Reading, Writing and Please Sign Your Check

The application was pretty standard in many regards. I entered the usual personal information like name, date of birth, home address and phone number and prepared to submit the thing. 

But there was one more requirement: The $100 payment.

No, this was not an application something like a membership at the local swim club. This one-time, non-refundable deposit was the fee required to apply to one of our nearby private high schools that charges $50,000 a year for tuition for our daughter to attend starting next fall.

That is, the school will charge us $50,000 a year, if…

—Our daughter gets in, and..

—We don’t mind living off rice and beans, rarely turning the lights on or using any major appliances, and never taking a vacation beyond our back deck for the next six years (because, in two years, our younger daughter could be going through this exact same process.)

Of course, there is the potential that we will get enough financial aid for our kid to attend this school’s hallowed halls. And by “enough” I mean, “About 94.7% of that $50K bill.”

And this is only one of the private-school applications my wife and I are wrangling with right now. Like nearly every other 8th-grade parent I have talked to over the last four months, we are applying to the local Catholic high school. This place is a little more reasonable in that it charges “only” $23K for next year. My daughter and I recently took separate parent and student tours of this place. To me, it was like going to Disneyland for the first time.  I knew my kid’s thoughts when, after she got done with her tour, she found me and whispered one word into my ear:


And these are just the private schools where we are applying. We have also visited two public high schools here in Oakland that we are willing to have our daughter attend. (Actually, these are the only two public schools in Oakland where, because of logistics and reputation, we are willing to send our daughter next year

For a public-school kid from Puyallup, Washington, the process of sending my kids to school in 2023 is equivalent to, oh, I don’t know, trying to take a football team that was 4-12 last year and get them into the Super Bowl. The work involved is more than you can imagine, and there is still no guarantee you will get to where you want to be no matter your efforts or intentions.

Back when my brother and I were growing up, you just went to the closest school to where you lived. For us, that was Ballou Jr. High, which was probably two miles away from our house, and then Gov. John R. Rogers, which was literally across the street from us. I got up the first day of school and just showed up.

And I know for a 100% fact that my parents in no way filled out any kind of application for us to attend our local public schools. And I also know with 1,000,000% certainty that the phrase, “Should we look at private school?” never entered the conversation that they (never had) on that potential subject.

Now, I get that today things are different regarding school in general. This is 2023 and not 1983, when I started my sophomore, and first year of high school. For starters, where I grew up, high school was 10th through 12th grades. My freshman year, 9th grade, was part of junior high. Our grades that year counted towards our high school records, but for all practical purposes, we were not in high school at all. Today, the freshmen head right off to the same place as the seniors on the first day of school.

And, like I said two paragraphs ago, there was no debate about, handwringing over, or general research into where we were going to high school. For example, no one took into account things like demographics of the student body; for us, there really was little in the way of demographic breakdown among the students in Puyallup, Washington, as probably 98% of the 1,500 kids at our high school were White. That was the neighborhood. Today, school lotteries are the norm in many places, like Oakland. Your kid might not end up going to their local school, or your top choice. The schools we visited were quick on the draw to display pie graphs of the make up of their students bodies. And whatever their reasons might be, parents do look at that stuff when picking a school for their kid who, of course, is destined to be the next corporate titan, U.S. President, or Beyonce.

Student violence and crime also were barely considered. We had a school “Security Official” at out high school who looked like she could have been anyone’s mom. Her main job was occasionally looking into the girls’ bathrooms to see if anyone was sneaking a smoke in there. Of course, like almost all high schools in the 80s, anyone wanting grab a cigarette would just go out behind the auto shop and leave the bathrooms alone.

Today? Well, a couple of weeks back, we heard about one student stabbing another in the parking lot of one of the public high schools here that is on our short list. And forget about kids sneaking cigarettes in the bathrooms these days. On a recent school tour, I stepped into the school theater men’s room and came out craving a bag of Fritos due to the very, very, very recently weed that had just been blazed up in there. I didn’t catch a kid in the act, but there was circle of kids in a the theater lobby doing some kind of “Wellness Week” activity, so do the math. 

It’s now early February, and the school applying process has been going for a couple of months. And it will be about another six weeks before we get word about which public school our daughter gets into, whether she gets accepted at the private schools where we applied, and if we get any kind of possible financial aid in the matter. The decision is out of our hands. We’re just waiting to find out if we have to open our checkbook when the school bell rings.

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