Monday, April 02, 2012

The road less taken

Showing off our home countries at AUS Global Day
A year ago, we decided to enroll Miriam in what I'll refer to as a "non-mainstream" school, for lack of a better term. I call School A non-mainstream because almost without exception, all of my Western friends (another term I don't like, sorry) send their kids to a different school, School S. It was a difficult decision to go against the grain (and a lot of people's advice) and put Miriam on the road less taken. I knew that if things went wrong, I'd feel extra horrible about the decision.

Fortunately, one year later, we are extremely happy with our decision. This has been a great year for Miriam and we are so pleased with the school's efforts to make her educational experience rich, diverse, meaningful, and caring. It was with a great sense of relief, gratitude, and validation that I ticked the "I will send my child to your school again next year" box on the form they sent home a few weeks ago. Our main aims for sending her to School A rather than School S have not been disappointed.

Every once in a while, though, I am troubled by the school situation here, as it is perceived by the parents. There are such strong opinions on all sides that it's impossible to discuss schools without stepping on someone's toes. The minute a new acquaintance finds out what school your kids go to - even if they know nothing else about you - a whole list of assumptions about your economic status, nationality, passport, religion, dedication to your child's education, and attitudes toward other cultures is automatically generated. It's an ugly thing, and it goes both ways. Your child's school can create an unfortunate divide between you and The Other.

And I often find myself caught in the middle. Jeremy and I are sometimes the odd ones out because while we are from the US, we are very comfortable in the Arab world and have spent a lot of time in the Middle East. (That's almost as incomprehensible to Arabs as it is to other Americans, by the way.) Still, my Western friends (ugh, that term again, but you know what I mean, right?) can't understand why I don't send my kid to School S like everyone else. It's like I broke a rule I didn't even know existed. I get the funniest looks when I explain that we chose School A because we wanted Miriam to learn and value Arabic, and attend a school where all nationalities were welcome, even if those kids did not attain a certain level of English proficiency before entering Grade 1. There are other reasons, too, but they have more to do with personal opinion. I'm not willing to address them here because they will stir up those strong feelings I mentioned before.

You see, the minute you disagree with someone on an issue related to your kids' school, it's like you're attacking that person's dedication to their child's education. In the last year, I've realized that the "best" school is going to be different for everyone. Just because one school is the most expensive, or the Sheikh's kids go to another, or the Arabic program is stellar at another, doesn't make that the absolute best school for everyone, one size fits all. The sooner we understand that, and respect it, the better. I shouldn't have to rationalize my choice to you; you shouldn't have to explain yourself to me...even though I know we will probably still both secretly judge each other.

Then again, the Great School Divide can also create moments of sweet connection, like when you're talking with a new acquaintance and find out that they send their kids to your school, too! I treasure those experiences because it's like you've found a kindred spirit, someone who saw the same weaknesses in the other choices, the same strengths in the selection they made - the same selection you made. Then you can gush about what you love, and the kind of growth you hope to see in your child, and know that for now, at least, you don't have to defend yourself to anyone. You can just talk about school with its ups and downs and hiccups and triumphs like a normal person without extrapolating all kinds of horrible, prejudiced conclusions about a person from a single, school-based conversation.

It's true that the UAE is an amazing tossed salad (is that still the PC term?) of diversity and it takes a certain kind of highly tolerant person to live here. However, I am sometimes shocked at the discriminatory attitudes I see hiding underneath the surface, and they're not always very deep down. I have had conversations with casual acquaintances and at the end of it, wished I had the courage to ask, "why do you bother living here when you feel that way about a vast swath of the other people who make up this society?" Instead, I try to smile and nod and make non-committal, commiserating comments like, "Yeah, sometimes it can feel like that," or "I'm sure that was frustrating for you!" And it's unfortunately in the school situation that these kinds of ugly opinions rear their heads.

