The Inexhaustible Variety of Life: an Essay about School Confusion
I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow. (E.L. Konigsburg)
In 2001 I got a tattoo.
I was not sober. My father had passed away the year before, I was bored and lonely and my best friend from college wanted to meet in Athens for the weekend. So we got a little bit drunk, and then we got tattoos.
According to the experts who study this kind of stuff, people with tattoos are 7 times more likely to die a violent death. If I had known this in 2001, after an itchy sort of week and God knows how many vodka cranberries, would I have gotten one? Would I have ever had the idea in the first place to walk through those glass doors, to turn through the pages of cartoons and roses and panthers (a surprising amount of panthers) and decide rather mindlessly upon a symbol that means something I cannot for the life of me recall?
Of course I don’t actually see myself dying this way. I hope not, anyway. I mean, I live in the suburbs for goodness sakes. But the odds are there. Apparently I am forever lumped in with the subset of the general population that enjoys living recklessly.
I don’t think of my tattoo very often. It is partially removed and usually out of sight. Every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of what’s left of it. Hanging on like the rumors of who I was before I met myself.
But I do think about it when I think about trajectories. The progression that becomes inevitable given the momentum we’ve gathered by the choices we’ve made. Those irreverent, yet benign, decisions that take us from point to point. Some by effort and others by oversight. A lifespan consideration of the forest and the trees.
An afternoon in 1950-something when someone asked my father if he wanted a cigarette. A choice. A path laid plain. And 40 years later he was gone. My brother walked me down the aisle.
I realize it isn’t nearly that simple. But if that is how it ended then exactly when and where it started becomes incredibly significant. And if you look at it this way, maybe every life event has an origin. A beginning. The point at which our choices would yield an outcome.
That is certainly the poster-emotion of parenthood; the feeling that no decision is unimportant, even when they are. Because when you are making decisions on behalf of someone else, it just gets kinda heavy.
Lately the confusing, confounding, head-aching decisions are relative to education.
Applications for magnet and charter schools were due a few weeks ago. The administrative offices needed paperwork that you would expect: immunization records, proof of residency, and a creative blurb about why you want to attend the school. We love our school and have had amazing teachers and a generally excellent experience so I really don’t know why I would want my children to go anywhere else. I’m not sure that I do. I think I just want to explore the options because I like lying awake at night thinking about things I can’t control.
Public schools, private schools, charter schools, magnet schools. Home school (probably not). If they must be in an environment for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 and a half months out of the year: where should it be and why?
It is thoroughly mind-racking. And I could make it about all the different offerings and opportunities: Constructivist classrooms. Field trips that require a passport. Whole-food lunch options. Coastal Environment focused curriculums. Charleston County’s Teacher of the Year! But honestly it’s just about me and how scared I am to make this decision for them.
I am the product of 13 years of private, college-preparatory, fine arts education and I’m pretty sure I’ll have mixed feelings about it for the rest of my life. The education and the opportunities provided to us were truly remarkable but we were so far removed from the uncomfortable. Like if you only read the first fifty pages of Gatsby and believed you were prepared for the discussion.
If I could boil my primary schooling down to its (retrospectively) most significant moments, it’s basically just: a handful of great novels*, Mrs. Dukes, that crazy field trip to Jekyl where I tried to mediate a fight and ended up getting kicked in the stomach, and a million PB&Js. I do remember loving our Audubon science project and the year after that, our Human Body project, but other than that I remember very little about what I “learned”.
So maybe the location of their education, at least for the time being, is not the big enormous thing I am making it into. At this point, nothing is static, nothing is absolutely immutable. There is no fixed trajectory.
There will be good years and bad years, amazing teachers and so-so teachers. Friends and frenemies. Days where nothing memorable happens and days where the world seems to shift underfoot. And I know that what I want for them most is the experience. Exposure to the ‘inexhaustible variety’.
Social-emotional challenges. Uneasiness that builds character. A shot at the gifted and talented program. A really really really good friend to sit with at lunch. A teacher they love that loves them back. The energy and wonder you feel when it all starts to click. That moment required reading ceases to be required.
I don’t just want them to observe life, I want them to participate in it, and that can happen anywhere.
And I feel like that is probably (maybe? hopefully?) what my tattoo says.
*A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Anne of Green Gables, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler