On Schooling

 

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.

24 thoughts on “On Schooling

  1. You are so right about the nature of life and how we never know what will happen as the result of our decisions. Every choice involves a myriad of rejections and no choice is just a simple choice. Each single choice is made in a web of millions of other choices made and not made by a mass of other people which will intersect with our own without our ever knowing. Simply choosing your blog to read from a list of many, for reasons I no longer remember, perhaps the name, has resulted in my constantly visiting here and following ideas and tracks of thought, reading books and discovering things I otherwise never would have known. If it was the name which brought me then that was an outcome of your choice. Sad for you but in a way good for your readers may have been the life events which brought this blog into being at all. It’s so strange how things work out. My son is about to go to sixth form college after summer and our dilemma is that he wants to take all computer based courses and we want him to take a broader palate, given that you can’t predict what you will want or how things will be in the future. Of course any of us could be wrong about this choice, because the future is unknown. My wife was a primary teacher but now wishes she had been an archaeologist, a thing she never had an inkling of until after university. Given this it’s perhaps no wonder so many people follow astrology. Anyway best of luck with this – and may what is lost be excelled by what is gained.

  2. I suspect I would not have been able to exercise the same restraint. I worry that, as a former teacher and academic, I will be too pushy with the children and their schooling. I worry that, as a writer, I will try to get too involved in helping them learn to write. I also don’t want to give the message to them that I do not want to be involved.

    You did a wonderful job walking that line. You should be very proud.

  3. How lucky your son is to have parents who both care enormously and are prepared to stand back, both identify and empathise with him but realise that he is his own person. Above all, if the option he has chosen (or any other option in the future) doesn’t work out, you make me think he won’t be afraid or ashamed to tell you. Of course, none of this makes you immune to mistakes, but I still think he’s lucky – it’s the most any child can expect.

  4. Quite so, Bookboxed! And often the mistakes turn out to be surprisingly advantageous and when things go really well, we ought to start worrying. I’ve had the best time running this blog, and have been privileged to be allowed to take time over my health, too. And I’m very glad you decided to start reading, for whatever random reason it was! The best of luck with your son’s choices, and tell your wife from me that she has probably added far more value to the world teaching children than digging up broken pots. Emily – the restraint nearly killed me, but I’ll bet you would do the same in my position because you know your children and know instinctively what they need from you. The very fact that you worry about these things shows that you already sense the engagements where you feel you want to tread carefully. Having read your blog, I have every faith in you to support your boys however it needs to be done. Jean – thank you so very much. I think what you say about a child being able to admit problems to its parents is incredibly important, and I feel that is exactly what I wanted to preserve. Whatever happens next won’t be clear cut in any way, but if we can face it together, it’ll be okay.

  5. I love getting a peek into your educational life, if only to compare it to my own Commonwealth experience. We still had the Common Entrance exam when I was young (and it is still there now, under a different name and locally run) which I took at ten and my school choices were dictated by which schools my friends requested and their older sisters attended. It was the government funded, predominantly single sex religious schools (mostly Anglican or Catholic) that were the top prizes. (Comprehensives? Oh, we’d die if we had to. Which was a problem since there were only two local shiny schools.) That’s the difference with former colonial outposts I think — with the smaller pool of quality schooling and the fairly stratified society, more or less everyone in your social circle is aiming for the same schools. That made it easier for my mother, at least, since of course she wanted the best and I wanted to go where my friends wanted to go.

    I hope I am as understanding and wise as you if/when I ever have to face the same decision. Truth be told I’ve found myself in the ironic situation of not being at all impressed with Canadian high schools and figure I’ll be faced with the option of paying university-level fees for a high school that wants to maintain its olympic quality gym (or whatever), just to ensure that my daughter isn’t in grade 5 still getting playtime for doll house and assigned books entitled “Oops!” (True story my friend told me. I shuddered in horror.) Either that or I ship them back to Jamaica for high school…? Heh.😛

  6. Yogamum – oh thank you so very much for your kind words. And good luck with any choices you have to make. Having read you, I’ll bet you would be wonderful in a similar situation. Imani – yep, that was really fascinating hearing what the schooling situation is like in Jamaica! And that story about Canadian schooling is pretty alarming. Don’t suppose you’ve ever fancied the UK as a location in the future (she says hopefully)?

