After tearing a check smoothly out of the pad along the line of perforation, I handed it to the admissions director along with the rest of our application paperwork.
Although it is a cliché to say someone’s eyes got big in surprise, my daughter’s eyes did get big, and she was surprised. What surprised her was the size of the check, which was written for an amount in the hundreds of dollars. For a 12-year-old, who saves allowance and gift dollars for a year to buy something costing $100, well …
“That’s a lot of money,” she said.
Nodding, I couldn’t resist the parental urge to put the expense in perspective for her. “It is a lot of money,and tuition will be way more than this. Next time you see your Omi and Opa, you’re going to owe them a big thank you.”
Still looking shocked, Isabella answered my nod with a shake of her head. “You don’t have to spend that kind of money on me.”
“This is what private school costs.”
“I can go back to my old school,” she offered.
“Remember what last year was like?”
She stood up straighter, getting that tough look on her face that I have learned is more a mask than a shield. “Magical girls suffer,” was her response. “If they can do it, I can do it. I can learn to suffer like them.”
Now, unless you’re a fan of anime and manga (or love someone who is) you may not recognize or understand the reference. Knowing my daughter as a self-proclaimed fan girl of the Puella Magi Madoca Magica series of graphic novels and animated shows from Japan, I did know what she was talking about. However, it wasn’t until that moment that I started to understand why she resonated so strongly with these characters.
She identifies with their suffering, I thought. Catharsis.
Last year my daughter started middle school, and I could see that from the point of view of my daughter and a great many other adolescents, middle school can be seen primarily as a place not of education but of suffering. Sorry if that sounds like a melodramatic overgeneralization, but surely you remember something of your own experiences from that time of your life.
Everyone hates me.
Excuse me. I just realized that I opened the book of this story and started reading from left to right, as if I were reading something written in English. But we’re talking manga here — Japanese graphic novels — and that means we started the story at the end. Let’s flip to the back (which is really the front, because kanji script reads from right to left) and start at the beginning of the story of my daughter’s middle school experience.
Because we live in a suburban school district, I hadn’t been too concerned about the quality of my daughter’s education. Her elementary school experience was — for the most part — excellent. There were a couple of plot complications. In one chapter, she neglected to learn her multiplication facts in third grade (or rather, she learned them long enough to pass the tests and then immediately forgot them), so we introduced some new characters called “tutors” into the story for a year or so. And then there were the pictures that pushed the limits of public schooling’s overzealous enforcement of zero-tolerance policies. Did I mention that my daughter is a good artist with a wild imagination?
I remember the first time this became an issue. It was late fall, almost Halloween. Her second-grade teacher drew me aside and said she needed to talk with me about a math assignment my daughter had completed that day.
The assignment had been to illustrate a character throwing an item into a witch’s cauldron, which would magically double whatever was thrown in.
“First of all,” the teacher told me, “I have to say that her understanding of the mathematical concept is impeccable. But the art … “
She held it up for me to see in all its gory glory. There was a ghoul working at the window of a drive-through restaurant called the Chop Shop. (Remember, it’s almost Halloween, and my daughter had been seeing decorations everywhere. I think the butcher shop at our grocery store even had a festive Halloween sign hanging over the counter that read “Chop Shop.”) Anyway, the ghoul had a butcher’s cleaver in one hand and was tossing a severed hand into the cauldron. On the other side of the cauldron were neatly doubled piles of severed human hands. Serious stuff. Feeling a bit like Morticia Addams, I resisted the urge to smile.
Evidently the staff at school was concerned about the implied violence in this scene. People in our family must have a morbid sense of humor, though, because everyone — including the grandparents and the elderly great aunts — got a good laugh out of Isabella’s illustration.
A few years later — after vampires had been popularized by the Twilight series — my daughter drew a picture of herself as a vampire with a graveyard behind her. All the tombstones in the graveyard bore names of her school friends.
