During our dinner on Saturday evening we got into the dangerous conversational territory of schooling in Altanta. As couples, MM and I have fairly different opinions from our dinner companions regarding the schooling of our children. We support our public schools and believe that if more and more ‘middle class’ families like ourselves support the state, public schools in the City of Atlanta the better they will become. Many other families in Atlanta use the good elementary schools but then send their children to private middle and high school which can cost around $20k per child per year. Our perspective is that with the five degrees we have between us, their exposure to international travel, and our general involvement in our children’s education – they will be just fine going through the Atlanta Public School system. However, when someone starts telling me how atrocious the high school is, I can’t help but question my decision. It always makes me revisit my schooling and wonder if things had been different would I have ‘turned out’ any different?
I was educated in the UK and my primary education was significantly different from my children’s. To begin with I was raised in a tiny village near Bury in Lancashire. There was one Church, a newsagent, a corner shop and a recreation ground and we lived in a 2 up 2 down terraced, stone cottage – all five of us! The primary school was across the street and there were probably only around 60-80 children in the whole school. Everyone knew everyone. I remember it fondly, though because the school was so small it meant you could never really avoid your nemesis. When I do look back I don’t ever remember being told, or feeling, that I was smarter than anyone else, or that I possessed any outstanding ability – in fact my Mum still tells me the story when one of my teachers told her I had ‘absolutely no number sense’. Maybe I didn’t back then but I ended up doing my Maths O’level a year early so I must have caught up…It just demonstrates how tricky it is to predict your child’s ability. Anyway at the age of 10 I was entered to sit the entrance exam for Bury Grammar School for Girls (BGSG). I think the intention was for me to have a practice run for the following year, and I’m sure Mum and Dad didn’t expect me to pass – but I did and I was accepted to enter into the last year of the preparatory school which basically meant I was a ‘shoe in’ for the senior school.
Hawkshaw Village Church
I remember being very excited – especially about the uniform as primary school hadn’t required one. I don’t ever remember thinking about the implications, for me or my parents, of leaving my little primary school a year early in order to attend a fee paying, all girls school in town. It soon dawned on me though in 1981 when I started my new educational chapter. My eyes were opened as I met girls of different backgrounds, races and religion. It took me a while to figure out why a number of girls went to different rooms for morning assembly – then one day I was informed they were off to Jewish and Muslim prayers. I had no idea what ‘being Jewish’ meant. My best friend was the daughter of a wealthy pediatrician and I remember going to her house for the first time – I never knew a girl could have so much ‘stuff’ of her own.
I’m never sure if I was genetically wired to be competitive or if BGSG developed it but I always wanted to do my best and be in the top of my class. I hated failure and though I was never reprimanded for an occasional crummy grade I carried the shame of it swearing next time would be better. Maybe it was the fact that we were all ‘high achievers’ – as we’d all passed the entrance exam we were all obviously relatively smart – so the bar had been raised and I had to step up my game. I also think girls versus girls made everything more intense as we couldn’t fall back on “well boys always do better in maths/science tests”.
Bury Grammar School (Girls)
I went through school never really being comfortable in my own skin – but who is with all that teenage angst? I moved from clique to clique never really feeling settled and I found my real happiness in studying. By this stage I think my Mum and Dad were somewhat out of their depth academically and with little parental involvement I did well in all my subjects. In my desire to feel included I auditioned over and over again for the school choir and finally the music teacher took pity on me. Everyone was in choir – all the cool girls – and the music teacher had amazing enthusiasm but executed favoritism like no other. She adored her ‘special’ girls – the rest of us were ignored, and a mild inconvenience. It was similar to that in P.E. – if you were anything less than brilliant at hockey or netball you didn’t stand a chance of being noticed. Now, as an adult, this behavior really bothers me – I actually find it strange that they were allowed to get away with it but then BGSG always needed to be seen as excelling, not just in academics.
Interestingly, I recently read Janet Lawley’s “A Ballet of Swans”, the previous headmistress’s tale of BGSG, from its founding to the present day. Though some of the references were familiar I have to say no fond feelings were awakened – it actually made me feel a little prickly that only 10% or so of the girls there when I was a student got the full support and attention that we all deserved. Elitism was rife and if you weren’t applying for Oxford or Cambridge at A’level time then again you really weren’t of much interest. Maybe I harbor some resentment as no one told what I needed to hear and what I tell my children every day – “you are more than capable, don’t be afraid”. If a teacher had just taken the time to tell me that in my moment of weakness then I may have taken a different path.
So was a private, all girls school good for me? Maybe it helped shape me and make me more competitive but I think I discovered my true self at University. Did I get a great education? Yes, but I never really knew what to do with it, we were given no life lessons. Were they happy times? They were okay, but I couldn’t wait to get as far away from everyone I knew when I went to University – I was the only one in my year that went to St. Andrews – and I was just fine with that.
Hence, when it comes to my children’s education my greatest concern is that they have the opportunity to discover their talents and be true to themselves – not what others think is ‘best’ for them. As a parent my role is to be hands on, without meddling and overly influencing their decisions based on my experiences. Crumbs – another parental challenge.