I remember this evening so distinctly: L. was only two years old, and we were having pizza dinner at our favorite pizza place. It was a warm evening, and we were sitting outside, watching the traffic pass. Across the street from the restaurant was a school--we passed it many times on our way to work. I already knew a little about it, but only in that abstract way you might if your child was still only two and school seemed impossibly far, far away-a little pinprick spot on some map of the future.
While we waited for our bill, I let L. down out of the wooden high chair. He had fun picking up little rocks, examining them and tossing them back down, watching them jump and skip across the pavement. A young girl came up to us--she must have been about 9 or 10. She played with L., and talked with us. She was one of those singular children who strike you as so unusually intelligent and well-spoken--not an ordinary child, but a quirky, interesting one in all the best ways--not unlike, I remember thinking, how I imagined my own child would be when he was 9 or 10. As it turned out, she told us she went to the school right across the street. It was a such a great school, she said, and I decided that evening, awash with a flood of gut-and-maternal instinct, that I would love my own L. to go there some day, that distant day in the future that seemed so far away when he would be five and ready for kindergarten.
I was so assured of how right my gut and instinct felt to me that night; I felt a sense of peace and contentment and confidence about L.'s schooling--all things, I would come to learn, that I would never feel again.
I remember standing in the walk-up line outside L.'s school, this time last year, listening to the fifth-grade parents discussing middle schools. I always said a little mental thank goodness to myself that we weren't there yet. I didn't want to think about middle school; I didn't want to have to think about another school choice, not when we barely had our heads above water on this one.
But I must have blinked for too long because now it's November and I'm in the walk-up line every day, listening to the fifth-grade parents talking middle schools and I'm one of them. For the most part I listen politely, filing away information, but giving very little in return. I feel out-of-place with these parents, scarred and worn down from the battles each year, while they seem so fresh, so excited about each school day, and the prospect of middle school ahead, like a big, glittering adventure. When their kids come rushing out to the parking lot, chattering about homework, or class projects, or sleepovers I feel a wall come slamming down between us and, inside of myself, I step away.
Back when L. was in his last year of preschool, and kindergarten was the hot topic of conversation outside the preschool classroom doors every afternoon, his teacher asked if she could give us one piece of advice:
Don't talk to other parents too much about where you want L. to go to school, she said.
Her rationale for this was twofold: practically speaking, given the limited slots for magnet applications in our town, it was better to keep mum about school choices in general. But her second point was that for every school out there some parent will have something negative to say about it. Or, conversely, parents will gush about the school they think is the best fit for your own child--the child only you know so well. "It can all be so confusing," she said. "And uber-competitive."
I still think her advice holds true now--maybe more than ever. Every afternoon I listen to the conversations about this school and that school. In my head I think I know where I want L. to go next year, but it's only an unformed impression, a vague idea. I trust my instincts in general about people; I trust my instincts when it comes to my children's safety and emotional well-being. Do I trust my instincts entirely when it comes to the right middle school for L.? I'm not sure anymore. The decision feels so weighty, so large, so hugely important; it's not a decision about some distant pinprick point on some hypothetical map--it's about the here and now, real and immediate.
I realize that I haven't ever felt that rush of certainty in my gut about anything school-related the way I felt it all those years ago, outside that restaurant, on that balmy evening, under the shadow of that school building.