  7. This was indeed a tough time for you and I am hugely impressed by your restraint and willingness to accept whatever he decided. This is surely one of the most challenging and emotive issues any parent has to face. I am so happy for you that you all came through with flying colours and that your lack of meddling was appreciated by your boy.

  8. I have been thinking about this post. Your son made the wiser decision for the long-term. I think is says a great deal about him that at his young age he can think beyond the short-term.

  9. One reason why we fled to the rural countryside is that there are no open choices for schools and we will not have to make that sort of decision until our kid is 17, at which age our opinion will weigh much less than his. Unless a tyrant teacher comes along, the average rural school is quite fine, with small classes of a dozen pupils of all ages. Nothing very stimulating, but nothing very mind-numbing either.

  10. I am really moved by this post, because of your honesty and also because we are facing a “good enough” state vs “more challenging” private school decision in the next couple of years. I am so, so pleased that you managed to come out of the situation with your relationship with your son undamaged – that after all is the most important thing.

  11. I’m horrified at the thought of your teachers rolling their eyes when you did well on tests! You learned a good lesson from it, it turns out, but still! This is a wonderful story, and I think it’s great that you and your husband were willing to take time and then do the work of letting things sort themselves out. It’s so hard not to interfere and pressure people to do the things you want them to.

  12. Litlove, I admire your ability to deal with this situation. I am sure I would have said my child was going to the private school and there would have been arguing and tears and I would no doubt throw out the dreaded I’m your mother I know better line. My mom was very involved in my public schooling until I went off to college. She always made it a point to know all my teachers, know what was going on in class and make sure that I was being challenged and not sitting there bored. Of course I hated it, and only now appreciate it because she made sure I got the best education I could at the school I was attending. I think you did a wonderful job.

  13. I am so impressed at the way you dealt with this situation; your restraint is admirable. Also, as a child who had both the mixed-ability classes in a comp experience, and the small class size in a private school experience, I think your son has made the right decision. I was often unhappy at my private school but it certainly gave me a better education, for which I am profoundly thankful.

  14. Having stood on the sidelines and watched so many parents over my years of teaching having to make this choice let me say you dealt with it superbly. It is very difficult to stand back and allow everyone involved the necessary time to come to a decision, very difficult and very brave. I almost think that far more important than the outcome for Alex’s education (and after all, he could go back to ‘school’ at any point in his life and develop in terms of his academic learning) is the outcome for your relationship with your now teenage son. Getting it ‘right’ at this age is next to nigh impossible, but you seem to be bucking the odds.

  15. Isn’t it sad though that we practice educational apartheid in this country and that so much of what one can achieve is tied to attendance at a good public school… I just wish so much that *all* children could go to a good local school regardless of their parents resources. Schools would improve overnight if fantastic parents, such as yourselves, were part of the state school system.

  16. Dear Harriet – thank you so much. I’ll come back to your comment to cheer me the next time (in the very near future no doubt!) I mess up. Emily – that is such a lovely comment, and one that I’ll treasure. Thank you so much. Mandarine – I’m so glad that you have a situation that you are happy with – it’s all that matters, isn’t it? Charlotte – I was wondering what the situation was like with schooling in Germany. It is a tough decision, but I’m sure your children will also guide you and I think you only have to step inside a school to start to have a good idea what it is like. Good luck with that and thank you so very much for your warmly embraced support. Dorothy – oh I so badly wanted to interfere! But I am really glad I didn’t now. As for school, well, it makes me laugh now although I wasn’t always too sure at the time. But thinking about it, it would have been worse if they’d held me up as a shining example. That, I would never have lived down in the playground!🙂 Stefanie, you sweetheart, thank you. I was a hair’s breadth away from throwing my maternal weight around, I can assure you! Becky – you know if it were in my power to give, I’d instantly give my son an education that didn’t involve one sad, lonely or dull day. If only it worked that way! But school is always a bit torturous, isn’t it? I’ll be brave and stoic here and say that it’s good for the character, but really it would be lovely if school were always pleasant. Ann – that means so much to me, coming from you. Thank you, my friend. And I agree – education rarely happens at the right time of life for so many people, and happily the courses are there now for people to get that education when it will be properly useful to them. Now that really is how things should be. Anna – ah you touch on the place where I feel really guilty. I do wish that we didn’t have to make such a choice at all, and that all schools had access to the same level of resources and teaching. Now that would be really something.

