Sunday, March 15, 2015

Next Steps, or, Staying Where Their Feet Are

I am sometimes amused when I think about how different my life is now than it was twenty, ten, even five years ago. Most recently and not so amusingly, I can't believe that going through the New York City kindergarten application process for Bee took six full months of my life and more stress than I can describe. I realized recently how much of the rest of my life I'd put on hold to go through it all and just how absurd it all was. I was explaining the whole thing to a relative of mine and the story coming out of my mouth sounded crazy. Absolutely crazy! Even as I'm typing this, I am shaking my head. It's so unbelievably stupid. Was that stressed out person really me? 

I've written about some of it already here and here. If you read that, you already know it all started in earnest in the middle of last August. Between then and early last month, Johnny and I read two books on private kindergartens; researched thirty-seven private schools and every single public school on the island of Manhattan; toured fifteen private schools and four public schools; went to fourteen open houses and thirteen interviews; declined dozens of invitations to fireside chats, coffee with the headmistresses, diversity evenings, prospective parent Q&As and so on. Throughout the process we elected to withdraw our applications from four schools and didn't make it to round two of the very intense application process of another. I wrote twelve versions of a very long essay documenting what I thought our then four-year-old would need in a school and why; paid fifteen different fees ranging from $40 to $100; brought Bee on fourteen school playdates or interviews and I attended one workshop on financial aid. I met with our preschool director half a dozen times and called, emailed and texted her at weird hours when I couldn't get to the school to see her in person. I asked close friends for letters of recommendation, parents of my kids' friends for playdates at strange hours so we could be across town for early morning interviews, and I interrogated dozens of friends, colleagues, parents of my kids' classmates and family members for information about schools they or their children attend or attended and about schools they knew anything at all about. I emailed with and spoke to perfect strangers who were friends of friends of friends who had children in schools I'd read good things about. We read hundreds of web pages, rehearsed interview questions and wrote more than a dozen handwritten thank you notes. I spent hours and hours collecting copies of tax returns and finance forms, filling in bubbles and writing short answer questions and essays about why my family's financial situation is unique because of having a child with special neurological needs. With guilt and trepidation I subjected my four-year-old to six weeks of practicing with photocopies of patterns and sequences in fifteen minute increments to prepare for three rounds of testing. We had to listen to "feedback" from admissions directors told to us second hand via our preschool director, some very positive, some less so. We had to hear that perfect strangers thought this or that about our daughter based on a single, often awkward forty-five minute interaction with a very young and increasingly shy child who had not been prepared for these sessions beyond being bribed with a cookie or a balloon. In short, I let the process take over our family and almost every shred of dignity I had. The one thing I didn't do was lie about my address to get her into a public school in a better district, but I wondered at points why I didn't since the whole entire process was unethical and inhumane and it seems that's what everyone else does anyway. 

We did all that. And then, we waited. 

February sixth was Decision Day. The night before, I was in LA, working late in my hotel room. Emails started coming in at the stroke of midnight EST and with the very first one, I just knew I was in for the first all-nighter since before having kids. I was following a thread on the worst message board I could possibly be reading, one that was populated by over-privileged white stay-at-home mothers and, apparently, trolls.The thread listed each Manhattan private school by name and invited all the message board participants to comment whether they'd been accepted, wait listed or rejected, whether they applied for financial aid and whether they were of color or in some other way "diverse." I refreshed and refreshed and watched comments slowly post to the thread. I was mildly entertained by the term "troll," imagining some Shrek look-alike or worse announcing that her precious little boo-boo had been accepted at a top tier school that my kid would never have a chance at. I hated myself for feeling the awful fear of missing out, knowing full well that sleep would serve me better than learning who of New York City's self-proclaimed elite had been accepted where, but I couldn't help it. If they reported acceptances from schools I hadn't yet heard from, I surmised, it must mean that we had been rejected. I kept comparing myself to these anonymous posters, hating them and hating myself for getting all caught up in the drama.

Hours later, I was exhausted and in a tailspin. I had to work that day but I hadn't slept. I was only half-checked into the things I was doing because I kept refreshing my email and that awful website. People were talking to me and I was barely hearing them. "Huh?" I said as I moved through my day. "What? Oh, sorry."

