I’m bad at picking up on social cues. I never knew when boys liked me and I never know when snobby people are being condescending or patronizing. But today, I figured it out about the patronizing part.
I was sitting with another mother and the subject of schools came up. Here in Los
Photo by Arvind Balaraman
Angeles, this is a big topic. I don’t know what it’s like in other cities, but I assume that it’s more like it was when I grew up: you turn 5 and you go to the school near your house. There’s no trying to petition to go to the one a mile away because it has better scores. There’s no applying for magnets, there’s no faking of addresses, there’s no trying to get a work permit. In most places, I suppose, it’s not even a topic of conversation between moms. It would be like having a conversation about whether the sky is blue: why would you even discuss it?
In Los Angeles, it’s different. Whole books have been written about it (Mother on Fire, by Sandra Singh Lo, for example). The Los Angeles Unified School District has a crappy reputation, but it’s not universally a bad place to educate your kids. Kind of like Los Angeles itself, you have your good schools and your bad schools, and if you’ve ever been here, you know that you could be in the fanciest of neighborhoods and then somewhere along the way you cross an invisible line and you’re in the ghetto. Two minutes later you’re back among the mansions. So it is with the school system. You have some awesome elementary schools, but they feed into the scariest of junior highs. You’ll have a dismal high school, but their math and science magnet rivals the finest schools in the state.
Then there are a myriad of private schools. Now I know every town has private schools, Catholic or Christian, mostly. Los Angeles takes to it a new level. For every kind of educational philosophy, there is a private school built around it. Some are super academic, and for your $30,000 a year, your kid better be able to pull his weight or he’s out on the curb. Some are French immersion, which is an interesting choice . I knew a kid who went to one where every class had both the regular teacher AND a yoga teacher. They didn’t assign grades there. I don’t know what went on, but I know that kid’s folks had so much money that if she became a poet after graduation, she’d still be able to hire a macrobiotic chef and get her colon cleansed regularly.
Some of my son’s classmates in preschool will be attending the absolute fanciest, hardest to get into private schools. My son will be on the other end of the spectrum. Our local elementrary is a Title One school, which means most of the kids there probably qualify for free lunches. Over 20 different languages are spoken there, but although the children have these obstacles, it has excellent standardized test scores.
It has one other advantage for my child because my kid is Caucasian. Why does being white factor in? Because the Los Angeles School District ironically gives extra magnet points to white kids if their home school is primarily not white. The district wants to stop “white flight” in minority schools, so they offer white students something that will keep them around for the time being, but in the future will allow them to go to whatever school they choose.
So I’m going to play that game. I’m going to rack up as many magnet points as I can until it’s time for him to go to the scary Junior High, which makes me feel like I should be packing heat whenever I drive by it. Unless I can get him into Valley Alternative, which takes the guesswork out of the equation by going from K-12. Get into that school and your work is done. On the other hand, just the name makes me think that all the teachers are dirty hippies.
So this leads me to my moment of epiphany, when I realized this wasn’t the smartest choice in another mother’s eyes. She was too polite to say it. She just used that high pitched tone when I said he was going to the local school:
“Oh, yeah! That’s a great school!”
“No, yeah! People are really happy there!”
We still say hello when we run into each other during the morning drop-off at the nursery school, but I can tell that I’m never getting the invitation to the cocktail party at her house. And that’s OK. “No, yeah! I’m sure it’s just an oversight!”
Note to readers: it’s been a year since I wrote this and I can give a status report on that other lady’s kid. He didn’t get into any of the fancy private schools, because he is a spaz. The mother was absolutely despondent that he was going to have to go to one of the finest public schools the LAUSD has to offer.