In eight months, my youngest daughter will start middle school. What should be an easy transition for our family, being the youngest of three girls, has instead led to the same levels of anxiety brought on when we made this decision three years ago with our oldest.
Why should we have anxiety about choosing a middle school, you might ask?
It’s everything and nothing all in one. The ratings, of course. Should there be any other choice outside of the number-one rated school (three years running) that both of her sisters attend? The middle child didn’t even blink, but set her heart and mind to go there, following in her sister’s footsteps. Even though she’s nothing like her sister. She’s introverted. Imaginative. Responsible. Impossibly sassy. Gets things done, quickly, in order to have more time to enter her otherworldly land of play which has no end in sight.
And yet the decision was easy for her. She didn’t want a surprise. She wanted to go with the option of familiarity after hearing two years of tales from sis.
But the youngest? She’s cut from a different bouquet. She hates reading. Doing homework. Being anything remotely likened to a responsible fifth grader. She won’t brush her hair. She won’t speak up in class. She remains fiercely loyal to her friends, even one who moved away over a year ago to Thailand. She wants to be the baby forever, to delve herself into art and play and being a kid.
So why is this so hard? Because at school the other teachers, all union like me, get their feathers ruffled when they find out my kids go to a charter school (how dare I?), and pester me with questions. Do they have special ed? Do they have ELLs? Do they hand-pick their kids? Aren’t your kids geniuses anyway? What are their attrition rates? What happens when they don’t want a kid–can they say no? Where does the money come from? Why did you put them there?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. All but one of them are not parents, of course, yet experts on parenting.
I wish I was an expert on parenting. I wish I could figure out the formula for raising three daughters in the twenty-first century that is plagued with sexting and social media and ambiguous court approvals of date rape, no suspect ever really sentenced fairly.
These are the things I think about late at night, when I know my daughters will be in a school where a kid would never, ever think about having a cell phone out in class. Where the militaristic, cult-like chants that carry them from class to class grow on them to the extent that they sing their praises in the hallways of our home. Where they will be sheltered, engaged in academics, protected from bullying, for at least the next three years.
Not many people can remember the details of their middle school years, but I remember mine. New to a city with forced-integration busing, I was small for my age and constantly tormented. Once they took the loose sleeves of my sweatshirt as we stood outside the building on a cold morning (we weren’t allowed inside the school until five minutes before the first class) and tied me to the flagpole. When I couldn’t find a place in the schoolyard after lunch, not being into sports or raucous gossip, I sat up on a small slope next to the building reading out of the literature book from English class every day, only to have small groups of girls meander by taunting, “Loner, loner,” in singsong voices. On a semi-daily basis, vicious fights broke out in the hallways–girls, usually–screaming and ripping each other’s hair out. When all the other girls were spraying their bangs into masterpieces of early-nineties art, I sometimes didn’t take a shower for a week or more, not having the energy or the desire to try to fit in.
Perhaps I am jaded and worried about what my youngest will face in a non-charter middle school. Because at the end of the day, after dealing with a hundred needy teenagers and meeting with teachers over data instead of planning lessons, after driving in circles with a carpool, after trying to come up with a meal plan that is healthy, cost-efficient, and acceptable to all, after running up and down stairs with loads of washed and unwashed laundry, after pestering the girls about chores and homework and reading and piano practice, I… I just can’t keep up. I can’t log in to Class Dojo to monitor Riona’s behavior in fifth grade. I can’t log in to Parent Portal to make sure everyone has perfect attendance, no tardies, all As and Bs. I can’t check Zearn to make sure Rio has been keeping up with her math.
I can barely come up with a menu, fold two loads, have everything ready before Bruce comes home at seven o’clock. I can barely grade the stack of papers on the dining room table, carve out an hour for my semi-second job (more grading), and read with Rio, who rarely will read on her own.
I am not an expert on parenting. In fact, most of the time, I feel like I’m a failure at it. I give them what they want (phones) and spend the rest of my waking hours arguing with them about them. I spend MOST of my time arguing with them. What will they wear to The Nutcracker? Why won’t they brush their teeth? Why can’t they practice piano before Daddy comes home? Why are candy wrappers all over the floor? When was the last time they cleaned out their closets? WHERE ARE THE SCISSORS?
I don’t have the energy to monitor every moment of every day. I am no good at being a Helicopter Parent. I can barely keep up with being a Ground Transportation Parent. (Shuffle you to school? Shuffle you to piano? Shuffle you to Tae Kwon Do? I’ve managed to cut all of these tasks to almost no driving with a carpool, an in-home piano teacher, a Tae Kwon Do center within walking distance).
When I made this choice of charters for my oldest, I wanted to protect her. After a year in Spain and a year in a horrific, gossipy fifth-grade class, I wanted her to be in a place that would ensure her mental and emotional stability, not a middle school plagued with social awkwardness and bullying. And so we dealt with the militarism and the constancy of calls to stay after school for one absurd detention after another, for forgetting a heading, a belt, a pencil.
And while my middle child (the responsible one) has had few encounters with after school “retentions,” I know this will not be the case for the youngest. She will forget her pencil, her homework, her charger. She will miss assignments and lose points for not having enough curiosity or courage. She will be intimidated by the chants and irritated by the homework load. And she knows all of these things about herself, and has begged me to consider another option for her.
And just like when I broke the news to my oldest that she “got in” to this great school, she cried. She cried because she loves art and she hates homework and she doesn’t want anyone to push her too much because she’s the baby.
She cried because she’s so much like her oldest sister. She’s afraid to see the potential that she has, the ability to blossom under the Helicopter School.
So now I have my answer for the belligerent teachers. Why, why, why?
Because I’m no expert. I’m no Helicopter Parent. I choose this school because I’m not very good at micro-managing their success, and this school does it for me. I choose this school because it will protect my fragile daughters from a harsh world, if only for a few more years. I choose this school because I’m a Ground Transportation Parent, and at the very least, I can drive them there and pick them up an hour late. I can’t keep up with the homework load, the grade checks, the Class Dojo, but I can hope that after a year my shy eleven-year-old will emerge from its doors with more confidence, more responsibility, more courage and curiosity.
I can at least recognize, as their driver, the similarities between my soul sisters. Whether they wanted it or not, they need this school, just like they need each other to balance out their somewhat-tumultuous relationship with the middle child. They are the two who love ice skating, skiing, Tae Kwon Do. Who forget belts and homework and live in an artistic resemblance of life. Whose fragility connects them.
I am a Ground Transportation parent. All I can hope is that my wheels, my turns, my steering, guide them in the right direction, because there sure as hell isn’t a map anywhere in sight.
And we’re just starting middle school!