Refresh, refresh. Text. Email. Call. Refresh again. And for what? Of the twelve schools we were waiting to hear from, in the end she was rejected from one and wait listed at 11. The rejection was from a school I didn't like anyway so the sting of rejection wasn't a sharp one (though I force myself to admit here that even now I can't tell this story without adding "But I didn't like them either, so it didn't matter!" which is pretty lame). Rejections -- even from snobby Upper East Side all girls' schools that you were warned you would hate -- sting. But wait lists really hurt people like me who just want to know already and can't stand the idea of waiting another second.

So I spent that entire weekend distracted, irritated, Googling do NYC kindergarten wait lists move, refreshing that awful thread on that awful message board  and generally feeling shame about the whole thing. I picked apart the wording in each of the wait list letters to determine which were polite declines and which were real wait lists. Following advice from Bee's preschool director, I composed individual emails to each of the schools thanking them and letting them know we were still interested, with slightly longer and more personal and detailed notes to the schools whose wait lists seemed genuine. I couldn't relax, couldn't sleep. When well meaning friends asked what news we had, I held up a hand and shook my head. I really did not want to talk about it.

So then we waited some more. 

Those few days after "Decision Day" were among the longest in my life. (And yes, I know how ridiculously dramatic that sounds. We're talking about kindergarten, after all.) On Monday, I had to hear more feedback via our preschool director. She knew the state I was in, so she was very kind, but there was just no sweetening some of what she had to say. Here are the awful things I was told:

-wait list X, Y and Z were polite declines or nods to the weak connections we'd tried to work 
-wait lists A, B and C were genuine and she knew it because they'd told her how much they loved Bee, but:
              -it's about money,
              -it's about money,
              -it's about money and
              -schools need "visual diversity" first so that's where they start with their financial aid. 

What I heard in all of that was that a lot of the schools liked my kid and liked us, but we were not rich enough or poor enough, white enough or diverse enough. The comment about visual diversity was so ballsy that I couldn't believe an admissions director actually said it. It in one nasty phrase essentially summed up why this process was so incredibly fucked up for us and for many others. On top of not offering "visual diversity," we were not legacies, not siblings, not staff. We had no connections, no in roads. And on top of it, we couldn't pay full price so we just had to keep trying to make an impression somehow and hope someone liked us enough to take a chance (and that the "visual diversity" they offered their scholarship money to the first time got accepted somewhere they liked better). So the chips were down. But I am a pretty determined person and the game wasn't up until the game was up. I had until Friday.

So on Tuesday, I started calling the schools we had gotten the most positive feedback from. I reminded them of the amazing things they told our preschool director they'd seen in my kid and I told them -- each and every one of them -- that we would jump if they offered us a spot. In short, I was kissing admissions ass. 

And slowly, the offers came in. In the end we got three. And one of them we really liked, and snagged. And then, on Bee's fifth birthday, after I'd dropped off a check so big I needed help from my parents to write, it was over.

(I am leaving out the details of the process by which I also applied to twelve public schools. We won't hear about that or the last round of testing we did for another month or more. The likelihood of a favorable outcome from one of those is slim to none, so I'm not giving any of it any more space in my brain, if there's any left.)

The really scary part is that now we get to do it all over again. Teeny is nineteen and a half months younger than Bee, but because her current school is a DOE funded school, she will age out of preschool when she's four, not five. She will enter kindergarten one year behind Bee, when really, it should be two. Her school does not do "pendancy," which is a thing you sue someone for or file for somewhere -- although I have not yet found a single school that takes it -- to allow your young-ish child to do an extra year of preschool or two years of kindergarten. She is a late September birthday and she's really, really little. She needs extra time for everything. I think one of the kindest things a school could do for her is let her stay in preschool for another year. But what I think doesn't matter. 

How do I know that? Because in addition to all that crap I mentioned we did in that six month period, I also went to three seminars on the Turning Five process (what they call the kindergarten process when you have an IEP), one special needs school fair and one school tour. I had to cancel two more because they conflicted with school tours and interviews we had for Bee. I read through four different lists of special needs schools in the New York area, filled a notebook with notes on almost four dozen schools' websites and I spoke to parents of kids with IEPs at several private and one public school. I asked our doctors and other parents about the neuropsychological evaluation process. I interviewed several parents about having to retain a special needs attorney. I added all of these expenses up in my head multiple times and freaked out silently and, sadly, not so silently. How do people do this? 

