Back to School

September 5, 2012 | Blog

Today our son entered public school. The first day of kindergarten was the theme of my Facebook news feed, as dozens of my fellow moms and dads sent their kids off on yellow buses, lunches packed, shoes carefully tied. I felt a part of that moment, but I was conscious of an additional layer to the experience in my home, where my husband and I spend so much time consciously agitating for the preservation of public education.

Until today, Conor attended the Madison Waldorf School.  We enrolled him there partly because of a lack of a public preschool option, of course, but also because we felt that what he’d most benefit from was what Paul Tough calls in his wonderful new book How Children Succeed “character education” — lessons in perseverance and generosity, grit and compassion. For three years we watched him flourish in this setting, where the 3 R’s were ignored in favor of spirited play, outdoor romps, and fervent social interactions.  He developed into a wonderful child, taught to love and care for his classmates, discouraged from righteous competition and commercial desires, and nurtured whole-heartedly by the best teacher I’ve ever experienced in real life: Itzel Butcher.

The truth is, the experience at Waldorf was so good, and Itzel so talented, that last spring I wavered on what to do, sometimes leaning towards keeping Conor there, avoiding what I feared public schools had become– dull prisons focused on tracing letters, staring at smart boards, and moving in lock step from room to room.

But it didn’t take me long before I realized not only the irrationality of my fears, but the sheer hypocrisy they hinted at.  Did I really think that being a good citizen would result in my being a bad parent? How could I possibly consider a private school for my child unless I really believed the public schools were awful? The question, I came to realize, was not whether Conor might be somewhat better off at Waldorf, but whether I believed that the public schools would offer him a sufficiently good education that he would be absolutely fine– and that with our actions, we could help buttress the nation’s public schools. What did I really believe? Could I match my conscience with my actions?  Yes. Of course I believe in the public schools– if they were not offering a good education, I would not be vehemently defending them.  This really wasn’t a dilemma.

I write this while watching Deval Patrick tear it up at the Democratic National Convention. His passionate plea for liberals to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe — to stand up for public education– is heard in our home. We act personally, locally for what we believe is good public policy for all of the nation’s children.  And the fact is, that is the kind of character we most want our son to possess.

The good news is that today Conor had a wonderful time at school.  He was a bit scared at the moment he climbed onto the school bus, but returned home with a terrific report.  Just watch, and see for yourself.  We can’t stop smiling.

Postscript: Read Adam Swift’s “How Not to Be A Hypocrite.” It’s worth the effort to wade through the philosophy.  And ponder this additional sociological critique– it is admittedly far harder if your household is less economically secure than ours, and thus much more concerned with downward mobility. It’s my privilege to be confident that my son will be fine in nearly every circumstance, as I do not worry often about losing my job or our home, nor do I fear (often) for his safety.  My privileges do make this back-to-school moment easier, and I realize it.

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