Thin envelopes in the mail never fail to remind me of senior year in high school, when flimsy rejection letters from colleges floated softly into my mail box like dead leaves off an oak tree in winter. Good news arrived in thick manila envelopes stuffed with enrollment information like tuition and dorm room assignments. Ultimately, my acceptance letter from Cornell arrived in two separate thin envelopes, because I guess the admissions committee thought it'd be fun to freak out already neurotic A-list over-achievers pining for entrance into an Ivy League school.
This week, my 5-year-old son, Boaz, received two thin envelopes in the mail (in Los Angeles by the time a kid is 2, it's not unheard of that he's fielded enough ding letters from private preschools to wallpaper his playroom). One was an acceptance letter to a local public school with a solid academic reputation to which we'd applied -- we lived outside of the school's district and therefore submitted Boaz's name into the citywide lottery. At random, his name was chosen and he'd earned one of the school's coveted open spots.
The other thin letter was preceded by a phone call from the principal of a local Jewish day school, a cozy little school with a small student body, an amazing Hebrew-immersion program and a bunch of kids that Boaz already knew from preschool, which would help ease his transition. Principal X wanted to tell me directly that she was unable to offer Boaz a spot in the incoming kindergarten class. She had thought about things long and hard and, along with her faculty, had decided that the school would not be an appropriate fit for Boaz, who currently receives speech and occupational therapy once a week for -- and this is straight off his Individualized Education Program (IEP) paperwork -- "a receptive and expressive speech delay and auditory processing disorder".
But Principal X's main concern was that when she observed Boaz at his preschool, he left the classroom three times, which he generally does when he's bored or sad or frustrated (or, say, strange adults dressed in doctors scrubs for Purim are observing him like an insect in a petri dish). The Jewish day school simply didn't have the staff to provide for his various "special needs," meaning a) there was no spare room for Boaz to hide out should the mood strike and b) there would be no teacher's aid on hand to reel Boaz back inside should he dart out during a fiery game of Hebrew Hangman or the G-rated picture-book version of the story of Boaz (the original one) and Ruth.
I could hire a full-time behavioral shadow, the principal offered, but that would be expensive (I did the math and a full-time shadow five days a week, six hours a day, for ten months, runs about $60,000; the school's tuition is roughly one-sixth that amount). And anyway, why would I scramble and struggle to come up with the cash to hire a shadow so my kid can go to a school where he's been rejected?
The great irony of my kid being rejected by a Jewish day school is that I'm a Jewish educator. While not full-time, for the past eight years I've taught everything from "Jewish Journalism" to "Jews in the News" at various Los Angeles-area religious schools. I've completed graduate-level coursework in Jewish education. I've lived in Israel. So, Boaz not getting into to this particular school -- especially with all the noise made in the Jewish community about the importance of Jewish education -- felt like a real slap in the face. But more so, I was heartbroken that Boaz was being deprived of an educational and cultural opportunity that I believed he so richly deserved. He loves baking Hamantaschen, he loves lighting the Shabbat candles. At the risk of sounding infantile, it just didn't seem fair.
And so, after the urge to stock up on mayonnaise and white bread `a la Woody Allen in "Hannah and her Sister" subsided, after I took my 3-year-old daughter Ayla to Target and let her pick out an Easter basket and pastel candy (that'll show them!), after I briefly considered letting the Mormons who rapped on my door every Saturday morning into my house or, even better, taking the Scientologists up on their offer of a free personality test, after I blasted Marvin Gaye's "His Eye is On the Sparrow" on my iTunes (belting out all the Jesus parts), after I ate an entire wedge of Trader Joe's brie on kosher bagel chips and left a weepy message on my therapist's voicemail, I calmed myself down and considered our other options.
Boaz can't exactly articulate where he wants to go, and in picking for him a Kindergarten I am forced to make the distinction between what I want for him and what he really needs. I know what Boaz needs -- encouragement, the freedom to be himself, an enthusiastic, über cool teaching staff that doesn't rely on any preconceived notions of how children are supposed to behave -- but the challenge is finding an educational environment that provides all these things. The challenge is in finding a school that wants Boaz.
I could send Boaz to the local public school. The obvious upside, he's been accepted. And it's free. And I've heard some pretty great things about the school from other moms who send their kids there. The downside, Boaz would be one of 25-30 kids in a classroom -- and with budget cuts, little if no individualized attention. I could 'Like' the LA Jewish Homeschooling page on Facebook, or look into the local Waldorf, or as one reader brightly suggested after reading my last blog, send him to the Churchill School in upstate New York where Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick send their kids. "You'd be one degree from Kevin Bacon," my friend Steven pointed out.
The thing is, Principal X was probably, if not right, than at least realistic about what her school could offer Boaz in the way of emotional and educational support. That's the school's deficiency, not Boaz's. Had he been accepted, and attended, it might have been a disaster. And the good news is that Los Angeles is a big city and there are dozens of Jewish day schools, and maybe someday Boaz will go to one. Maybe he'll go to another private school, or a public school. Maybe Boaz will thrive in a pubic school setting, with its myriad after-school activities like Mad Science and Spanish club. Maybe it will take us two or three kindergartens before we find the right match. Maybe he'll drop out and become a rock star at seventeen or maybe he'll pen a New York Times best-selling memoir entitled "Confessions of a Jewish Day School Reject".
Maybe in the long run, I keep trying to tell myself, where Boaz goes to kindergarten or where he doesn't won't make much difference at all.