Thursday, April 8, 2010

136 days to Bar Mitzvah: school daze

Over the past year, my visits to Brandeis Hillel Day School have become so infrequent that people compare them to other sometime happenings like comets or eclipses. As time passes, the percentage of parents I know out of the whole continues to shrink, making my clandestine drop-ins even more secretive.

Today, I saw one of my favorite occupants of the Brandeis world, Jenny from the Block. Years ago we were thick as thieves, co-chairs of the annual book fair, one of what used to be two yearly fund-raisers. Unfortunately, when I dropped off the face of the BHDS planet, she got caught in the crossfire. So it is that Jenny from the Block now has dinner and drinks with Sandra Bullock instead of me.

But I digress.

Today I saw her as I was dropping off one of the Jawa's massive bottles of water he lugs to school each day. He'd forgotten it, which is like forgetting to wear a jacket or driving your car without tires. The bottle is the size of his head, it's red and when it's in his backpack, the entire rig's weight increases by half. How do you forget something like that? Then again, I am the person who once lost a half-dozen pairs of sunglasses in the space of something like three months.

As I said, I don't see Jenny from the Block regularly anymore. Otherwise, I would have been right on top of the tortuous saga of getting her oldest daughter into high school.

Did I mention that the minute the Bar Mitzvah ends we will abruptly shift into high school admissions mode? Yes, where we live you don't just trundle off to the neighborhood high school. No, seriously. San Francisco ranks third among major U.S cities in the percentage of its school-age children attending private school. Our total -- approximately 30% -- trails only New Orleans and Philadelphia.

There is one public school that almost all BHDS families salivate over, a school whose presence looms over many Brandeis kids' academic lives from their first day of kindergarten. This is Lowell High School, alma mater of both Carol Channing and Johnny Mathis. Not that either of them would be likely to get in now.

Lowell High School is an excellent option for many kids, organized self-starters with clear goals. Roller Coaster-obsessed children who leave their clothes on the floor EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY CHANGE, maybe not so much. I fear the Jawa would be chewed up and spat out in very short order, were he to attend Lowell High School.

Of course, the main attraction at Lowell is the tuition: $0. It is free, and thus susceptible to every budgetary whim, every deadlocked legislative session, every disinterested parent who's decided that now he's gotten his kid into the best public school in San Francisco, his work is done. Lots of variables there.

Jenny from the Block was a mess. "I've been dealing with alot of disappointment," she told me, gravely. Her daughter, whose first choice was Saint Ignatius, the large Catholic school that is the early favorite in our personal high school derby, is settling (?) for the Jewish Community High School.

"She's getting okay with it," added J.F.T.B. "If she's okay, I'm okay."

Of course, I spent the rest of the day worrying that the Jawa will get rejected by Saint Ignatius High School. Naturally,the house I had to see in St. Francis Wood this afternoon was owned by a contractor whose oldest son, Dermot, had just been accepted by St. Ignatius High School. "The honors program," beamed the proud father,

Brandeis sends a handful of kids to St. Ignatius each year. Nowhere near as many as they send to Lowell, however.

Eight years ago, we toured a shade under 10 elementary schools. Back then the Jawa was on top of his game and we got into every one we wanted, not counting Live Oak, where something we said during our interview made them reject us without ever asking to see our son in action. The Jawa even got into the exclusive school for gifted kids, but we turned them down. Don't think I haven't thought about that a few (thousand) times since.

Whatever. Here we are in seventh grade, 136 days from our Bar Mitzvah, followed by the second period of frenzied academic anxiety in a decade. Much rides on the behavior of our faintly moustachioed Jawa (it will be gone by high school screenings, I assure you) -- his whims, his performance. It's his call.

We'd love a tuition-free life, but that seems unlikely, unless our child has a personality transfusion in the next year that makes him a better candidate for the unforgiving halls of Lowell High School.

The high school choices are: Lowell, St. Ignatius and a collection of schools meant for the elite but forced onto the middle class, thanks to public education in California's thirty-year swan dive from tops in the nation to ranking just ahead of Mississippi.

Let me say this: we cannot afford the elite private schools. We will apply to them, we may get into them, but we cannot afford them. We will cross our fingers and hope for financial aid. If you see me in two years and I am talking about how my child loves Lick-Wilmerding High School and not following up with, "Well, we got some financial aid, which makes it work," you will know that two things have happened: first, that the Jawa got into our first choice of schools, and second, that Sandra Bullock has, in the face of me insisting that we cannot afford Lick-Wilmerding High School, decided that we can.

You will also notice that I am wearing the same clothes you saw me in several years prior and am driving a decade-old Volvo with 150,000 miles on it, which I'm guessing will quickly become a great embarassment to the Jawa once his Lick-Wilmerding friends see him riding shotgun.

Tomorrow, I will RSVP for something called "What high school is right for you?" a seminar held at the Jewish Community High School. It is the first step on what, according to Jenny from the Block, is a physically and mentally exhausting marathon.

Please note where the meeting takes place. The Jewish Community High School, J.F.T.B.'s daughter's future alma mater, is playing all the angles. More than any other school -- definitely more than St. Ignatius -- they want kids from Brandeis. The thinking is probably, "Geez, if we can't get the kids from the Jewish Day School, how much luck are we going to have getting them from other schools?"

If it were up to the parents, a whole lot of Brandeis kids would go to JCHS. Everyone I've talked to in the grade above us has walked away from that school with stars in their eyes. It's a tough sell for their kids who, like alot Jews, want to get away from the other Jews. They are, as we so delicately say, "Jewed out."

Self-hating wordplay aside, there is a legitmiate concern that the Jewish Community High School would simply be four more years of Brandeis Hillel Day School, which means four fewer years our kids would have to adjust to a world where Jews make up 2.5% of the population, not 99% of the population.

It looks like JCHS is getting a steady stream of Brandeis kids anyway. The fact that they automatically knock thousands of dollars off tuition for kids who attended Jewish Day Schools doesn't hurt.

It would be okay if the Jawa went there. It'd be great if he went to Lick-Wilmerding, but I'm not holding my breath. As a former Catholic high school teacher, I wouldn't mind Saint Ignatius, where you have to remember to set your watch back to 1957 before entering the building.

Of the rest, The Bay School, whose inclusion of the word "technology" on their web site caught the Jawa's fancy, is a possiblity. We'll look at University and Drew, on the north side of town. We're also looking at super-exclusive Crystal Springs Upland, down on the Peninsula, but that seems a flight of fancy.

Urban High School, whose location one block from Haight Street makes me wonder if attendence leads to mandatory confessions, years later, of ditching school and buying drugs on Haight Street.

One thing I do know is that after riding S. Bullock's coattails for this Bar Mitzvah, I'll be moving front-and-center for the high school application process. Together, the Jawa and I crushed the kindergarten application process. I expect nothing less from us this time around.

1 comment:

The Hammer said...

Off topic but I believe that Johnny Mathis attended George Washington High School.