It has been more than 25 years since my first day at Catholic school. The memory lingers: Sister Agnes Marie wallops Tommy Murphy on his knuckles with a ruler because he didn't do his arithmetic homework.
As I watched horrified, the thought struck me that my father, concerned about the rough Philadelphia public schools, had just spent his life savings to move us to the suburbs, and, taking no chances, enrolled me in the local parish school. But in the eight years of public school, I had never encountered such harshness. I felt my father, a first generation Italian-American, would have been better off investing his money in a pizza parlor.
When I moved from the city to the suburbs, I also became more mindful of social class distinctions. The upper-crust Mainliners lived in fieldstone colonials, drove wood-sided Buick station wagons, summered in Maine, shopped at Lord and Taylor, and sent their offspring to learn their three Rs at an institution that contained the words "academy," "preparatory," or "day school' in its name.
Riding the Penn Central, I would often see my affluent peers, wearing their smart camel's hair blazers, the original preppies. The girls, with names like Wendy, Heather, Pamela, were blond, blue-eyed, clear-skin wonders. The boys had first names that could pass for last, Bentley, Caldwell, Duncan, and sparking good looks that came with health and wealth. With my dark skin, pimply nose, wearing a tacky navy-blue parochial school uniform, I was conspicuously outclassed and longed for a public school, the great social equalizer.
Over the years, because of these impressions and like other trendy liberal Democrats, I was a fervent supporter of public schools. To me, echoing the philosophy of the National Education Association, the public school system was the foundation of democracy, fostering assimilation and harmony.
But times have changed and so have I. Now my three daughters attend private "independent" schools. And nowadays I view the public school system as a source of community fragmentation and parental frustration.
There are many reasons for my shift in allegiances from concern over academics to discipline. But an overwhelming factor was parent burnout.
Having children enrolled in the Montgomery County public school system became a drain, emotionally and physically.
Within walking distance of my Silver Spring home is a public elementary school. In recent years it has been plagued by problems from a series of ineffectual principals and teachers to an unsuccessful attempt to change from traditional to open classrooms. In 1975 the school became the center of neighborhood conflict.
Some parents, concerned about what they saw as a decline in the academic life of the school, received permission to transfer their children to another public school, less than three miles away. (As an "alternative, model" school, it must recruit about half of its students from around the county.)
Angry words were exchanged by mothers in the aisles of the local supermarket. Those who removed their children were called everything from elitists to traitors who were abandoning the neighborhood school concept. In turn, those who kept their children in the local school were considered something akin to the band playing on the decks of the Titanic as it was sinking.
Since my husband and I were both active in the PTA, we decided to keep our children in the school and work to make it better, But events quickly outpaced the efforts of committed parents and teachers. Budget cuts resulted in the reduction of the art and music programs, the elimination of some teacher aides and the increase in class sizes.
We bumped along from one crisis to another. In 1978 the school, because of its declining enrollment, partly caused by parents removing their children from the troubled school appeared on the school board's "closure" hit list. Life became a series of meetings, hearings and other energy and time-consuming activities related not only to improving the school in keeping it open.
When our middle daughter, then a fourth grader, began to have academic difficulty, our problems snowballed. She couldn't multiply or write a complete sentence and would often come home from school crying over classroom and schoolyard fights. At nights when we weren't at a school-related meeting, my husband would sit at the kitchen table patiently explaining to her the principles of multiplication. I went to see her teacher, who was understanding but a substitute, the first in a long series because the regular teacher was on sick leave with an ulcer. She admitted the class was unruly, the teaching difficult.
At the urging of a neighbor who transferred her children to the "alternative" school, I went to visit it. I was impressed by the principal, the teachers and the orderly children. It was a definite improvement. Happy that unlike other public school systems there was an option, in the spring of 1979 I applied for a transfer through the local administrative offices.
A month later I received a form notice denying the request. No reasons were given. When I called an administrator, I was told that my neighborhood school was "now closed to transfers out in order to stabilize the majority enrollment."
Enter another emotionally charged issue which makes any discussion of the problems of the local public schools excceedingly complex.
In the last decade, the number of blacks, Asian and Hispanic Americans has increased dramatically in Takoma Park and Silver Spring because of the availability of relatively low-cost housing. As a result, there has been a sharp rise in the minority enrollment in certain county schools.
In 1975, worried that the county might find itself in federal courts because of de facto segregation, the school board adopted a desegregation plan, hoping to reduce the minority concentrations.
But despite the reorganization of schools and the development of new programs, the plan has not worked because the minority population has grown beyond anyone's expectations. With the threat that the Department of Education will withdraw Emergency School Aid Act funds if there is any evidence that the county allowed segregation to take place through inaction, school administrators have become obsessed with numbers.
