The Lottery

“I imagine you’ve all seen Waiting for Superman,” the school official said to the anxious parents squashed into the dusty cafeteria for the public school lottery.  She wasted no time preparing us for the disappointment we surely faced, her speech heavy with descriptors like “discouraged,” “despondent,” and “crushed.”

“Hang in there,” she concluded, and hurried out of the room.

This was the day we’d know, with varying degrees of certainty, our children’s kindergarten fate. The tours, the applications, the visits, the reams of reading material about test scores and rates of teacher-turnover and discipline reports and budgets… it came down to now.

You wouldn’t know it from the way we avoided each other that day, but through all this the parents had become a tribe of sorts, meeting at school tours and information nights, trading information and opinions. It was an uneasy alliance, certainly — any slot scored by someone else’s child meant a slot not grabbed by mine — but there was a synergy. I knew that Clarissa was interested in services for her hard-of-hearing son. Rafael was willing to drive 30 miles. Noelle, the mom of energetic twins, would invariably ask about recess and physical activity. The group knew I would ask about reading strategies.We even had a feng shui expert among us, Larissa, who read the energy of the classrooms we toured.

On Lottery Day, though, we barely  acknowledged each other, eyes glued to the officials, ears tuned to hear the only name each of us cared about. I will stop short of comparing it too closely to the emotionally loaded Superman, but I’ll concede that the experience fit on that spectrum.

I think I can safely speak for all of us in admitting that what we sought, consciously or unconsciously, was the private school experience at a public school price. And with public school cache.

Yes, cache. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: the core of the public vs. private debate isn’t driven by academics so much as by culture. You want your kid to spend her days in a Catholic environment. You want your kid to get invited to the mayor’s daughter’s birthday parties. You want your kid to be bilingual. You want to name-drop “Country Day.” You subscribe to the child-development philosophies of Rudolf Steiner. Whatever it is, it’s not ABCs.

Me? I want small class sizes, a clearly identified curricular focus, happy and well qualified staff, and loads of opportunities for parent involvement. Anna is a compassionate, active, imaginative, and willful child. She’s easily distracted, even compared to other kids her age, and potentially has up-close vision issues because of her exotropia. I suspect she may need extra help learning to read and I want her to have access to any help she might need.

So here we all were.

There were posters across the front of the room, each bearing names of kids already slotted into this grade or that — siblings, teachers’ kids — and dozens of blank lines. Hundreds of them. The school had outside consultants read each name drawn, twice; each was checked by a second official and then the admissions director carefully pasted each name on a slot as a parent ran forward to snap a photo with a camera phone. It was as simple as that.

It took the officials three hours to read and double check the names. Of course, the people in the room who would be most affected, the kids, could not have cared less. The mom-of-the-moment award went to the woman who remembered to bring a DVD player and two sets of headphones for her kids. Anna and I spent much of our time outside on the playground.

As any good mob member would, I grew more invested in the whole thing the longer it went on. I imagined Anna first at one school, then at another. One school, a charter, is housed next to Balboa Park and uses its museums liberally. Cool. Another, a magnet, highlights the city’s urban offerings. A few are language immersion. One has uniforms. There might be bus transportation to this one. That one just won a “California Distinguished School” award. Still another has three kinder teachers who are Board certified. I could picture her here, there, and everywhere, on this school’s huge play structure, in that one’s reading nook, tending to the garden at another.

The sun sank low. The room grew cool. I texted Allan each time I heard Anna’s name: “She’s #31 on the waiting list”. She was #135 on another, #56 on a third…

And then…

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Published in: on March 2, 2011 at 10:49 AM  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You are killing me! Not fair, just tell us already!

  2. […] was called sooner, rather than later, and there was a LOT more later than there was sooner. As the lottery ended, the officials moved swiftly to face us, ready for questions. Shoulder to shoulder , they […]


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