Man of the House
Private Schools – Part Deux
Today’s parents allow their kids too much free will as our columnist discovers when his daughter has to choose where she’s headed for middle school.
When I was a kid I decided I was not going to play ice hockey. I couldn’t skate, practices started early in the morning, and I hated putting on that equipment. It didn’t matter to me that in wintertime our whole community revolved around the rink or that all my friends would be playing and I would have nothing to do on the weekends. I hated hockey, and told my parents as much. But when my protestations became too demonstrative (I was howling in tears up in my bedroom all night), my father came upstairs and whacked me upside the head. “Everyone plays hockey in this town,” he stated flatly, and that was that. I played ice hockey the next 7 winters, and truth be told, loved every second of it.
Somewhere in the intervening 30 years, the value of that lesson got lost on me. Now more often than not my own children dictate the terms of their childhood. When Georgia (12) insists we spend the entire weekend spray-painting cardboard weapons for a TV series she is creating, I zip off to Michael’s for supplies. When Waller (10) insists his giant fugly-ass orange and white leather gaming chair reside in the middle of our living room so he can play Fortnite at will, I tiptoe around this toxic eyesore like it isn’t there. I’d like to think this parenting dynamic derives from fact that my wife, Marie, effectively disappeared when her career as a costume designer suddenly rocketed her to Emmy success, and I was relegated to the role of primary caregiver to my two kids. I have so little faith in my ability to fulfill the obligations of this post it just seems more effective to let the kids call the shots.
Nowhere was the fallacy of this assumption made more apparent than in the process of choosing a middle school for Georgia to attend next year. Let’s face it—this is an adult decision. It has vast financial, cultural and logistical implications. It is a decision so consequential it feels beyond my own pay-grade let alone that of my 12 year old.
Nonetheless, I adhered to the advice of the more experienced parents and faculty to bring Georgia deep into this process, and maybe they had a point. Who but Georgia Morton would have made me stand in the middle of every auditorium stage to suss out the theater scene and yet still assert the “feel of the place is more important than fancy buildings.” And with my wife completely consumed by the Transparent Musicale Finale, I’ll admit I wanted a wingman, a sounding board – someone with whom to compare notes on the snack food catering at admissions receptions. But despite Georgia’s keen eye for a potato samosa, she is at the end of the day still a 12 year old, and when I found myself still completely paralyzed with indecision at the end of this lengthy process I did not find the sage feedback I craved when I turned to my daughter expectantly to ask, “So-- what do you think, now? Which school should we go to?”
Naturally, she had her own criteria:
One school rated strongly because it was renowned for the chocolate chip pancakes it served on Wednesday mornings in the school café. (To be fair – a compelling metric.) Another got strong marks for its lack of homework and even more lax school dress codes. One school had art rooms with giant roll up garage doors where I guess Georgia imagined she would enter her monumental phase. Another had a screening room next to its art gallery (this is Hollywood after all). “Daddy,” she whispered beaming in the aisles, “We could have a reception in the gallery and then everyone would file in here to watch ‘Universe Collide.’” (This is the TV show she is currently making with her neighbor and brother.) It was hard not to get caught up in this kind of excitement. Who wouldn’t want this for their daughter? Who wouldn’t want this for themself?
Marie and I tried to temper her excitement by reminding her that she would likely get rejected by most of these schools. They’re all so competitive that every application had a section for national awards and accomplishments. Awards? Accomplishments? Georgia still hasn’t learned to look both ways before crossing the street. “Don’t worry where you’ll go next year,” I hollered as I watched her and a friend run willy-nilly toward our neighborhood ice cream store. “You’ll be lucky if you’re still alive!” I was only half kidding. After six months of looking and thinking and discussing, it seemed like a good thing to get a couple rejection letters—some help to narrow the field.
The girls there looked and spoke like they would one day rule the world. It fit every criterion we had laid out: academic, artistic, social. There was only problem
But then three things happened: first, the acceptance letters started rolling in. Despite my bumbling process of looking at schools and my wife’s inability to show up for a single middle school admissions event, Georgia had done something right. She got in everywhere.
Even more miraculously, just at the end of the process Georgia and I agreed on a school we could love. It served waffles with whipped cream in the mornings, had no dress code, very little homework, was super diverse and committed to an academic program that promoted civic service and charity. The girls there looked and spoke like they would one day rule the world. It fit every criterion we had laid out: academic, artistic, social. There was only problem: it was a full hour and half from our house. I convinced myself and Georgia that this would be fine.
Then a third thing happened: Marie’s work finally came to a close, and she could turn her sane and formidable brain to the important decision at hand. She was apprehensive about our choice, but agreed to drive out to the school on the weekend after our acceptance to look around. By the time we got there; we were all famished. We quickly toured the campus and then hurried off to eat lunch. Afterwards, it almost felt like we should do some sight seeing we were in such an unfamiliar part of our city, and by the time we neared home, we were all ready to eat again. How many snacks, I wondered, would it take just to get our kid back and forth across town? After Georgia went to bed, the mediating force of motherdom quietly weighed in with her thoughts: NO WAY. There was no way we could responsibly raise our 12 year old and be active participants in her life if she were commuting to a school an hour and a half away from our home. It was a hot take with which I could not argue.
Over that very fraught weekend (they don’t give you a lot of time to make this choice!) we drove to every school on the list, and tried as a family to make an informed choice. There were also a lot of phone consultations going on. If you had a kid in a private school in Los Angeles last month, there’s a pretty good chance you spoke to me that weekend. Through every conversation there was but one recurring theme: parents wished they had spent less money. Finally, a metric that made sense to the man of the house! Finally, a means to quantify a solution to our dilemma.
Georgia had been accepted to a Catholic school that was one-third the cost of the others. It had a great reputation and after all the sturm und drang – the analysis of culture and celebrity at the various schools – it suddenly seemed at last like a sane, affordable choice. What’s more with the money saved, we would have the ability to round out her childhood with educational travel opportunities (hello, Tuscany!) and athletics (I’m looking at you, new swimming pool!). But after all those interviews and hard work, after Georgia had written so many essays and thank you notes— how do you convince your child that the school she should attend is the one at the very bottom of her list?
I wish I could say that I looked into the beady eyes of this dilemma and stared it into submission—that I saw the responsible solution and calmly advocated for its effect—that like an adult I held my ground. It might on some level then make sense that under my tutelage this kooky, spunky, imaginative girl who never bothers to look twice before crossing the street had been accepted to all these prestigious schools. But that’s not what happened.
“Georgia,” I said, “I know we’ve eliminated the one school that you wanted to attend so, now—you can choose ANY of the other schools on your list, OR— you can go to the Catholic School, and I will buy you a horse.”
All I got was a smirk; maybe a roll of the eye. She kept her cards close to her chest. Later, I would learn she was teary eyed at school on Monday as word began to spread about who would go where. Her friends all assumed it was because she had not gotten into any schools (not because she had discovered her father is crazy.) It was only later that night that she finally came clean to her mom. “I want to do what’s best for our family,” she would say to Marie as she was getting tucked into her bed, “But I will not be bribed.”
And that’s fair. That’s beyond fair. It’s wise beyond her years. It’s wise beyond mine. In fact, she’s clearly more capable of making this choice than me— so why not just let her have her say? So that’s what we did. And she chose to go to the very best school in our part of town with all her closest friends, bosomed in the community that has helped her become the vital little force she is, today. It’s hard to argue with that.
Nick Morton is a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @mortonopoulis.