Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Kindergarten Season

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How did you hear about our school?

Everyone knows about your school! Several families at my son's preschool have older siblings attending it and they give high praise to your educational programs, extra curricular activities, and your mission to teach children compassion and service. In fact, when I Googled the phrase, "best elementary school in the world" your school popped right up.
Please describe your child's talents/hobbies.

My son's hobbies include reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, and playing cello for the L.A. Philharmonic. He enjoys playing the drums, for which he shows a great deal of aptitude. His favorite toys are trains, about which he is very knowledgeable. Because he enjoys the books we read to him about trains, he has developed a strong understanding of how each different type of train works--electric, diesel and steam. He also has a strong ethical belief that public transportation should be used whenever possible to avoid the over-use of individual vehicles.

What are your educational goals for your child?

I want him to obtain acceptance into Harvard Medical School by the time he graduates from your school at 8th grade. No, actually, I want him to be the smartest person in the whole universe. We look forward to seeing our son develop good study skills and learning habits. We'd like him to receive a strong educational, social and moral foundation that will benefit him for life regardless of the career path that he chooses.

Is there anything else you'd like us to know about your child or family?

We are a wholesome family who takes pride in our motto, "feathers are for dusting not for ruffling". We are punctual, sell raffle tickets with a smile and never, ever complain. My son is allergic to nuts and dairy.

It's Kindergarten season, that special time in a family's life when visions of the perfect school, and the perfect future, dance in our dreams like straight-A students in a school pageant. And that wonderful place of bliss--happy child, happy Mama, happy bank account--is all just an application or two away. It's a daunting task, but the good news is that I'm not alone. I know this because all substantial conversations I've had with my network of Mommy Colleagues over the past three months have orbited exclusively around the topics of school tours, applications, deadlines and the interminable debate of public versus private education. This quest for the perfect Kindergarten is a phenomenon that, with uncanny precision, can change the most rock-solid of mothers in bizarre and eccentric ways. People have been known to sell their homes, buy new ones, and even break the law by giving false addresses--all to get their child into the "right" school. I myself have been shopping for fruit baskets, which I've heard is a favorite among the principals. Although this process of wooing schools and being wooed by schools is not entirely unique to my generation of neurotic mothers, statements from our own parents indicate that it hasn't always been so. "I don't know why you're getting so worked up. I just sent you to the school down the street," came from my mom just last week.

Maybe some of you are right now in the midst of Kindergarten Season yourselves. If not, perhaps it's preschool that you're working on. And if you have a newborn, I imagine you to be standing on the sidelines, clutching your overly swaddled infant, and observing your contemporaries scuffle it out in the fray, wondering in amazement--or thinly masked horror--what is ahead for you. So, let me lay it all out there. There are the traditionally academic schools that will send your 2nd grader home with 4 hours of homework. Then there are the no-letter-grades developmental schools that believe in no homework at all. Some are religious and base their whole educational model on faith. Some are religious but don't teach religion at all. Then, of course, there's the plain old secular where you can be assured that no child within earshot of the campus will get so much as a "bless you" when they sneeze, because that would violate school policy. There will be the school with the principal you like but the Kindergarten teacher who looks like a toad. There's a public school that seems pretty good except that budget cuts have forced them to cut key staff. So, when one kid poops in the sand box on the same day that another pukes on the only computer in the office, they'll most certainly have to shut the whole place down and quarantine it. And we can't forget the beautiful private school in the hills that's perfect for your little darling, but will require you to go back to work, perhaps as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, in order to pay for it.

This is insanity at its Mommy-lovin' best, I tell you. To deal with it all, I've been experimenting in the practice of mindfulness--noticing my thoughts as they rise up, acknowledging their existence, but then allowing them to fall away without awarding them power with useless worrying. In the last few hazy moments before sleep comes, and in those transient seconds that I stand over the sink waiting for cold water to become hot, I wonder absently how exactly to transfer all of the information I'm receiving over into logical formulas that will result in one, correct answer. But as I devour ever -increasing amounts of data about these places, the level of urgency about the impending decision rapidly escalates.

I want what's right for my kid. We all do. Dare I say we will stand for nothing less than the best. That's not news. But what that lofty idea really translates to is the paralyzing fear that I'm going to screw this up. And once I embark on that little road to nowhere all those lofty Zen aspirations get demoted in favor of the more traditional decision -making techniques. I don't know about you, but I've fallen back on an old habit that's gotten me through every other quandary that I've butted heads with since my son was born. No, I don't mean drinking a six- pack and passing out on the couch. Instead, I talk myself blue in the face to any living being who might have an opinion to share--friends, teachers, neighbors, the checkout clerk at the local grocery store--all in search of the ultimate truth: What is the best choice for my child? Where should I send him to school? But, of course, somewhere in that thick head of mine I know that the hard biting reality is, and some plain old fashioned logic would tell me, that what's best for my kid isn't necessarily best for yours and vice versa. So, come to think of it, that six- pack would have probably been more helpful after all.

