Back-to-School Shpilkes

THE EAST VILLAGE MAMELE

By Marjorie Ingall

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.

It’s finally starting to feel like autumn here in New York. Apples are getting crisper. Josie wore her first jumper and tights (which she refers to as her “jump-rope and kites”). We bought new leather shoes. And all the mameles I know with kids in school are breathing huge sighs of relief and making plans to go out for coffee.

Josie turns 2 next week. Now that she’s getting socialized and human and has started pointing out letters (okay, she thinks everything is a P, but so?) and having synchronized snack time for all her stuffed animals (don’t get me started on that thuggish Tinky Winky, who so often throws his spoon on the floor and needs Josie to give him a time-out), my thoughts turn to school. And these thoughts give me agita.

Last year, I wrote a column mocking the whole 92nd Street Y mishegas. As you may remember, a financial analyst asked a Citibank hotshot to help get his twins into the coveted fancy-schmancy preschool, which features a retractable playground roof and the opportunity to have graham crackers with the offspring of self-important tantric-sex-practicing elderly rock god Sting. Back then, the notion of getting your kid into the “right preschool” seemed amusing and loony to me. These days I’m a bit less sanguine.

Like all parents, I want to do right by my kid. I love our baby sitter, Rita, but now that some of Josie’s friends are in preschool and day care, I wonder whether I’m doing Josie a disservice by keeping her home. If she were in a group setting, would she have less separation anxiety or be a better sharer or experience peer pressure that makes her learn to drink from a real cup? I’ve had parents gasp when I’ve mentioned that Josie takes only one class (“Music for Aardvarks,” where she dances like a demented jellyfish and tries to sound like the subway doors). Should she be in tumbling? Am I supposed to be taking her to the Children’s Museum of the Arts on Lafayette Street? Is she too young for the Jewish Museum? Oh God, she’s never even seen a sand table! She’ll never get into college!

I kid. And yes, I’ve been reading the articles about the perils of overscheduled kids. (Finally, a malady I can authoritatively say my child does not suffer from!) But I do wonder what we’ll do next year at this time. How can I afford both Rita and the 14th Street Y preschool? We have to have another baby immediately to give Rita something to do while Josie’s coloring in pictures of challahs!

And the entire time she’s in preschool, I can, if I choose, worry about kindergarten. I’d like my kid to be in a diverse educational environment. (Note: This does not mean someplace with two black kids and an adopted Chinese girl named Shoshanna.) I’d like her to be downtown or in Brooklyn. I’d like her not to be in a place that is insanely competitive or has a plurality of vile parents who need their child to go to an Ivy League college. A mom at Starbucks (don’t even — I needed a decaf latte) noted that it’s already too late to get Josie into the best downtown preschools next year, which puts her at a huge disadvantage for elementary school. I smiled and said condescendingly that I’d made a lifestyle choice not to get worked up about this stuff, but inside I thought, “Eek!”

Philosophically, I like the idea of public school. I went to a public high school and am glad I did. It gave me a much better sense of the real world than either Orthodox Jewish grade school (which I attended before public school) or Harvard (which I attended after public school) did. Still, I like the idea of Jewish day school.

But as a Conservative Jew in an Orthodox school, I had a hard time. In the third grade, I was sent to the principal’s office for insisting that Adam and Eve were cave people. (Tragically, I’d read about evolution on my own time.) When I was in eighth grade, I was sent to the office for encouraging sedition. I hated the mechitza, the partition that separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues. Our school put one up in the lunchroom on major holidays, when all the grades would pray together rather than in their individual classrooms. The wooden barrier divided the room’s front from its back, with the boys up front. The shortest of us girls couldn’t see through the slats near the top. One day, I urged all the girls to pray loudly, with kavannah (feeling), huddled at the front of the mechitza. I could see the rabbis glancing at us. Fifteen minutes later, one stalked over and ejected me. I demanded to know why. “Believe me, you know,” he said. And I did. Then there was the time I was accused of eating chicken salad in the lunchroom, despite the rule that all lunches had to be milchig. Dude, it was so tuna.

Can I find Josie a Jewish school that’s pluralistic and egalitarian? How about one where non-Judaic academics don’t suffer? How about one that doesn’t require her to spend an hour on a bus going uptown?

Apparently, I can. My mom, a professor of education and big Jewish macher, told me about the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, a quick ride on the F train from our home on the Lower East Side. Any school named after a tukhes-kicking, Nazi-fighting girl poet already gets coolness points in my book. And at the children’s service Josie and I attend at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (aka “the gay shul”), where the kids are issued pom-poms to assist in their rousing rendition of the “Shabbat Shalom” song (and this, by the way, is why I love the homosexuals), the fabulous programming is run in part by a teacher at Hannah Senesh.

But then again, there are at least three excellent public schools in walking distance of my house. If I work hard, can’t Josie get a good grounding in the Jew stuff from me (and from afternoon and Sunday school)? Isn’t it more important for her to learn with a real cross section of her neighborhood? Of course, there’s no guarantee that Josie could get into any of these schools, with their runes-casting admission policies. But hmm, maybe we could get a variance for District 2, which has even more excellent schools. But ach, with Mayor Mike Bloomberg overhauling the schools, who the heck knows what the public educational landscape will look like by the time Josie’s ready for it?

One thing’s for sure. I better start schvitzing about where she’ll go to high school right now.

E-mail Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.



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