When Maya was 4 or 5 years old, she took tap classes at Steps. On the first day of class, she showed up wearing a blue leotard and pink tights. All the other little girls were in black leotards and white tights. During the class, one of the other mothers asked my which child was mine, and I smiled and said, “The one in blue.” “Ohhh,” she said, “Just wait till next week. She’ll want to be in black just like all the others.” My response was something like, “I’m not so sure about that,” and indeed, Maya happily wore her blue or pink leotards through the whole 18 week session, never once asking if she could dress ‘like the other girls’. This is partially due to her personality and laser-like stubbornness, but is also, I think, due to the fact that she is not in school, where conformity is preferred over individualism, and standing out often means you’ve broken a rule. (or forgotten to bring a green pen to science class.) To this day, if Maya doesn’t want to do something – go to a certain class or visit a museum or read a book – it doesn’t matter if every one of her friends is telling her how great it is, or that they are going and that she should definitely participate, she will shrug and smile and say, “No, I don’t really want to.” (or the reverse, when no one else is interested and she is – she sticks to it) Even Ben, who is not as stubborn, does not hesitate to say when he isn’t interested, even when a good friend is. Sometimes this can be frustrating, when I am on the side of ‘hey let’s do this really fun thing with our friends!’, but really I’m glad they know their own minds and have no fear that friends or popularity or grades will be lost if they don’t move with the pack.
Because I’ve been thinking a lot about our friend Lexi, who was ordered into school against her will, I’ve started to wonder what effect school would have had on my kids, given their personalities. Speaking to Lexi’s mom Liz yesterday made me understand why parents obsess so much over getting their children into schools with good reputations, or into the ‘gifted and talented’ programs. The public schools are a caste system. You definitely don’t want to get thrown in to the lower levels, as Lexi has been, through no fault of her own. There is often no way out or up from there. But to get into the higher echelons of the system requires applications, interviews, high test scores (almost from infancy) and some luck or connections. But once you’re in, you’re in. Those unfortunates who do not have the connections or the money to buy their child a spot despite a lackluster interview or substandard test scores are doomed to the classrooms where teachers yell that they don’t care, flaunting their tenure for all to see.
It’s not called a caste system, but that is in effect what it is. In the upper levels, there is constant pressure to get the grades and high test scores not only to get into the good colleges, but also (and perhaps more importantly in the eyes of the system) to maintain the standards of the program or schools hosting these ‘higher level’ children. Otherwise the money goes away. Failure is not an option.
If only homeschooling and unschooling were profitable for someone besides the kids and families involved, we might start seeing it presented by the powers that be as a viable option for people. (Do I need to explain the first half of that last sentence? I hope not.) But it isn’t, and it will remain a fringe movement. I can’t imagine how my kids’ personalities would respond or be affected if they were put in school. I hope I never need to find out. We’ll leave the peer pressure and the caste system to others and enjoy the freedom of movement and thought out here on the fringe.