“But they asked my to put their names into the picture,” she protested, when I asked her to please lay off drawing this kind of thing at school, as it seemed to disturb her teachers (who thought her classmates might take the drawing as some sort of implied threat that my daughter wanted to drink their blood and give them eternal life). I asked around. Apparently vampires were so popular that when her friends saw what she was drawing, they begged to have their names put on the gravestones so they could be in the picture, too.
Anyway, I seem to have diverged into some sort of prequel or sidebar in the graphic novel of my daughter’s middle school experience. As I said, for the most part her experience in elementary school — which she attended from kindergarten to fifth grade — was excellent. And then it came time to start thinking about the transition to middle school, which — in our district — is grades six through eight.
My first concern arose when I saw the attendance map. Almost every one of the students my daughter had known for all these years would be transferring to the middle school north of us. Only a handful would be transferring to the middle school to the south.
I remember thinking, Uh-oh.
My daughter is such a social person, and the district was going to separate her from most of her friends. Anyone who knows young people of this age knows how important their social group is to them. To say that the social group is sometimes more important than family at this time of life is not a great exaggeration. After all, the job of these young people is to begin psychologically separating from their families, and — in the process — they rely on their friends.
It will be okay, I lied to myself. Her best friend is transferring with her, and they’ll make new friends.
My husband and I discussed our concerns but decided it would all be okay, because our daughter was a smart girl with educated, supportive parents. Surely she would thrive in middle school.
But then — like a newly pregnant woman seeing other pregnant women everywhere — I started picking up on mentions that people made of the middle school our daughter would be attending.
“Oh,” I would say. “That’s the school my daughter will be going to in the fall. What did your child think of it?”
Did I already say, “Uh-oh”? Uh-oh.
Only one person had a positive experience to relate. One mother said she’d sometimes cried herself to sleep, grieving about the way her child was treated. Another parent said his child cried a lot when she attended that middle school. Another mother said her daughter had attended eighth grade there then moved on to high school, warning her mother, “Don’t let my little brother go there. It’s an awful school.” They moved so as to get out of that attendance area. Another mother I spoke with said they moved, as well, for a similar reason.
It will be okay, I lied to myself. She is a smart girl with an educated, supportive family.
When school started, my daughter was so excited. We practiced opening the lock for her locker until she could do it quickly enough to grab her books between classes. We shopped for cool clothes. She attended the orientation week for sixth-grade students before the older children started.
“Don’t worry about them,” the school staff told us. “We keep the sixth-grade students in a separate part of the school where they never encounter the older students. You don’t have to worry.”
Worry? I should be worried about the older students?
On back-to-school night, I recall pointing out my daughter, who was chatting excitedly with one of the boys she knew from elementary school.
“She’s going to be one of your best students,” I told the counselor. “She’s so excited about starting middle school here.”
Okay, here is where we pretend this is an anime on DVD, and we’re going to call up the menu and skip ahead a few weeks or scenes.
My daughter cried a lot.
“Give her a couple months,” the school staff told me. “The transition is hard at first, but by Christmas time, she should be well adjusted to the new routines.”
My daughter had never been in trouble in elementary school (except for the bit about the pictures, which I mentioned in the prequel, but that was all just a big misunderstanding). She was a good student, and she really wanted to do the right thing. But suddenly, in middle school, teachers and staff were threatening her with detentions on almost a weekly basis. Several times she even got sent to the assistant principal’s office, and I received a phone call.
“Mom, I’m in trouble again.”
Usually it was because she’d been a minute or two late to class. So I walked the halls with her after school with the stopwatch on my cell phone running, and we found that if she walked briskly, it was indeed possible for her to get to class on time … so long as she did not stop to chat with her BFF.
Oh, did I mention that not only did the district transfer her to a middle school with very few members of her social network, but that they also separated the best friends from each other and just about everyone else they knew, putting them on different teams without classes or lunch together? The only time they could see each other and debrief about all that was happening to them during the day was during passing period.
Gee, and they wonder why she’s not making it to class on time?
When I scheduled an appointment with the school counselor assigned to my daughter and about 400 other kids, that woman didn’t even know who my daughter was. She certainly didn’t know my daughter was still crying almost every day, even though it was well after Christmas time.