Consequently, in any discussion I had with administrators they brought up the subject of racial quotas. Their primary concern was that we were a "majority family," as they put it, requesting a transfer from a "minority impacted" school. We had no choice because, one associate superintendent said, "white children are needed in that school."
My primary concern was adademics. In the four years of school my daughter had one excellent teacher; the rest ranged from awful to fair. But repeatedly, my reason was subject to racial interpretation.
I was stuck in a revolving door. In late spring the news spread that the junior high, where our oldest daughter was a student, was also in danger of being closed. So another round of meetings occurred in a stuffy auditorium where adults stamped their feet and shouted over a squeaking public address system at school board members.
Meanwhile, back at the neighborhood elementary school, an urgent call came from the principal. My daughter's class, still struggling with a substitute, could use the help of any parent who had some free time during the school day.
Clearly, it becamea time to pause, reflect and list priorities. Like many ther parents, we were always angry about some school related issue, thrusting ourselves into an adversary relationship with the school board, administrators and teachers. I was tired of the meetings, the confrontations, the educational jargon. But I was also weary of worrying that my daughter wasn't learning anything at school.
We wanted the best possible education for our children. Having lost confidence in the neighborhood elementary school, we were hesitant about enrolling our youngest there for first grade. And our oldest daughter was headed for a public high school that was noted not only for its drug problems but also for its academic mediocrity.
It seemed to us that sending children to public schools had become extremely risky. In the fall of 1979, like a growing number of parents told by administrators that we had no options within the public system, we turned to private schools.
I read with tremendous interest the statements of professional educators, government officials and editorial writers who decry the decline in support for public education. But it seems they are writing from the same concrete and glass tower, far removed from the disorderly classrooms, the turbulent PTA meetings, and school board debates over money, majority quotas and the dismantling of neighborhood schools. Nor does it appear that they hear parents talk in hushed tones about the terror that has struck their hearts -- if their children remain in public schools they will become semi-literate adults.
Parents are seeking alternatives. But policy and opinion makers fail also to understand that the desire for better schools transcends class and race. They cling to the myth that only parents who live in brick colonials and drive Volvo station wagons are willing to fight and pay for quality education. Yet I sit at PTA meetings in private schools surrounded by parents of all hues, all educational and economic backgrounds, who are making enormous sacrifices for their children's welfare.
So it distresses me to read critics who blam growing private school enrollments on some flight by middle-class parents from the poor, the black and the disadvantaged. The public education establishment wrongly assumes that poor and minority parents lack the interest or the sophistication to make schooling choices for their children. This patronizing attitude is worn like horse blinders against the disconcerting truth -- the long lines of black children outside inner city parochial schools.
Now I understand my father's determination to make sure his children were not penalized by inferior schools. And I am grateful to him and my mother, who prodded me to study, to "advance" myself. "Get an education," my mother would say, "or else you'll spend the rest of your life selling ribbons in the dime store." Happy that I decided to go to college, she went back to work in a shirt factory to help pay the tuition bills.
These days I am aware of still another link with my parents. When I see my oldest daughter, wearing the uniform of the all-girl Catholic academy she attends, walking home from the Metro, loaded with books, I realize that my husband and I switched to private schools partly because of fear. Understanding that peer pressure outweighs parental influrence, we didn't want her at a public school where students loiter in the halls, smoke pot in the bathrooms and cut classes to play electronic games at the local shopping mall.
Yet I also sense disapproval from those who sit in their lofty towers writing about schools. They are quick to judge parents like us who pulled children out of the public system because we were concerned about academics, discipline and drugs. Buying children designer jeans, teenagers cars, taking out a second mortgage for a vacation home, boat or van, however, raises few eyebrows, warrants no editorials. Yet parents who spend money on private schools, well, they're considered almost un-American, snobs, racists.
On my desk are the tuition bills for September 1981. I can think of countless ways this money could be spent. The family car rattles with old age, the paint on the outside of the house flakes from neglect, and two-week vacations at the beach belong in the memories-of-things-past category. But when I see my middle daughter, now a sixth grader, doing her geometry homework without any difficulty, I know the money is well invested.
On a recent bright spring day I also realized the irony in the decision to shift to private schools.My oldest daughter was in the kitchen making herself a snack. I noticed her uniform -- plaid skirt, white blouse, navy blazer, knee socks, docksiders, I told her I thought she looked rather "preppy," compared to the days when I wore a blue serge jumper.
She returned a look that would stop a bus. Remembering my own miseries when I was her age, I asked her how she felt about the change. Pouring herself a glass of milk, she thought for a moment and then answered, "Let me put it this way: I hate the uniform but I like the school." Yes, times have changed.