Still, it doesn't stop me from practically begging for the answer from anyone who'll give me the time of day. Somebody, please tell me!!

But really, if someone did say,

"OK, Natalie I'll tell you. You should send your son to Schmerfffinbuffa School."

You know what my response would be, right?

"Sure, Schmerfffinbuffa School sounds like a great school, but I don't think so."

Because, you know what? I'll tell you a little secret. I actually already know the answer. And I'd almost bet that you--mother of a preschooler, mother of a future preschooler, or quandary-laden mother of any child at a crossroads--know the same for your kid too. Maybe you don't realize it yet. But somewhere deep inside your mind, or your heart, or wherever you keep such things, the answer awaits. Like your keys that have fallen into the floor vents, sitting out of view in the trap just below the grate, your answer is sitting there just out of sight. And at some point, when you tilt your head to just the right angle, and the sun shines through the bay window, bounces off of the stainless steel fridge and shines just so on to the chrome, it will allow itself to be revealed. They didn't suddenly materialize there as you might want to believe, but once the conditions become just right, only then are you able to see that which was there all along.

A few months ago Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen Buddhist priest and the author of Momma Zen, spoke at a meeting I attended. She exuded such a quiet strength that the words she spoke--the simple, obvious answers to questions that hadn't been asked--awakened in me a sense of understanding that I didn't even know had been dormant. She said that we would make the right choice. We'd make the right choice because we cannot make the wrong one. My knee-jerk reaction was to demand incredulously, How could that be possible? I make "wrong" choices all the time. Yet somehow in the dark recesses of my mind--bound and gagged--was a mini me with the answer, waving her hands frantically, hoping I would take notice and pick her. I wanted to ignore her. She always comes up with crazy ideas, that little hippie alternative version of myself. Reluctantly, I peeled the tape off of her mouth and all she said was, "Choices are just choices".

Well, what the hell is that supposed to mean? That's just great--an epiphany in the form of cryptic, circular babble.

Having gotten this far, however, I figured it would be in my best interest to take the thought through to completion anyway. It brought me back to the original dilemma. I want the "best" for my son and that means sending him to the right school, not the wrong school. But if what she said is true, then it's this right/wrong label of my decisions that is flawed--maybe even, irrelevant--and the cause for all this brouhaha in the first place. These decisions are independent entities that generate new information and circumstances to use in the future. That's all.

Ooh. Maybe that crazy little me is on to something.

I chose the preschool that my son attends now. He's learned a lot, he's happy, and he's made friends. So from that perspective I made the right choice. On the other hand, their handling of his allergies, and the demanding level of participation and extra money required could lead me to perceive it as the wrong choice. What does that leave me with? That's right, more choices. If it's not working out, then I have to decide if we stay or go. Because, as it turns out, choosing your child's school isn't like a game of Jeopardy--one wrong answer and Bzzzzz! You lose. It's more like a scavenger hunt, where you gather everything you can find and see where it puts you among the group. At the end of the game you've probably made a bunch of new friends, maybe some new enemies, and you can finally relax, enjoy the party, and hang out with that until it gets awkward. Then you have to decide if you should stay or move on.

This dizzying process of choosing a school has been circus-like, with its sideshows and distractions. But, after much deliberation, I've decided that the choice really is just the choice. And, quite surprisingly, I'm feeling pretty good about that. Once I stopped judging--myself, my son, and the schools--for just a jiffy, it lifted the burden of guilt for my inevitable mistakes that has been driving me in this near manic search.

So now, I can sit back, pour myself some nog and enjoy the spirit of The Season while I finish up the last of my son's Kindergarten applications. Hey! Is there, something over there shining under the floor vent?

In what additional capacity (i.e. volunteering, fundraising or other means) can your family add to the enrichment of your child's education at our school?

I would like to donate a gymnasium to your school. No, wait. An entire sports complex including a football field and aquatics center. I would be delighted to volunteer in my son's classroom or in the office on a regular basis, if that is helpful. I also have a background in Landscape Architecture and would be interested in introducing children to the concepts of gardening, urban farming and design.

Natalie Cousins-Robledo comes at writing via a most circuitous route. She has a degree in Peace Studies from Chapman University, a minor in Music and a Certificate in Landscape Design. She has spent the better part of her career seeking a new career – criminal mediation, social work, music education, landscape architecture, writing, and Mommy to one five-year-old son. While she has written training manuals, book reviews, and lots of good listener charts, this is her first publication in a literary magazine.

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