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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

Whatever Happened to Proms and Football?

October 09, 1998|SANDY BANKS

You could feel the anxiety in the room, thick with the collective angst of dozens of parents, perched on the edges of child-sized chairs, bombarding with questions the two school recruiters in the front of the room.

"What score do you expect on the entrance exam? How many spots are there in next year's class? How much do you count grades . . . test scores . . . the application essay? Does it help that my son is an artist . . . an athlete?"

We scribbled down test dates and tour information, interview tips and tuition rates. We signed up for courses on test preparation, made notes of essay writing advice.

And when we left my head was spinning, not just from the flood of information we'd received, but with a vague sense of foreboding that I was being drawn into a battle I wasn't prepared to undertake.

Because these children in question are 13 years old. And this competition we're embarking on is for a spot in next year's ninth grade.

*

It begins each fall, stretches through a season of tours and tests, applications and interviews, and ends in the spring, when letters from the city's most select private schools go out to thousands of children competing for spots in the next year's class.

It reaches fever pitch at the high school level--where slots are few and acceptance is considered an entree to the Ivy League. But the competition extends in some circles to preschool, prompting parents to hustle kids barely out of the womb onto waiting lists for their A-list nursery schools.

"Parents have it in their heads that if my child doesn't get into a certain school, they won't be a success in life," said Alice Fleming, admissions director at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, one of 21 independent college preparatory schools in the Los Angeles Consortium of Secondary Schools.

"I've done interviews for kindergarten, and you find parents who have these little 4-year-olds with their lives already mapped out."

It's understandable, the angst, when you consider how unpredictable our fortunes seem these days. There are once-successful corporate execs now on the dole, downsized out of their jobs, and self-described computer geeks pulling down six figures, sans college degree.

So we go to whatever length it takes to give our kids the leg up, as if proper planning and academic credentials could promise them a life of ease.

But the recruiters that night paint a different picture: There's a good match for every child, they say, but it can't be made through grades and test scores alone.

"Maybe your child is a good athlete or an artist or an oboe player. . . . Maybe this school needs an oboe player for its orchestra."

These folks are not easily mollified. They want numbers, percentages . . . a way to gauge their children's chances, to calibrate their own expectations, to ensure a return on the dues they've paid.

"We have invested too much in our children," one mother said, "to be disappointed now."

You can see the wheels turning as they mentally measure their kids against their classmates, calculating the value of the choices they've made.

Should that time spent in tutoring sessions have been spent on tennis lessons instead? Will soccer camp count more than honor society? Six years of harp lessons . . . for what? To find out the school wants an oboe player instead?

*

If it's a burden for the parents--this overheated competition--it's a disservice to the kids as well.

"High school should be a time of finding yourself," Fleming said. "A place where you can dabble, explore your interests, try something new like drama or art" without worrying that a misstep will derail your career.

It's not just about test scores, grades and a college-worthy pedigree; it's also about proms and football games "and making memories that you'll look back on all your life," she said.

I think back to my own high school days--juggling homework and cheerleading practice, boyfriends and baby-sitting jobs--and remember them as the best, most exciting time of my life.

Parents looking for schools for their kids would do well to put aside the brochures and take the kids to a basketball game.

"If you really want to see what it feels like to go to the school," Fleming said, "sit in the stands, look around you, listen to the conversations you hear. See what kind of parents are there . . . what they talk about, how they think. Ask yourself, are these people who are raising the kind of children you want your kids to be around?"

Because 20 years from now, no one is going to look at your child and care about where they went to high school. It's going to be what kind of person they are that makes the difference.

And the qualities I hope mine will have--like kindness, courage, perseverance--don't only grow in the Ivy League.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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