And then I was totally overloaded and couldn't do another thing.

There are still parents I haven't spoken to. Friends of friends who went out of their way to connect me with people at Bee's new school, people who love it, people who hate it. There are tours I didn't make it to, calls I haven't returned, emails still stuck in my drafts folder. I have drafts of our potential schedule for next year, as Bee's school day starts at precisely the same time Teeny's bus is supposed to pick her up and Bee's school day ends at the precise time Teeny's bus drops her off. We are going to have to figure out how to get Johnny to be in two places at once or I am going to have to pick one of them up every single day. Every day? I can pull off a lot of magic, but that may be more magic than I can manage. Oh I am so burned out. I have a few more months to get through before we have to deal with that, so for now, I'm forgetting about it. Crossing that bridge when we get there and all of that.

Right now I want my kids to be kids. Preschoolers. Little beings without a care in the world. And I want to be the mama who is present and who isn't thinking about next year. I want to be where my feet are. Better yet, I want to be where their feet are. And where are their feet? We are in the midst of a particularly lively birthday party season and we go from party to party it seems. Their feet are in ball pits, swinging from chairs where they sit painting ceramics with friends, dancing like crazy to "Karma Chameleon," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," jumping up and down while they're shouting the adorably misheard "focus focus!" at a magic show, carrying them from snack table to snack table. 

Bee's feet are usually in her "fancy boots," tap shoes or ballet slippers. (Because they are rarely if ever in heels, even for dress up, she likes to point out every single pair of high heels she sees anywhere ever. The lady sitting beside her on the subway. The businesswoman clop clop clopping down the sidewalk trying to act like she can't hear as Bee hisses, "Mama! Look at her high heels!" Cyndi Lauper. Elsa. The way Bee tells it, everyone wears high heels except her and that just isn't fair, Mama!) Her feet have precious and sloppy pink, blue or glittery toenails because she refuses to let me help her with her home pedicure. They are "an eleven size," as she tells anyone who will listen, because that sounds "old" to her. 

Teeny's feet are still strapped into old braces that no longer fit her (which reminds me to call the orthotist again tomorrow to see where her new ones are already). They too have pink toenails, also sloppy, not from her painting them herself but rather from her impatience and inability to wait for them to dry once I've painted them for her. They are often dangling from where she sits atop the "big potty," Frozen-themed underwear around her ankles, pink toes peeking out. Lately she gets it right about 85% of the time. Her feet hold her up, some days with more strength than others.

At this afternoon's birthday party, her feet helped her crawl through a bouncy house and up the ladder to the slide down, wriggle through a foam ball pit, and jump through a gymnastic obstacle course. As soon as I saw the party was at this kind of physically challenging place my feet tried to turn us around and right back out the door we'd come in. I thought Teeny would not be able to do it and I was cursing myself for not calling ahead, cursing the birthday girl's parents for inviting a physically challenged kid to a place like that. But Teeny would not have it. "I want go in!" she pointed. And some parent I didn't know pulled their kid over to us, calling out "Hi Teeny! That's Teeny! Can you say hi to Teeny?" So we went in.

The birthday girl's mom turned out to be an occupational therapist who knew exactly what she was doing when she picked the place. Half the kids were also from Teeny's school and had issues of their own. The mom was very attentive and well aware of everyone's needs. Apart from the one employee whose teeth I wanted to knock in when she instructed the "kids with limitations" to stay over there, the staff members helped Teeny reach and spotted her when she insisted on doing what the other kids were doing. Limitations, my ass. That kid mastered every single thing she tried and held her own next to neurotypical kids, able bodied kids and much bigger kids. And she had a blast. Even as we were leaving, she was pointing to the uneven bars over the ball pits and shouting "I want to do that more!" 

So you see, her feet are in a better place than mine. Bee's too. My feet will have me running all over the place and I need to slow it all down. I have a few more months until the second round of kindergarten ridiculousness heats up. For now I'm calling it quits. I'm not going to worry about the future, at least not today. I have lots going on right here. 


  1. Holy moly girl. I need a whiskey and a nap after just reading what you went through! Please, please let me know if there's anything I can do from here to help out! I may be states away, but I am, after all, a super nerd who loves research! So if ya need me, I'm here!


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