School Days

Each fall, I write a column about Josie’s education. But you can trace my own education from autumn to autumn.

In 2002, when Josie was almost 1, I wrote mockingly about neurotic, hypercompetitive parents who actually would engage in insider trading to get their kids into the 92nd Street Y’s preschool. In 2003, when Josie was almost 2, I was a little less snotty; I wrote about my inability to decide where to send Josie to kindergarten, torn between the idea of a hip Jewish day school and a truly diverse public school. By then, I understood a lot better why parents get so worked up about finding “the best” program for their child, whatever “best” happens to mean for them. And the following year, I wrote about how much I loved the preschool we chose — Gani, at the 14th Street Y, which was warm and casual and not populated with uptight-freak parents. I liked that the kids there were from many different ethnicities, races and backgrounds but they all were making Popsicle-stick Queen Esther puppets. Basically, Gani let me have my challah and eat it, too.

This year, once again I’ve managed to delay any real decision-making about Josie’s Jewish education. She’s now at a progressive public school, the oldest one in the East Village. We sweated this decision. Like all New York City parents, we had to be proactive about schools. The four progressive schools in our district all start at pre-K. We could have kept her at the Y for another year, then applied to kindergarten at a range of public schools and at Brooklyn’s fabulous Hannah Senesh Community Day School. But if I wanted her to stay in our nabe, pre-K was the best time to apply. All four of the neat-o public schools in our district have mixed-age classrooms, so pre-K and K students share a classroom, the curriculum goes in a two-year cycle, and the kids have the same teacher for two years. The idea is that a child has the opportunity to be a younger student and an older student in the classroom. Kids get to be both teachers and learners, newbies and grizzled vets. I wanted Josie to get the full benefit of the mixed-age class from the beginning, so we applied to three of the progressive schools. Entry is wildly competitive (so what else is new?), by lottery. Alas, we didn’t get into our top choice (the Neighborhood School, which happens to be half a block from our apartment, and whose principal is a Jewish homegirl from Rhode Island), but we did get into the East Village Community School. It’s a little scruffy, certainly more up and coming than already arrived, but the newish principal, a former teacher at the school, was super-energetic and scrappy. There was a lot of focus on the arts — classes with Alvin Ailey dancers; a new kiln; a huge, brightly colored, modernist library to die for. But its test scores aren’t fabulous. We waffled for weeks about whether to send her there or to Gani, and in the end we decided to go with EVCS.

Already I desperately miss the intimacy and the effortless Jewy-ness of Gani. Josie’s not going to come home singing songs about Pharaoh while swinging a pretend hammer, or proudly toting a menorah made of metal bolts glued to a strip of plywood. We’re synagogue-shopping again, primarily so that I can find a great religious school for her.

But Josie loves EVCS. And I love seeing how much she’s learning there. Alas, she’s approximately as communicative about what she actually does all day as a dope-smoking 10th grader. (“How was school?” “Good.” “What did you learn today?” “Stuff.” “Who’d you play with?” “Alison.” “What did you do?” “Mom! Stop asking me questions!”) So the way I find out what she’s up to is by watching her play, after school. She arranges her stuffed animals in a row and says, “Eyes on me, guys!” The animals get jobs: snack helper, office assistant, line leader/door holder. She pairs them up in twos to “read” with a partner. She’s already down with the spirit of the mixed-age classroom. She said, “Po and Dipsy are a little younger than the other Teletubbies, so I’m going to give them a different assignment.” When we have guests over for dinner, Josie immediately pairs them off and tells them whom they’ll be working with.

Josie’s always loved books and storytelling, but suddenly she’s discovering literacy. She loves to make letters and help me type e-mails. She draws a giant lollipop and informs me: “This is a lower-case i. I prefer it to the big I.” She rubs her chin and says reflectively, “A small R is so much like a T, I can’t even believe it.” She’s sounding out words and writing out names. She painstakingly wrote TFNE on a piece of construction paper and said, “This is a card for Tiffany.” Now when I read her bedtime stories, she’s suddenly moving her finger across the lines of words on the page (the wrong part of the page, but still). I wouldn’t say she’s particularly advanced on this front (many of her letters are still upside down or backward and her Ms just keep on going, like the Himalayas). If you correct her, she often snarls, “I want to make a K my way.” But it’s thrilling to see her horizons expand, almost daily.

And I love that her universe is far more multicultural than mine was when I was her age. Her class looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad. Her classmates’ names reflect the wideness of the world and the diversity of urban life. Yesterday, apropos nothing, she started singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and

Toes”… in Japanese. Her classmate Miyu, newly arrived from Japan, had taught it to her. When you ask Josie what someone looks like, she’ll describe height, hair, a fondness for pink. Race isn’t the first identifier for her, the way it is for most adults. (Though she does say, “Stephanie has hair like Annemarie’s!” — meaning little braids or twists, like her friend Raphael’s baby sitter wears.) Just as Martin Luther King said in his “I have a dream” speech, she really does judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And since we chose to live in a neighborhood full of people of all different backgrounds, I’m glad her school looks like the world she lives in.

I also love seeing her empathy develop. My former thug baby, the big brute who pushed other kids over to grab their toys and bellowed like a spoiled Greek god when thwarted, is now concerned about other kids’ emotional states. I love walking her to school — unfortunately for Josie, it’s a hike; fortunately for me, it’s the only exercise I get these days — because I feel it’s this special, liminal time when she’s mentally preparing herself for the day and I get to learn so much about what’s going on at school and in her head. Yesterday, her hand in mine, her Cookie Monster backpack on her shoulders (O brave new world!), she told me: “Makayla calls Gianmaria a baby because he cries, and I tell her not to do that. How would she like it if someone called her a baby? That’s not nice! If you’re mean, no one will want to be your friend!” (Note: I’ve changed the kids’ names here.) We talked about how Gianmaria is crying less these days, and how it’s important to stand up for people when they’re being picked on. At a recent three-kid play date, she ran up to me sobbing, “I am left out!” The two boys were bonding over trains and wouldn’t play with Josie. In the very recent past, she would have just decked one of them with a coal car. Now she’s using words, expressing sorrow and disappointment without going all Russell Crowe phone-throwy.

Of course, maybe these changes have nothing to do with this school. Maybe she’d have grown and changed no matter where we’d sent her. Next year, you may read another angsty column from me: Do we apply to a gifted and talented program? Do we try again to get into our top-choice progressive public school? Do we go Jewy, despite the long commute and the sacrifice of diversity? (My mom keeps insisting that many Jewish day schools are diverse, which is like insisting that Julia Roberts has an acting range because she’s played a lawyer and a prostitute.)

But I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. I think we’re lucky, and I’d like to enjoy where we are right now. Our kid is smart and loves to learn. We live in a city that has some superb public schools, and lots of parents who are committed to making even the not-so-great schools better. We’ve managed to opt out of the worlds of the most uptight, competitive loon-parents. My daughter wants to write a book. Life doesn’t suck.

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School Days

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