealing and largely irrelevant. Nevertheless, I dutifully investigated. I visited the website. I attended a prospective parent night. I took the campus tour. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Probably a rigid, uniform-wearing, God-fearing crowd of equestrians. Instead, I encountered energetic and inspired teachers of every faith and persuasion, creative and engaged students from diverse backgrounds. A serious school for serious people who didn’t seem to take themselves or school too seriously. As usual, my daughter’s judgement had been sound.
And she still didn’t really want to go there.
Three years earlier, we’d pulled her out of public school to attend the middle school where I teach. We had many reasons, some of them wise and developmentally sound, some of them selfish and fear-based. The results have been mixed, but far more positive than negative. At my progressive independent school, she has become a stronger, more independent student and thinker. She has learned to self-advocate. She has also yearned for a larger social groups, been ostracized by kids she thought were her friends, and, above all, had her entire middle school experience play out in front of her father’s watchful eyes. It hasn’t been easy on either of us, but she got by far the shorter end of that stick.
I’d assumed that she wanted to go to Tam because it and my school are as different as two schools serving the same largely homogeneous affluent suburban population can be. That is certainly part of it. In a sense, she’s the girl whose bitter ex-boyfriend just met her current boyfriend and asked, “What the hell do you see in him?” and she answered, “First of all, he’s not you.” There is also, of course, payback for spending three adolescent years as a “staff brat.” But mostly it’s about agency. It’s about her knowing who she is and what she wants, and acting upon that knowledge. It’s also about us, her progressive educator parents, believing what we’ve always told ourselves. That kids learn best by doing, not by being told what to do. That an empowered child is a happy child. That, as T.H. White wrote, “Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.”
My daughter was accepted at San Domenico. She was offered a generous financial aid package. I wanted her to go there. And now that she has made her choice, I’m left to wonder why it meant so much to me.
I believe in the value of independent schools. I wouldn’t teach in one of them If I didn’t. My school, along with high schools like San Domenico, Urban, and, I assume, Branson, University, Drew, Bay, and others of that ilk create a culture in which participation and engagement are the norm. Students who check out or opt out, stand out, and not in a good way. After touring Tam High, my wife and I quickly realized that it offered everything and more than most of its private competitors did. But we heard a few consistent refrains from students, faculty, and administrators. Students have to seek out opportunities. You can do anything you want here, but you have to want to do it. No one is going to come find you. You have to put yourself out there. I began to realize that participation and engagement at Tam would require extra planning, extra effort, and, above all, extra confidence. At a school of nearly 1500 kids, where opportunities aren’t spoon fed to students, checking out can mean simply blending in. I worried that at a big public school, my daughter would have to swim against a tide of apathy. I worried that the temptation to follow the crowd would overpower her nascent desire to be remarkable. I worried that after three years of being the teacher’s daughter, all she wanted to do was blend in.
Or maybe that’s not it at all.
I have 34 students who are about to graduate from my 8th grade English class. Roughly three-quarters of them will go to an independent high school. Some of them were all but recruited by the best schools in the area. Others made it in by the skin of their teeth. But as they awaited their decision letters, I wasn’t really watching the students. I was watching their parents. After all, I was one of them. And I wasn’t always proud of us.
For many of my parenting peers, the outcome of this process felt like life or death. To some extent, I understood. These people have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their children’s elementary education. A prestigious high school placement is, in some ways, the first dividend on that investment. These parents truly believe that they want what’s best for their children. But I know their children differently than they do. I know them as students. And in some cases, I worry that what the parents want is not actually what’s best for their kids. It may, in fact, be what’s best for them.
I was amused by the outrage over the recent college admissions scandal. Of course, I wasn’t remotely shocked by the news. In many ways, it was an extension of the process I just completed. I was, however, confused by the vitriol I heard directed at the kids who’d “stolen” the spots of more deserving students and the hand wringing for the kids who’d lost those spots. Focusing on any of the students who were impacted by the scandal is a false narrative; treating the symptom, not the disease. The deserving applicants who were aced out of a spot at Yale or Stanford or (even) USC got unequivocally screwed. The spoiled children who stole those spots are most assuredly drowning in stew of shame, insecurity, and scholarly journals they don’t understand. But the truth is that the admissions process for a significant percentage of privileged kids isn’t about the kids at all. It’s about their parents. A certain class of parent needs to be able to tell their peers that their kid got into a particular echelon of school, regardless of what their kid wants or deserves. The impetus is simple vanity, and it has little or nothing to do with what’s best for their children. It’s about being able to tell the cocktail party circuit that your kid goes to __________. Private school has always been about, among other things, curating your child’s peer group, but today it is increasingly about curating and impressing your own.
In order to achieve this, some parents push their kids to the breaking point. We’ve read the foreboding articles in the Times about rising stress levels in students. College kids have traded in the freshman 15 for freshman anxiety disorders. Enlightened parents are getting the memo that it’s not wise to pressure kids, but they often remain unwilling to accept any outcome that doesn’t have the appearance of high-level achievement. This is particularly prevalent in our community because of how many successful parents live here. They cannot abide their kids following a different path than they did; all the while forgetting that they themselves may have followed a circuitous route to success.
Whether it’s pressuring kids, bribing admission officers, or waving donations at development directors, the parental behavior is not malevolent. It is fear-driven. I see too many students in our community who lack ambition or grit. Growing up with privilege breeds a unique kind of malaise. Parents see it, too. They worry that their kids don’t know how to overcome adversity. The response, which is oddly rational, is to try to remove adversity. Sometimes this makes sense. Is the book you’re reading too difficult? Read an easier book. Did you strike out in 80% of your little league at bats? Consider repeating that level before you tryout for the next one. Any decent teacher will tell you that these are developmentally appropriate responses. We know that confidence is essential to success. Crushing a kid’s confidence is the quickest way to destroy their ambition. But too often children of means wind up living a kind of concierged childhood. Don’t like your soccer coach? We’ll move you to another team. Your friends excluded you at school? I’ll have a word with their mothers. Lift lines at Squaw too long? We’ll get passess for Alpine. But there is a difference between helping your child succeed and making it impossible for them to fail, between offering opportunity and eliminating challenges. Parents who remove obstacles from their children’s paths diminish their capacity to overcome them. Kids have a disappointment muscle, and it must be flexed and exercised from time to time, lest it atrophy completely.
Which brings me back to my daughter. She is going to Tam High next year. It was her choice. I believe it was the right one. For her. Not for me. Not every 14-year-old is equipped to make decisions about her future. I think she is. But I might be wrong. And she might be wrong, too. She may not like Tam. She may regret her decision. She may lack the confidence she needs to find those opportunities that would have found her at at a smaller school. But at some point, she has to find out for herself. At some point, her life becomes hers. I’ve always told myself that I want what’s best for her. She’s finally teaching me what that is.