Private-School Families Who Are Public-School People at Heart

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The only private, nonparochial school I was aware of when I was growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., was this place that seemed to be just for rich problem kids. That could be because I'd only met one person who went there, and he fit that description. I didn't even realize my ignorance about private schools until, filling out some college applications, I got the distinct impression that a regular old city high school was the wrong answer.

For my wife, who was raised in New York City, where we live now, the choices were much greater. But her family, like mine, never thought much about those alternatives. There were private-school people and public-school people. We were public-school people; that was that.

Of course we knew that times had changed when our daughter was born three years ago, but the rearranged reality still came as something of a shock. "You're not going to send her to public school, are you?" people would ask. I usually said that I would consider it. "You'll see," came the snorting reply. Suddenly we were forced to defend the tradition, which had seldom been questioned in either of our families, for a predictable litany of reasons: Public schools in New York were overcrowded, staffed with indifferent teachers, not conducive to learning, and dangerous.

They were also filled with children of color, a factor rarely cited to me but which I knew loomed large in the reasoning of white friends and colleagues. Not that they were racist in any sense worth mentioning. It was simply the way of the world that, the darker schools got, the worse they got--which had more to do with the reactions of school officials, teachers, and parents than with the intellectual potential of the children in question. But this was no longer a time for abstract thinking. For whatever reason, public schools had become largely undesirable, and we had a child to educate.

The first part was easy. We did not qualify for public day care, so when we moved out of range of my Godsent mother-in-law, we had to use a private baby sitter. Next fall, our daughter will enroll in the preschool program of an independent school that runs all the way through high school.

We were, people said, lucky. We were in on the ground floor of a good thing, and our daughter could just sail through without being exposed to the hazards of the public sector. The way I figured it, this was also the point at which we had to be careful. We had taken the first step toward becoming a private-school family. It was painless and logical--after all, our daughter was too young for public kindergarten anyway.

There is a public elementary school across the street from us. There was one across the street from us before we moved, as well, and we would have sent our daughter there without hesitation. We don't know much about this new one yet. We don't really like the look of it. But the neighborhood is "changing"--becoming less poor and less colored--so things may work out in a couple of years.

It is just as likely, though, that other newcomers who have heard all the same horror stories will look immediately to private schools. Even if they do filter into that public school, it will no doubt be because its current constituents, like the people who used to live in our apartment, will have been driven from the neighborhood. I'm quietly rooting for that to happen, and I don't particularly like myself for it. It's as if we are not going to as much as running from.

I want our daughter to go to public school because I believe in the institution, and I believe the institution needs people like us to survive. Also, frankly, because it's free. We worry about our child growing up in a too white environment, just as we worry about her being trapped in some too-black environment condemned to inferiority by powers that be. White people don't have to worry about that, although many do consider integration as they might consider a house with a fireplace--a nice touch.

But lots of other people feel as we do--people like us who went to public schools themselves and have abandoned them only out of practical necessity. Like us, they feel uncomfortable about being private-school people, maybe because of the way they've always seen those people and the way they've always seen themselves. That's not necessarily the schools' fault, just the way society chooses up sides. It's like the suburban friend of mine who went to Yale and was dumped by a guy because, he said, she had "public school" written all over her.

Independent schools must realize this about many of their new clients: We may be delighted with the education but not entirely happy to be there. Some of us are just public-school people at heart. And if things get better, we'll go back. A few of us may even be bold enough to go back and try to make things better.

Vol. 02, Issue 07, Page 14

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