My point is, people should choose a school that best fits their values, not yours. It's school shopping season again and a lot of my friends with KG2-age kids are on the hunt for a good fit for their family. We're happy with our choice for now, and if you ask me about it, I'll give you my opinion in the kindest way I can manage and encourage you to visit the school and see if it feels like home for you, like it does for us. And if it doesn't, no big deal. I, uh, promise.


Amira said...

My kids have never gone to the school that everyone else around them goes to, and it surprises me how often people seem to think that our choosing a different path means anything about their choice. I promise, I didn't think about where some future friend might send their kids when we made our decision.

And your second-to-last paragraph? Yeah, there have been a lot of people that I'd like to find out why the heck they're in Central Asia or the Middle East because they don't seem to think most of the people who live here or there are decent people.

Kathy Haynie said...

I'm so glad Miriam has had a great school year. It was very interesting to read your blog posts during your school search last year. It made me realize how much I take for granted the public education system in the US. It certainly is NOT a perfect system, but I am grateful for the education my children received in our community, and I am proud to be a teacher-leader at my local public high school. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Jen said...

Generally-speaking, I've found very little that stirs up more emotion than the judgement of parenting choices. We rarely enter into these decisions lightly, yet sometimes it can be bewildering to know that people can take the same information and came to a different conclusion.

I think we need to amend the dinner-party-conversation rule to: Don't talk about religion, politics, and education/birth/vaccinations/breastfeeding. =)

Finding My Way Softly said...

Can I add to Jen's new list circumcision too?

The most uncomfortable conversation I had in a while was at a Relief Society dinner with a mom who also has a 12 year old son. Heck, we made those decisions long ago, why would I want to share that choice this far on. I just listened to her for about 5 minutes before asking her what her favorite hymn was. It only worked for a little while before she asked me again what choice I had made. It took three topic changes for her to finally get the hint that this was not a topic I was going to go into. We had made different choices, but even if we had made the same choice I would not have gone into it 12 years after the fact.

Katie Lewis said...

Mostly this just makes me glad that Olivia isn't old enough to be in school of any kind yet. :)

Although, now that I think about it, we do have a little bit of this already going on with preschool stuff. I used to teach preschool and I feel perfectly capable of teaching my own child colors and numbers and letters and how to sit still in a group setting and on and on. So to keep costs down, we just do a little (really informal) at-home preschool 3 days a week here with some friends Olivia's age and their moms. So far it's been awesome. It's been so rewarding to watch Olivia and her friends grow and thrive in this school-like environment.

But just this morning one of the moms who joins us for preschool mentioned off-hand that they signed their daughter (Olivia's friend) up for preschool (for the next school year) at the place where everybody else sends their kids. I guess some part of me wishes we could afford to pay for preschool so Olivia could go to "real" preschool. Just think of all the things I could get done during the day! But another part of me knows that Olivia's happier at home with me right now than she would be elsewhere. And I'm happier having her at home too.

Anyway, that was the long way of saying that I totally agree with you about doing what's right for your own family (and for each child and their needs) and not just following the crowd.

Sarah Familia said...

I read your school-shopping posts last year with fascination. I am so happy that Miriam's school turned out to be all that you hoped for her.

Crys said...

Great post! I think that pretty much applies to every parenting decision that has to be made. We feel so passionate about why we make the decisions, because after all they apply to our children, are most loved and cherished part that we can't see how anyone else could chose a different decision. I feel that way about where we currently live. There are times when I tell other doctors about where we live that I actually see their face contort with (disbelief, disgust, shook, surprise). And I think, "What is your problem?" I'm definitely the same way though, my choices are of course almost always right, why can't other people see that :) I'm so glad that you are loving the school and Miriam is happy!

JosephJ said...

