From the splendor of a happy autumn in a great-fit kindergarten for my daughter, the person I was a year ago seems almost unrecognizable. But it was me, me who was fretful and fragile, all the time insisting I was really keeping it all in perspective. It was me who pored over school websites for hours, slotted tours and visits onto our calendars without regard for anything else, worked on essays until my hands ached, and put our house in lockdown for three critical weeks in January. Yes, lockdown. But we'll get to that.
When I was actually breathing instead of hyperventilating, my thoughts went like this: there are lots of great schools in this city, and she will end up at one of them. It's not the decision in March that matters; it's the reality in September matters. (That was in recognition that the public school lottery system in our city keeps sorting unplaced kids through the third week of school, and that the private schools would likely be admitting smaller classes that year and relying on waitlists for any necessary slack. The final answer might be a bit later in arriving, but it would come.) She is going to learn, and she's going to make friends in any of these schools we visited. It's kindergarten -- it's only kindergarten. One year, just this kid, kindergarten. If we need to make a change, we'll be able to do that later. The application process is nuts, I won't let it take over our lives, I'll give it what it deserves and no more, and we'll just do the best we can.
It was usually around the time that I heard my mind's voice say "we'll just do the best we can" that I'd scream. Do the best we can?! Does this poor child have Jack Handey for a mother?! My "deep thoughts" would then shred like tissue paper in the frolic of my darker worries. This is insane. This is huge. Whether it's six or seven or nine years of grammar school until a particular school ends, it is the longest stretch of schooling she'll ever be in. If this school doesn't teach her to read to learn, to understand math, to delight in science and art, she'll never learn it. Ever. And if she doesn't get good regular P.E. at this school, she'll pick up all my bad habits like eating potato chips when I'm nervous. Oh God, it's lost, she'll pick that up anyway...
A few more deep breaths, and the increased oxygen helped reason return. What I needed was a process. I had done much bigger, much harder, much scarier, much more important tasks before. This was just finding a school, and there would be no small amount of luck involved, which I couldn't control. I needed a plan to cut this mammoth task and long process (nearly as long as human gestation, I noted without amusement) down to size.
So, I made a plan. I focused on what our family cared most about in a school. I listened to my gut when I visited schools. I let myself love what I saw to love and admit that I really didn't like what I didn't think suited us. I wrote down the most important moments and lessons from my own elementary education, and I teased the same out of my husband. I tried to be vivid in our essays for the schools that asked for essays. I tried to be strategic in listing the schools for the public school lottery. I read every single thing I could about each school -- not because I thought I should, but because I always tackle a problem by reading and researching and educating myself. It wasn't always interesting -- though it often was -- but it was a familiar approach. I got really sad when I saw the dozens and dozens of darling four- and five-year-olds at application events and festivals and screenings. I found that heartbreaking -- that this process was about accepting and denying those sweet kids -- but I didn't dismiss that sadness as hysterical.
I saved hysterical for the lockdown. Except that's the one part I'd do again in a heartbeat. I said no to every invitation, calling it "lockdown" only to myself -- and now to you. Our family had a string of quiet days and nights -- home from preschool, at-home fun in the afternoon, healthy meals, early bedtime, strict adherence to schedule and routine -- during the heartbreaking few weeks in January when private school screenings and visits were going on for the kids themselves. I hated that part -- I absolutely hated dragging my own little girl into this, and I hated seeing all the uneasy faces on the other kids as their parents cheerfully tried to make this drop-off at a strange place seem "fun." So sleep and good food got us through -- and when the official duties were over, we went out a lot and stayed up late and said yes instead of no, a lot.
In the end, some schools said yes instead of no, too. Some schools said no instead of yes. It all sorted out before the first day of school in September. My daughter is over-the-moon happy in her new school. But there will be a time or two or ten where we all struggle there, no doubt, and hopefully we'll have some perspective then, too. If not perspective, then perhaps a plan. And if not a plan, then potato chips....
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