Sandra Tsing Loh, author of Mother on Fire, on those scary, scary public schools. Babble.com.Madeline Holler
If you don’t see yourself in Loh’s new book, Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting, well, then you clearly don’t care enough. Or you live in an acclaimed school district (read: you’re loaded). Or your child is not old enough to be on a waiting list for kindergarten. Because for this generation of parents, after love and marriage and the baby carriage comes “What in the hell are we going to do about baby’s education?” (Popular answer: move to Portland.)
Loh, a writer, performer and NPR essayist (who you may recall was fired in 2004 for dropping an F-bomb on the air – long story, it’s in the book) is now, ever since enrolling her daughters in the local elementary, also a staunch defender of neighborhood schools. Mother on Fire chronicles Loh’s jolting, hilarious and emotional school-search odyssey and how she decided to quit worrying and learn to love public schools. I wanted to find out, a few years into her life as a public school mom, whether she thinks she made the right choice. Also, what advice did she have for the public school-curious? So I packed up a tray of mini-muffins and the better behaved of my two children and made a trip to Van Nuys (featured location in much of her writing and stand-in for Unglamorous Suburban Anywhere, U.S.A.) for a play date with Loh and her two daughters. – Madeline Holler
What do you tell parents who can’t pay private school tuition – or sell out their progressive ideals – but who are also a little too scared of public schools?
Well, first, there’s a lot of educational hysteria that’s misplaced. In America, one out of ten colleges is selective. Nine out of ten colleges? You get in. We’re not in a country where six-year-olds are throwing themselves off of high rises after a bad test score. You also don’t have to go to Harvard to be successful in this country. If you’re an English speaker, your kids are already way privileged, in the top five percent of the nation. Then there’s the fact that you’re already worried about your kid – that puts your kid up even higher – you’re a motivated parent! You’re ninety percent of the way there and that’s just because you’re thinking about it.
For middle class parents, particularly educated ones, it’s not as if Junior is going to be illiterate.
Right. They’re going to get educated. Once you actually look in at all the garden-variety schools – go inside, look around – you always find there’s someone teaching their heart out. The kids are learning.
“Sure, maybe for you,” our readers might think. But how do we know? There’s not much out there to go on, except the horror stories from the private school mom with older kids. Or, like, the news.
There’s not good quality advice given out there in terms of specific schools. You know, take L.A. Unified. There’s a lot of good education going on in there. But they are horrible about communication. Type-A, middle class parents, who, granted, could probably dial it down a little, need lots of information. But the school district could also make a few changes, become more service-oriented and come into the twenty-first century. My big pet peeve? No front office person is ever helpful! At McDonald’s, they say “How can I help you?” I think public schools should at least be at that level.
Race and poverty, percent of kids on free and reduced lunches – a lot of families see the numbers and flee. Suddenly the white middle class kid at the local elementary is “the other.”
In LA Unified, something like eight percent of the entire school district is white. English speakers are the minority too. So to be white is to be the minority in this district. Well, white people aren’t bad people. But it’s a little daunting if you’re the first white person to go to the corner. It doesn’t mean you’re a racist . . . it’s just a little, “huh.” So just like there’s help for Cambodian-speakers and Tagalog, there should be a port of entry for the English-speaking parent. It’s not a racist thing. It’s just an entry for someone to integrate into their schools.
Then it’s okay to notice and be sort of . . . conflicted?
To see your blond daughter go into where it’s almost all brown kids, it’s the first time you see it, you learn it’s fine and kids are kids . . . it’s just there’s a moment of adjustment, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a racist. It’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s just different from what you’re used to seeing. In L.A., in a lot of urban areas, it’s a reality. But no one wants to talk about it.
You got fired from your NPR gig a few years ago for dropping an F-bomb, which didn’t get bleeped. But I think you’ve got an even tougher crowd than producers or the FCC out there who might not like what you say: other moms. Specifically, those who feel “judged” or “disrespected” or “guilty” for choosing private schools over public. How do you get away with being so critical – in a funny and disarming way, of course – and still have friends?
I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m Chinese-German passive-aggressive? So you don’t know what I’m thinking? There are plenty of people I can and do judge. But it’s not the clueless mom who wound up at the Lutheran school because there was an opening and she didn’t know what else to do. The people I would judge harshest are the fire-brand, liberal, Democrat columnists who are taking Bush to task, Republicans to task, everyone to task, while sending their kids to the most private, affluent, selective schools in the world. The very elite, wealthy blue, blue Democrat, Manhattan or L.A. people railing against the educational system. They could make it better. All the money they’re dumping into the private schools, all the favors they’re doing for private schools – speaking at commencements, the fundraising, teaching the little Latin class, dumping all their resources into the private schools – then looking critically at all of us people out there in the not-so pretty schools. Those are people I would judge most harshly.
Public schools = PTA = misery for some of us. How do you recommend handling the PTA mom who has made school and fundraising her life’s mission? She makes the rest of us feel inferior, guilty and worst of all: lazy.
The thing about her, the thing I have realized, moms are the ones who are getting it done in schools. Not mayors, not elected officials – their kids go to private schools. It’s the moms at public schools who are doing all of it: cutting out cute heart-shaped figures, bringing snacks for field trips, figuring out the system, selling the wrapping paper, writing grants for the violins, getting money together for a music program. So the PTA mom is glaring at you! So she’s a little disappointed in you! She’s hormonal, she’s on her period . . . but leave her alone, she’s getting a new gym built!
Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting is available on Amazon.