Last year, when my younger daughter graduated from high school, our family wrapped up fifteen years as participants at three different schools. We left with respect for the institutions, appreciation for some wonderful teachers, and with a few close friends among the parents we met. But we never really felt that we were part of a community. A lot had changed in the private school world in the decades since I’d attended one myself. In my childhood, before the word “parent” became a verb, parents were not so present at school. They might have gone to a volleyball game or attended a holiday assembly, but they weren’t there very often. In my first trip through that East Side school world, my parents saw a couple of class plays, came in for report cards, and attended graduation.
By the time my daughters entered school in the mid-1990s, educational institutions wanted parents to offer enthusiastic financial support; they wanted to attract a more diverse student body; they wanted to meet the high expectations of those who viewed the investment in a private school education as insurance for college admissions. School was meant not just for children, but also for whole families.
As my husband and I attended welcoming events at our daughters’ primary school, it seemed that being parents there would bring us into a dynamic community. On closer examination, we saw that the whole was divided into smaller parts. Like the tables in a high school cafeteria, they were well-defined and somewhat exclusive. My husband and I, who were older parents and lived sixty blocks south of the school neighborhood, weren’t especially distinctive in the qualities that seemed to create social alliances. We weren’t excluded; we just didn’t find a niche.
More important than how we felt in relation to the community was how our children fit in with classmates. And they really didn’t. In the first few years, my daughters each made a couple of good friends, but social life was arduous, in part because of our location far from school. We tried for play dates, but the only day that really worked for the trip downtown was Friday, and most of those invitations were not reciprocated. When a fourth grade teacher called to report that my daughter had been eating lunch alone, I looked outside of the school to find a positive social alternative for her.
My daughter’s true community became the New York City choral group that she joined. My younger daughter also joined, and then moved on to a theater group. Realizing that relationships based on common interests seemed to work best for us, I volunteered to work on a parent committee at school that was researching social and emotional issues. Joining that group, ironically, required some complicated social qualifications. So I found a special interest community outside of school at NYC-Parents in Action, in which parents from many different schools work together to promote parent education and connections.
My family let go of the ideal of community that we thought school would provide. When our children transferred to different upper schools, we entered past the stage when parents were constantly present for pick-up and drop-off and activities. We participated at both schools, attending events and programs, but didn’t expect the kind of involvement we’d anticipated before.
Not by design, we wound up treading lightly through our daughters’ school days. Our initial difficulty fitting in to the school culture made us resourceful about finding alternative communities among the rich offerings in New York. Our “good-bye” to schools was not invested with a lot of emotion and nostalgia but an anticipation of new places and experiences. And college, for both of my daughters, has turned out to be the kind of wonderful community we were seeking.
Aimee Garn is a writer and designer and a publisher of children’s books (www.prettypleasepress.com). She is the chairman of NYC-Parents in Action, Inc., (www.parentsinaction.org), having served as president for the past four years.