Wednesday, May 12, 2010

101 days to Bar Mitzvah: flying blind, as usual

Two evenings ago, our children hours away sleeping in tents, the parents of the Brandeis Hillel Day School Class of 2011 met in the school library to discuss the proposed eighth-grade School Trip. Emails we’d gotten leading up to the meeting explained that, while the school used to sponsor a week-long class trip to Washington, DC, a few years ago they’d added a two-week-long trip to Israel. Adding Israel immediately put the DC trip in jeopardy. Even in a world where everyone is seriously considering investing another $150,000 in their child’s high school education two trips of this size are a lot to get your mind around.

For two hours, we discussed the relative merits of Washington, DC versus Israel. The problem, Head of School Chaim Heller told us (after, you know, he told Sandra Bullock and I how great our Bar Mitzvah invitations were), was two-fold. First, doing both trips would mean our kids missing at least 15 days of school. To the faculty, this was a non-starter.

Though my own teaching experience was abbreviated and long-ago, I can see where they’re coming from. You set up a plan to cover a certain amount of information over a 180-day school year. If you remove 15 days from that, you’re going to end up cramming too much information into the remaining 165. Also, when Heller told us that the other independent schools average about five days away from school, it made us sound soft, like we’d have been perfectly happy had our kids spent the past eight years dancing in a twinkling meadow instead of getting down to business in the classroom.

I’d gone into the meeting thinking I was going to advocate for either two trips of only a U.S. trip. After a few minutes, though, I switched sides. I can take my kid to Washington, DC. We have friends there. No way can I replicate a trip to Israel that includes two days bunking with locals plus a camel ride plus a dip in the Dead Sea.

At one point, I turned to the guy next to me, a San Francisco lifer, and asked where he’d gone for his middle school trip: “Great America,” he said, dryly. Were we really throwing around words like “divisive” and “unfair” to describe having to choose between two awesome, partially school-funded field trips?

Then someone very sensibly pointed out that it might be easier if the school had just said, “Washington trip’s off. We go to Israel now.”

No way does BHDS do that, because we would have screamed bloody murder if they had. Make a unilateral decision about our kids’ education without consulting us first? Who do they think they are, Ariel Sharon? The school had no choice. They had to do it the wishy-washy way, even if they suspected that other schools would have simply made the change and moved on.

One day ago, I met with the Jawa’s teacher to talk about his latest social and academic challenges. Since I spend 24 hours a day thinking about the Jawa’s social and academic challenges, it was nice to have someone else to discuss them with.

We talked about eighth grade and how the relationships you make during a nine-year stint at one institution evolve and change. We wondered how to teach the Jawa, no shrinking violet, that people don’t always want to hear your opinion but that it’s often not personal.

It took an hour. By the end, I was exhausted, a parental failure, sitting there hiding 20 extra pounds underneath a hooded sweatshirt meant for a man half my age. We’d just analyzed and re-analyzed my absent 12-year-old son for 60 straight minutes and all we could come up with was, “We should be positive for the rest of the school year.”

Later, expressing myself poorly to Sandra Bullock over Salvadorean food, I meant to say that all of this hyper-attention paid to every one of the Jawa’s steps and missteps is leaving me hollowed-out and unsure. It’s starting to feel like over-parenting, the kind that leads to Yahoo homepage stories about how today’s college students are self-important narcissists who can’t get jobs because they expect the keys to the executive washroom right out of school.

I’m finding it impossible to determine what is a real concern and what is just growing pains, and I keep thinking about two things: first, all of these biographies of people that mention in passing how they were either outcasts or troublemakers in school, and second, the fact that I was a model child all the way until I drove away in that Toyota Tercel in January, 1984, and look where it got me.

Do we live in a more complicated world of our own making? Does the fact that my child has never ridden public transportation alone make me a vigilant parent or a neurotic one? Where’s that rule book I was promised?

Let me tell you about two kids I had in class during the brief period I spent as a teacher. Both, I thought, had flaws that would seriously compromise their future prospects. One, a total manipulator for whom every day was a series of dramatic scenes starring her as the victim, eventually switched schools. A couple of years ago I saw her name somewhere so I Googled her. She’s a “Senior Marketing Manager” at a PR firm here in San Francisco.

The other kid was verbally brilliant but completely out of control. He couldn’t sit still and demanded as much attention as I could spare. He was cocky, arrogant and inappropriate. Teaching him meant letting all of the well-behaved, non-demanding students slip through the cracks. I’d sit there and watch these poor, pleading faces, kids who’d never make a scene but were at wits end, anyway, while this kid hijacked my class day after day. Finally, I started sending him to the Dean’s office. At least that way my class could function.

I don’t have a happy ending for him.. In fact, I have no idea where he ended up. Nor do I know where the angry stoner kid who never let his guard down in two years or the really smart, really mad at his divorced father kid who only spoke in class to make clever, distracting, irrelevant comments ended up. Or the girl who didn’t say a word until I let her sit on her desk, then dominated the conversation about “The Great Gatsby” for the rest of the unit. No idea what happened to them.

If I knew, maybe I’d feel better about tackling the Jawa’s future. Or maybe I’d feel worse.

Sorry. I hope you weren’t hoping for a sage lesson about how kids all grow up in their own ways but all end up okay in the end. We can spend our days guiding the Jawa’s every step or we can hand him a housekey and tell him we’ll be home by ten. Right now, there’s no way to know which is the right answer.

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