Every good mother wants her child to have the best early education experience possible in order to build a solid foundation, get into a competitive college, and go on to become a successful adult. The first step in that journey is kindergarten. Easy enough, right? Not in New York City. While most moms are enjoying their summer vacations or preparing for the school year to begin this fall with back to school shopping excursions, my head is spinning with the pressures of getting my three-year-old daughter into the right kindergarten. Next September. 2012. A whole year from now! This might sound insane, but in New York City, being a “good” mom is synonymous with getting your kids into the best private or public schools in the city—a task arguably harder than getting into an Ivy League college. It’s exhausting.
There are deadlines for applications, school visits, interviews, references, standardized tests and lotteries, JUST to gain entry into a good school, whether public or private. Conversations with other parents just fuel the anxiety. “Are you applying to Hunter? Did you hear about the Avenues School? Have you had a school visit at Dalton?”
The competitive and strategic skills that have served me well in my careers as a corporate attorney and as a television producer seem to pale in comparison to the skills I need to get my daughter into the “right” kindergarten.
PUERTO RICO, BROOKLYN, HARTFORD, OH MY!
This kindergarten frenzy is foreign to me, since I am a product of New York City and Hartford, Connecticut public schools. My family came to New York from Puerto Rico when I was six-years-old. At the time, we did not speak English. We had no choice but to attend our local public school in the East New York section of Brooklyn. My mother had no idea she was sending us to one of the most challenged school districts in the city. My mom was a teenage single mother who had her first child at 15 and dropped out of school in the 8th grade to work and take care of her children. Because life was so tough for her, she ingrained in our heads that the only way to break the cycle of poverty that we grew up in was to get the best education possible. Although Mami worked long hours at a factory, she was adamant that her four kids were going to attend college and be professionals. We learned early on that bringing home anything less than “Perfect Attendance” certificates and all A’s on our report card resulted in punishment—being grounded or a good old fashion chancleta across our bottoms.
But this wasn’t easy. Between moves back and forth to schools in Puerto Rico and New York, we missed critical lessons in grammar and reading, and the peer pressure in East New York began to chip away at our performance. As soon as my mother saw the negative influences affecting our school attendance and grades, she moved us out of East New York to Hartford, Connecticut where she thought we would have a better chance. Little did she know that the school system there was not much better.
Being Latina, the Connecticut public school system presented another set of challenges for me. By the time my family settled in Hartford, I was starting the 7th grade and reading at a 2nd grade level. Because we had moved to Connecticut after a short stint in Puerto Rico, the school assumed I did not speak English and assigned me to a bilingual program with recent arrivals to the U.S.
When my English teacher discovered that I could actually speak English he made it his mission to move me out of his class and into mainstream classes. Once there, I discovered an “outside reading book” program where kids were encouraged to read a certain number of books outside their regular courses. I became obsessed with reading and my reading scores improved from a 2nd grade level to an 8th grade level in one year. I call it my “Helen Keller moment,” when I made the connection that the words on the page could transport my imagination anywhere in the world.
In high school I was put into the “academic track” as opposed to the “secretarial track” where all my Puerto Rican girl friends were placed. My guidance counselor insisted that because I was “smart” I should go to the University of Connecticut, but I had set my sights higher—on Yale University. Despite my counselor’s protest that I was going to waste my $100 application fee, I applied and was accepted. (I had complete faith that I would get in because my Abuela had prayed over the application and I was convinced that she had magical powers.) I graduated from Yale and went on to a Top-10 Law School, New York University. I achieved all this despite the challenges I encountered in the public school system that provided the fractured base of my education. My mother’s only anxiety about my early education was that I performed well. She may have worried about the school itself, but with a life filled with adversity, she also knew that one must extract positives from any situation, and that our future is dependent on what we do with our present circumstances. If I had not fulfilled my dream of going to Yale, I would have only myself to blame. My going to the right kindergarten had nothing to do with it.
IS ALL OF THIS WORTH IT?
So why am I so obsessed with getting my daughter into an elite public or private school when I did just fine without it? I realize that a good education is the result of many forces converging—good teachers, high expectations and involvement from committed parents, and an environment that supports happy, confident, and intellectually curious kids. Although I know this, as a parent I want to make sure that my daughter has the best chance for success that I can give her. I want my daughter to be in an environment with resources and where being smart is not viewed as “uncool.”
There are moments of clarity where I know everything will be alright. Whether my daughter gets into the right kindergarten or not, she has the love and support of myself and her father. Our home is the best early education program she could ever be exposed to. But as a Latina mom who wants all my daughter’s dreams to come true, I know I have to do whatever it takes to give her every advantage possible. Her generation of Latinas will be different from mine. She won’t question her place in America the way my mother and I did. And in this way, our overwhelming anxiety about her kindergarten application process means we’ve made it.
We’re already in.