I did everything I could to change their minds. I sulked in my bedroom, listening to Screeching Weasel’s “I was a High School Psychopath” on repeat for days. I made it a point to bomb my final semester of eighth grade in the hopes that I would be deemed academically challenged. During family meals, I launched into earnest speeches on the merits of public school and the elitism of private education. Nothing worked. It was hopeless. My parents remained firm in their decision.
I placed the blame on my older sister’s shoulders. Michelle was a chronic overachiever — she even walked at eight months. She’s the one who, at age 12, planted the Nazareth seed in our parents’ minds. Mom later described their decision to send Michelle to the school as a way to ensure that she was a “big fish in a small sea.”
“Attending a school like Nazareth is important for my future,” Michelle whined in eighth grade. “Their small student body will give me an academic advantage.” She was already picturing what her college applications would look like — a cumulative 4.5 grade point average paired with extracurricular activities and a lengthy list of volunteer work. Her ultimate goal was simple: to be a filthy-rich adult. In her version of a bright future, she saw an Ivy League school, a high-paying career, a BMW, and children who wore sweater vests.
Dad loved the idea. He was a Catholic married to an atheist, and he jumped at the opportunity to undo Mom’s “hippie proselytizing.” Dad even took side jobs to cover the cost of Michelle’s tuition.
Meanwhile, I thought Michelle was a complete idiot. Thankful I didn’t inherit the gene that gave her that insatiable drive toward perfection, I was looking forward to attending the same high school my older brother had graduated from, a place free from dress codes and nuns, where students in pottery classes subtly shaped clay into bongs.
Instead, I ended up at Nazareth alongside Michelle.
On my first day of high school, students were allowed to be out of uniform. In place of the itchy plaid skirt, crisp white button-down blouse, and navy-blue V-necked sweater, I wore jet-black thigh-high tights, a short circle skirt, and a crocheted blouse paired with combat boots. I was going for an Angela Chase meets Liz Phair look, edgy with a hint of grunge.
While I was searching for my algebra class, a sweaty junior with a skinny peach-fuzz mustache took one look at me and snickered to his friends. He pointed in my direction and said, “Go home and listen to some Smashing Pumpkins, loser. We don’t do freaks at this school.”
I hated Smashing Pumpkins, but not as much as I hated Nazareth Academy.
Where Everyone Grew Up to Be Well-Adjusted Adults
When our son Andrew started kindergarten, he barely spoke, the result of numerous ear infections he had as a baby that had left him with hearing loss. My husband and I thought about holding him back an extra year, but his speech therapist assured us he was ready to start school. He attended Flying Hills, in the Fletcher Hills community of El Cajon. We loved the school, and he did great there for his two years.
When he was in second grade, we moved to Tierrasanta, and Andrew attended a new school in the San Diego Unified School District. I volunteered in his classroom, and I was alarmed at the way the children were treated like cattle. The teacher spent most of the day barking at her students in frustration. It wasn’t the right environment for my child. He was getting lost in the shuffle. I wanted more for Andrew.
My husband and I decided to look into other schools.
I found a charter school across the street from Balboa Park that seemed promising. It was artsy and had good academics. The day I visited, a handful of picketers stood outside with posters of aborted fetuses.
“There’s an abortion clinic nearby,” the school’s director explained. “We find it best not to engage them.”
After visiting a dozen more schools with no luck, we considered a small private school in Clairemont called Reformation Lutheran.
The school secretary had a thick Midwestern accent. She gave us a tour; the last stop was the second-grade classroom. The teacher, petite with a bob haircut, sat on a round rug, hands in her lap, crisscross applesauce, her students at her feet. She held the classroom pet, a mesmerizing African millipede, in her hands. The seven kids in her combined first- and second-grade room, watched as the arthropod’s legs slithered across the teacher’s palm.
She smiled up at us and introduced the students to Andrew. When the class broke for recess, a messy-haired kid sporting a mouthful of missing teeth invited Andrew to play on the playground. Within minutes he was clambering up the jungle gym and laughing with the other kids. It seemed unreal, as if we were on the set of a family movie, where everyone grew up to be a well-adjusted adult.
We enrolled him on the spot.
Six years later, Andrew is now graduating from that school. He is one of four in his graduating class. Two of his classmates will attend California Lutheran High School, a boarding school in Wildomar. The annual tuition, including board, comes to $10,350. Another kid is going to Foothills, a Christian school in El Cajon. He’ll attend class three days a week at a price tag of $5170 a year.
We can’t afford to send Andrew to a private high school. Besides, we still like the idea of public education. But we have concerns.
I worry that we’ve kept Andrew in a bubble too long and wonder if a large high school will be a shock to his system. I’m anxious about sending him to a place where he doesn’t know anyone.
My husband tells me I worry too much. “He’ll be fine,” he insists. “I went to public school, and I turned out okay.”