About a year ago, along with a million other parents in Los Angeles, I was anxiously waiting to hear whether my 13-year-old son got into private school. We had applied to two Catholic high schools, and the process had been sufficiently grueling as to make me want to skip college applications altogether. There were open houses to attend, letters of recommendation, transcripts and test scores to collect. We could also write a letter pleading our son's "special circumstances." In other words, if he didn't have a 4.0 and the musical gifts of Yo-Yo Ma or the footwork of David Beckham, what did he have to offer that might win him one of those sacred slots? We wrote the letter.
And then there was the religion issue. My son had to go through interviews, but equally nerve-racking, so did his father and I. Would we pass? Would they care that my husband is Jewish and that I'm Episcopalian?
It was no small point, we thought. Applications to private schools in and around Los Angeles have soared, making the schools even more selective. Everyone we knew, it seemed, was applying where we were applying: boys on my son's soccer team who not only were bona fide Catholics but had Parents Who Knew People; most of his public school friends, including one whose siblings had already graduated from one of the schools, thus scoring legacy points.
On the morning of one interview, we sat in the school's beautifully refurbished Craftsman-style library along with half a dozen other parents. We smiled at each other, but no one talked. My son, who had been opposed to this school before he'd set one skateboard-shoed foot on its serene campus, now was on board. He loved its neat classrooms, its manicured grounds, its state-of-the-art track. Even seeing an occasional Roman-collared Jesuit and imposing religious statuary didn't put him off. As we waited, he sat quietly in his white dress shirt, dark slacks and tie, glancing around the book-lined room. "I really want to go here," he finally whispered.
I think part of what he was responding to was a seriousness lacking in his own dispirited school, with its trash-strewn campus, bulging classrooms and harried -- and often lousy -- teachers.
And yet I was full of conflict. What kind of socially responsible parent was I, bailing out of public education? My son was supposedly in one of the "good" schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Since third grade he'd also been in its highly touted and absurdly mercurial magnet program. If I was standing in line at Trader Joe's and the name of his school was mentioned, parents would appear and fall on me like suitors. We were so lucky, they'd swoon.
I didn't feel lucky. After nine years of constant fundraisers and fractious school politics, I was fed up. I know, I know -- it's easy to get fed up with the LAUSD. The boondoggle school construction projects. The dirty bathrooms. The implacable resistance to change, including principals who claim to embrace parental involvement and then turn around and accuse parents of meddling.
But the real force compelling me out of public education was my son. The system I had always defended was failing him miserably. What "magnet" meant was plenty of homework but a dearth of teacher support. We were hardly alone -- nearly half the students in his grade fled the magnet that June. I knew we'd made the right decision when, just days after mailing off his applications, a gang shooting erupted yards from the school swimming pool.
There is no tidy ending here. Despite his intelligence, his uncommon athletic skill, his sharp wit and charm, my son was rejected by both schools. In an environment where young people are increasingly defined by numbers, he didn't have the grades. "Mom, I didn't get in," he said the day one letter arrived, clutching the paper in his hand, tears clouding his eyes. Making the rejection worse, he soon learned of friends who did get in, boys whose grades weren't always better.
For a while I was sad, and angry. How could they not see his potential? How could they not see that he would thrive in a place that valued his gifts? But they didn't, so we have had to adjust.
We pulled my son from the magnet. He is now in honors classes at the same school, where the teachers are stronger. He is doing better, though I wish he weren't in a school that offers so little to so many, where, for example, he has had three Spanish teachers in one semester. He does too. We are still exploring his options.
The letters from private schools are starting to go out again. A close friend whose son was in the same magnet as mine got one just yesterday. It was, I'm happy to say, good news.