  17. Your very honest post brought back so many memories of going through this situation with my own son. You were absolutely right to handle it as you did, and I wish I had been able to demonstrate as much restraint.

    I do hope his school experience is a positive one all round!

  18. Litlove, this was a lovely essay. You write so elegantly about the difficult decisions of parenting. I’m glad that things worked out this time and envy your patience on such an important issue.

  19. How wonderful to know that there are parents out there who allow their children this kind of space and freedom. I come from a family where we were basically just told where we were going to school. I sort of had a choice when it came to high school: the co-ed Catholic high school or the all-girls high school associated with the college where my father taught (well, was that even a choice?). I adapted well (although after elementary school, I found the academic part of school to be mostly boring), but I think I would have been happier had I felt I’d really made a choice.

  20. Dear Ravenous – I’ll bet you did much better than you think. My experience of motherhood is guilt for everything, and then some more guilt, to be on the safe side. What keeps me sane is the belief that you can always make things right, at any point. The test now will be to see if we can help him face all the challenges of the new school – fingers crossed! Verbivore – thank you so much! This was trickier to write than some of my mothering posts, and I have my compassionate and understanding blog friends to thank for their kind reception of it! Emily – I think choice is a really important thing for children, who have so few choices. But it’s tricky for parents who rely on thinking they know better for the majority of important decisions. I figure that this balance is going to be the difficult one to figure out over the teenage years – we’ll see! And thank you for your supportive comment, my friend.

  21. I’m so glad to hear things have worked out for the best (for everyone). It would be so hard as a parent to want to guide your child and help them make good decisions, yet also not impose your own decisions on them, and in any case be supportive of them. My niece is almost 9 and she sometimes says she wants to be a store clerk when she grows up (on other occasions a hair dresser) and I find myself telling her not to just aim to be the clerk but to be the owner of the store, but then I wonder if I should do that and try and stop myself. Surely it’s better that she’s happy doing whatever she really wants to do, but I still want her to be the owner and not the clerk, because how can anyone exist on those sorts of wages! Thankfully since I’m not her mom it’s not my responsibility. No doubt as she gets older and sees all the myriad possibilities she’ll change her mind anyway. I bet your son feels better for having made his own decision. Anyway–very exciting news to hear he’s been accepted into such a good school.

  22. I faced a similar experience with my son when he was 13 & looking at high schools. There was one school that I preferred initially — with something of a family tradition but B favored another school. I had told him at the beginning to have an open mind and throughly investigate which he wanted to attend. He had changed schools unwillingly in the primary grades so I wanted him to feel comfortable with the choice. But, our views changed: I came to favor his first choice and he grew to like my choice. I had to hold my thoughts, as difficult as it were, because I didn’t want it to seem to him that my choice was based on location (walking distance) and money (he had been offered a substantial scholarship). In the end, he choice — on the last possible day — to go to the school with the family tradition. And he never regretted it. Four hugely successful years. In the end, he choose the school that had the best reputation, treated the students as adults, provided appropriate guidance, and challenged him throughout. But, more importantly, he choose the school where he felt most comfortable, and it had little to do with its academic reputation.

  23. It’s true that we have no idea what the future will bring, so we can only try to make choices that will leave open the most options for our children. And I think your son is fortunate to have parents who are very involved, yet not pushy or demanding, who are respectful of what stage he’s at in his development, and who encourage him to stretch his wings.

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