It's popular around here to extol the virtues of a high-brow (deep-wallet) private education. I was around town the other day making small talk to a grandmother who was praising her grandchildren (of course!) and talking about the family trying to decide where to send the eldest son to High School. (Me inside my head: "Really? People choose their high school? What about the one in town that your taxes are already paying for?" It's still a foreign idea to me to apply for and enroll in primary or secondary schools as though they set the path for the rest of your life.) I guess that's a part of the RICH heritage of New England.

I don't really have a problem with people thinking one choice is better than another, or worth more to them. I do feel surprised when people feel the need to start defending their choices if they are different than mine. I also have a problem when people swing their judgement so wide that it equates anything less than their choice as detrimental.

1. Sending your kid to town B public schools (quite average) means your kid cannot excel or reach his potential as well as at town A public schools.
2. Giving birth any other way than (____) is doomed to require medical intervention or end tragically.
3. Transporting your children in anything less than (____) type of car and (____) type of carseat dooms your kid to not make it to 10 years old.
4. Eating (_____) food is unhealthy, and should be avoided at ALL costs.

I don't mean to be cavalier here, but there's more than one way to skin a cat. There are positives and negatives to everything, and no single instant of choice renders a perfect resolution. That instant needs to be followed up by many other well-balanced, intentional decisions.

As for me, I'm happy on the road less traveled, sometimes because of where it leads, but other times because it's less traveled.

Liz Johnson said...

This was a big deal when we lived in Mexico. There was always a bit of a rift when you discovered which school your kids went to and why, as though somebody choosing differently automatically invalidated your own choice. Agreed - this happens across all topics, although parenting and kid-related choices seem to be the most hot-button of them all. Even just in Indiana, there is quite a bit of choice in which public school you send your kid to (never mind the private school debate!), and it creates all sorts of lively debates. Plus then there's homeschooling, which I swear has become super trendy amongst a lot of the moms I know. I dunno. Between putting my kid in Kindergarten and it being an election year, I might just end up living in a cave by the time 2012 comes to a close. I can't handle this level of heated (and often downright vicious) debate in my life.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I'm so pleased you found a good fit for Meme. And I appreciate the ideals that are important to you for her. She is thriving educationally and will always be comfortable in a multi-cultural setting.

Sad that parents seem to feel threatened when choices of others don't match their own. It still goes on here, especially between parents of home schoolers and those who enjoy the opportunities afford their children in a public school setting. Both are good. Both work well for most children in them. There is no bad here.

Shannan Deshazer said...

I find that I very very often take the road less taken - maybe it will always be in my spirit, but I do it to spite other people. I never want to do what the other person is doing, but like you describe, I am always secretly pleased when I find other people who chose the same as me.
In my own life, it was when we moved down here to Salem and I carefully researched the local public elementary schools. I found three schools in the "south" side of town that were the most accomplished academically. Now that I found the schools, I went to my second goal - my kids had to be able to WALK to school. Remember those days? When kids WALKED to school? The only school that fit that criteria was the bilingual education school, ie, that school was the "Spanish speaking" school. It was the school where all hte kids who couldn't speak English were bused to and therefore all the school announces, all the school communication, all the programs/assemblies/parent ed programs were in Spanish and English. I thought it to be a deep cultural experience for my white bread kids here in Oregon and thought it a great idea. Plus, because it was the only accrediated ESL program in the district, 85% of the teachers had a Masters degree or higher plus an extra level of certification. BINGO! Well, when we actually moved into the house, I found out that a majority of my neighbors did not attend the local elementary school that was two streets over. Oh no - they actually found ways to get their kids into the other public schools and drove them there or they put their kids in private school rather than bus them. My neighbors thought I was CRAZY for sending my kids to the bilingual school because of all the "mexicans" there. Well, wouldn't you know it. My kids have not only had a wonderful, personal education, but their school is small (because none of the local parents want their kids to go there)and they have highly educated professionals teaching them. Plus, I have found my kids to be especially colorblind and nationality blind and often judge people on the content of their character which is a goal every parent can be proud of - and all this because I decided to take the road less taken. Bravo Bridget!


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