WHEN THEY FINALLY opened the floors at 8 a.m. on the dot, the woman who had been first on the line was given a red ticket with the number one printed on it. She took it like the trophy it was, and walked into the school. She had been waiting since 6 in the morning, sitting on the school steps, reading two days worth of newspapers and a magazine. Someone had told her that there were only three places open in the grade in the school she wanted for her child. She was determined to get in. She was determined to register her child in the public schools.
After a while, the woman was joined by two other women and a man, and then, as the sun climbed higher in the sky and the day warmed, the line stretched to the sidewalk. Half an hour before the 8 a.m. start of registration, there were about 25 people on the line. There was, of course, the woman who came with the dawn, and the man who came on a bike, and another man who carried a suitcase and said he was about to go out of town. Farther down the line was the editor of a Washington newspaper and still farther down the line was a lawyer - a man of affluence and influence in this town. He is something of a politician and if there is anything he knows, it's the schools. He waved his hand and smiled.
This was registration for the public schools in a section of Washington where people routinely have been sending their children to private schools. You could make grand pronouncements about the day - that it marked the renaissance of the public schools in this town or that it meant that inflation was creeping up on the wealthy or that it meant nothing at all. In fact, it does mean something and it means that in one small and privileged section of town, people are once again beginning to have confidence in their schools. It's a little story, but quite important.
There is dogma about the Washington schools. The word, in a word, is that they are bad - the pits. They say supplies arrive years late and that a kid could sit in a corner and gather cobwebs before he was noticed. They say that you can't send your children there - that you have to scrimp and save and, as they say, go without. You have to buy your way out. Private school. The only answer. It was that simple.
Dogma until one day there was a house for sale. People marched trhough the place, some of them serious buyers - the kind who knock on the walls and look for water stains - but some of them were like me - just nosy. So we walked through this place and I noticed the way the kitchen was decorated and the way the books were displayed and I was almost out of the house before I noticed something else. There was this paper tacked to the wall and what it amounted to was the curriculum vitae of the house. It told you, so to speak, when it was brorn and what it was made of and how close it was to the bus stop. One of the things it said was "Six Schools Complex." That stopped me. Someone was using the public schools as a selling point.
So an option had opened up. The word of mouth was good. Out in front of the houses the mothers were talking about the public schools and what they were saying was nice. They were saying they were happy and they were saying their children were happy and then they would fix you with their eyes and say that of course you would support the public schools. You have an obligation, they would say. Yes, yes, you nod your head, and so you are up with the dawn for registration, but there still are reservations in your head. It is the way you were educated, the way you would want your children to be educated, but the old dogma lingers and it is still with you on the line at the Fillmore school.
At precisely 8, the doors open and we all move in. The school building is hot and the air in it is heavy. There are forms to fill out and some waiting to be done, and we are doing all of this in chairs builts for little kids. After a while I drifted over to where the lawyer was filling out the forms. We had met a week earlier when we both went to visit a school and it was then he told me the name of the private school his children attended and the fact that he was thinking of pulling them out - transfering them to the public schools. There was an air of uncertainty about him, as if he still wasn't sure of what to do.
So I was standing there, looking down at him as he sat in that little chair, listing the names of his children and the school he preferred for them. He looked up and sniffed the air the way a person takes in a spring day.He smiled.
"My kids go to private school," he said, "but I feel more comfortable here."
I know the feeling.