The mother of my daughter’s BFF also went in to talk with the counselor, for similar reasons.
Both of us had similar experiences there. The counselor was a very nice woman who oozed sympathy. But — so sorry — there was nothing she could do.
“You’ve been so busy finding everything you think she’s doing wrong that she’s starting to believe she’s a bad kid,” I told her and the assistant principal, who should have been getting to know my daughter by now, because she was in his office often enough. “She’s not a bad kid. Please, I ask of you, can you try to find at least a few things she’s doing right?”
Looking around the office as we were talking, I suddenly realized something. Unlike my daughter’s elementary school, where every wall and desk was decorated with student art, schoolwork and awards, there was no sign of student achievement in the middle school office. There were a few bored looking kids in trouble seated at desks facing the walls waiting for their turns to speak with one of the assistant principals. There was the principal who walked through the secretaries’ area quickly to his office without making eye contact with anyone (so very different from my daughter’s elementary school principal, who always seemed to find time for students and family members). And there was a huge attendance chart. Punctuality and attendance seemed to be very important in this school. Very important.
Let’s skip ahead again. If you’re reading the manga, you can page through to the last chapter of my daughter’s middle school experience. If you’re watching the anime version, you can use the menu to navigate to the final scene.
By the end of sixth grade, here are some of the most important lessons my daughter had learned:
- You have to be tougher and meaner than everyone else in order to protect yourself.
- Even if you’ve been computer literate for years, if the teacher says you have to label a worksheet with the components of a computer (This is the monitor, this is the mouse …) you have to do it, or you’ll get in trouble, even if you would really prefer to be watching that cool tutorial on how to write binary code.
- One way to escape is to run away from home.
- To think that you’re a bad kid.
- To think that the world would be better off without you.
- How to be punctual.
- The importance of perfect attendance.
- The importance of taking state standardized tests.
- How to keep everything inside and suffer in silence like a brave magical girl.
When I realized the enormity of what had happened to my daughter in that public middle school, I swore that she would never step into it again. My husband agreed. We had to find another place for her to learn.
After my daughter and I discovered a small private school that we liked, I took my husband on a tour. As soon as we walked out, he said, “Her old school felt like a prison and this place feels like being in someone’s living room. Let’s enroll her now.”
Of course, there was the small fact that we couldn’t afford it. Which is where Omi and Opa come in.
Thank you, Omi and Opa!
And here I am at the end of my daughter’s public school story, tearing a check out of the pad along the line of perforation.
Do you hear it? That is the sound of us separating our daughter from a place where she was treated so poorly and transferring her to a place where she does not have to be afraid of the older students. At her new school, the older students were in charge of new-student orientation on the first half day. At her new school, the teachers and staff are not spending the first two weeks of the year drilling students on the rules and catching kids being bad. Instead, every time my daughter turns around, the teachers at her new school are catching her being good. Of course, they are also challenging her in many ways, including academically. You know, I just realized that most of what she read in communication arts last year were little stories written by curriculum experts. Yet this year, in the first week and a half, she has already read a short story by Amy Tan and poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Like all adolescents — like everyone — my daughter still has bad days. But she’s getting back to her goofy self again. She smiles when I pick her up from school. She’s making new friends. The first day, when I picked her up, she even told me, “I think this year is going to be fun!”
Our lives are not totally separated from the public schools, though. We’re still keeping in touch with old friends. Just last weekend, we had a slumber party with a house of girls who found a frog in the front yard (no you can’t keep it in a glass bowl) and discovered a new taste sensation (pickles dipped in Nutella).
No, our life is not completely separated from the public schools. We still care about others who go to school there. And we still pay taxes … on top of our tuition.
My daughter’s Opa gave her a little speech when she thanked him for paying that tuition, saying he is happy to help her attend a good school. But he also told her that eventually she will need to learn to handle the rough stuff that life throws her way. I agree. Later. There will be time for that later. It’s fine with me if my daughter still wants to be a magical girl. But I’d rather that she — at the age of 12 — learn about suffering through reading rather than experiencing it in the public schools.
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
– Emily Dickinson