Although my son is now 13 and old enough to perform most essential nurturing tasks for himself, and the intensity of those early days of mothering is long gone, every so often a parenting challenge still arises that stops us in our tracks and obliges us to take a long hard look at our beliefs and principles. We’ve been having one such challenge chez Litlove over the past three or four weeks as my son needs to change schools this summer and we’ve all been involved in the decision as to where he should go. Writing about schooling choices is very difficult, as people sometimes have very fixed views about what is right and wrong, and it takes me back to the old days when the big question was whether mothers should go out to work or not. As with all these choices, once you’re in the thick of making them, nothing seems very black or white at all. Up until the age of 11 my son went to the village school, which was on the other side of the duck pond to us. I could drop kick him out the front door of a morning, he played with his local friends and it was a perfectly nice and well-run state school. The only problem was that he was terribly bored and spent the majority of his time there daydreaming. He was also having some difficulties with his English work, and after a while we decided to get him checked out unofficially. He wasn’t exactly dyslexic but he had a little problem in the transition between what he heard spoken and the form of the words on paper. The kind of little problem that we were thankful was no worse, but that was clearly stunting both his development in, and his enjoyment of, any subject that required written self-expression.
We had toyed with the idea of moving him to a private school when he was 10, but he clung to his familiar surroundings, and it wasn’t until he himself declared that he wanted to change schools that we moved him to one in town. In the absence of any simple bus route, it meant a 20-30 minute car journey mornings and afternoons, but the change in my son’s engagement with his school work was nothing short of amazing. In smaller classes with more attention he blossomed. At our first parents’ evening the teachers repeatedly praised him for his work ethic, and I kept checking they weren’t mistaking us for the parents of a different child. His English has come on in leaps and bounds and he’s even had a poem published in an anthology (I was astonished; he was indifferent), although he is single-handedly attempting to alter the English language’s foolish insistence on capital letters at the start of a sentence. Some things don’t change.
So, with the rest of his school friends he sat the entrance exams for the two private schools in town that are extremely competitive, being among the best schools in the country (and even writing this I feel a stab of some uncertain emotion – a deep sense of discomfort with anything that could be construed as boasting, perhaps?). It’s not that I don’t think my son is smart, but I thought that our refusal to have him tutored or to push him in any way for the exams might well tell against us, so imagine our surprise when it turned out he’d been accepted at our first choice of school. My son seemed initially pleased with his success too, but then he changed his mind and told us that he wanted to go to the local comprehensive school, a perfectly good school that he could walk to and where his old village friends were. Now I would have said that I had been quite prepared for him to go there in any case, not expecting him to win a place at the schools in town, and yet when he said this, I found that I was not okay with it at all, and I made the fatal error of telling him so. Even as I let the words out of my mouth I knew they were a mistake, and not at all what my son wanted or needed to hear from me. We had a little argument – or at least as much of one as people chronically incapable of arguing can manage, and both walked away from it as soon as possible, feeling disappointed in each other.
And here is where we found ourselves riding the horns of a dilemma. My husband and I both wanted our son to go to the school in town, where he could continue to have the quality of education that had made such a difference to him in the past two years. But what right did we have to impose such feelings on our son, who at 13 is now at an age where he needs to feel in control of his own life? And when we could damage our long-term relationship with him by being too intrusive, too pushy? Nor did I ever want him to feel that he was only loved for what he could achieve, and I would have been ashamed of myself if I let my ambition push him into a situation in which he felt uncomfortable or overly pressurized. We did the only thing we could do under the circumstances; we agreed he would visit both schools to see for himself what he was choosing between, and we let the matter drop completely for ten days or so.
During that time it seemed inevitable that we should replay our own schooling over in our heads, because wanting something for your child is invariably linked to your own experiences at a similar age, and disentangling the two seems like an excellent idea. It’s too easy to allow a child’s genetic similarities to blind you to the ways in which they are very different, and times change. What was a crushing concern for one generation is rarely a problem for subsequent ones. My husband went to a private school, where he was happy, after having done poorly in a local school because of a similar issue with mild dyslexia (he has no sense of time passing, which freaks me to this day). I went to a comprehensive school and received very mixed messages about being smart. My parents were always proud of my inclination to be academic, but the teachers at school were less than thrilled. This was back in the days when strict egalitarianism hit schools, and by the time I was sitting my ‘O’ levels (as they were then) the earliest years of the school were in mixed ability classes. Teachers would roll their eyes when I came top in tests and on a couple of occasions I was given a quiet warning not to upset the other children and not to expect any kind of preferential treatment because I was able. What came out of it all was a very valuable lesson: I learned to like work purely for itself. I might have been hungry for praise but I never expected it, and I enjoyed the sense of competing only with myself. It was in many ways a solid foundation for graduate study. And there were a couple of teachers who were very good to me, and that’s all it takes. Looking back over it, I felt that I wanted my son to learn how to take pleasure in studying, because that had meant so much to me, and I wanted it to be in an environment in which intelligence was straightforwardly valued.
So my son visited both schools. He liked the private school, which he visited with a friend, and he also liked the comprehensive, which did not look a bit like Sodom and Gomorrah. We all went out to dinner and discussed the situation, hoping that we might reach a decision as there were only a few days left to the deadline. But when it became clear that he wasn’t ready to make up his mind we left it again. I felt by this point that he would undoubtedly go to the comprehensive, and I had to give myself a firm talking to. What I had to come to terms with was that we were all speculating about a future we could none of us imagine. This seemed like a huge, determining choice, and yet life is long and strange and unpredictable; all you can ever do is trust to the journey. All I really knew was that I had to hold back and give my son all the space he needed to make his own mind up, and then be ready to support him whatever his choice. I would feel the most appalling guilt if I felt that I had forced him, out of his child’s deep loyalty to his mother, into putting my wishes before his own. Whatever my adult’s perception of the schools, I was not the person who had to attend one of them, and I felt it was important to have faith in my son’s ability to create the right conditions for his own development. If I showed him I doubted him, how would he ever feel strong enough not to doubt himself?
And then the next day, taking me completely unawares, he came to find me to tell me that he had decided to take up his place at the private school after all. I said, without thinking, darling, I am so proud of you. I really did not know which way you would jump. And he came straight over to me and put his arms around me and I was thinking, oh thank God, thank God, I must have done something right. Not because he had made the choice I’d wanted, but because his spontaneous affection made me relieved I’d practiced restraint, and not meddled as I had at times longed to do. My husband tells me I would not be so philosophical if he had made a different decision, and perhaps that’s true; but I know how important it was to me to feel sure I could support him either way. It just goes to show that some of the best lessons happen later in life, long after orthodox education has finished.