Sandra Tsing Loh, author of Mother on Fire, on those scary, scary public schools.


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.