Politics & Policy

The Upside of Public

Schooling in SoCal.

I recently went to a reading of my friend Sandra Tsing Loh’s new one-woman show Mother On Fire, which opens Sept. 30 at the 24th Street Theater near the University of Southern California. It’s about her nerve-wracking adventures trying to find a kindergarten, somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area, for her five-year-old daughter. Much of the piece skewers the precious mindset of the private school world of limousine liberals: “It’s become the party of the lactose-intolerant,” Sandra said to me recently, summed up (as she says in the show) in this shrill, four-word battle cry: “Dylan can’t eat dairy!

Not that Sandra, a public-radio commentator who was famously fired for (accidental) on-air obscenity last year, has really moved over to my side politically. When she makes fun of Democrats, it’s like Bill Cosby or Chris Rock making fun of blacks–it doesn’t mean she isn’t one herself. “We’re all Democrats here…” she said at the reading–then scanned the audience, paused, and added: “Well, except for Cathy, of course.”

That got a laugh, and I wonder how she’ll handle that line when the show opens and the public-radio-loving audience is 100-percent Republican free. After the reading, an older man smiled and asked me, “So are you the self-identified Republican?”

This was certainly a tactful way of putting it–the way you might ask if someone’s a self-identified Wiccan, or polysexual, or Martian. Such things are unlikely and bizarre, of course, but if she self-identifies, well, then let’s be sensitive about it, it’s the kindly Democratic thing to do. And I have to admit, we Republicans aren’t typically so sensitive or kindly.

Sandra said that indeed, several people whispered to her with disbelief after the show, “Is she really a Republican?” And as she noted to me later, such constant amazement at different points of view is one of the Democrats’ basic problems.

The next day Sandra came over to my house for lunch and noticed a picture on my office wall from the classic sci-fi/horror movie Village of the Damned, featuring those eerie, homogenously blonde children staring blankly at the camera.

“What are you doing with that class picture from the Brentwood Country Day School?” she asked.

All’s well that ends well, though. Because Sandra’s five-year-old starts public-school kindergarten next month, not far from home sweet home in the déclassé San Fernando Valley suburb of Van Nuys.

I’ve been rather up on public schools lately myself, because, as I mentioned in this space a couple of weeks ago, my 16-year-old daughter switches from private to public later this month for her senior year of high school; I was impressed with this local public high school, crowded and urban though it is, once I actually checked it out personally.

The private school my daughter had been attending from fifth through tenth grade, I should add, is not one of the exclusive ones. But I can’t claim to have been immune to the heady, social-climbing allure of elite private schools. A few years ago, I tried to get my daughter into Marlborough, a prestigious L.A. girls’ school for seventh grade. I remember how the screenwriter mom who led the parents tour chatted happily about how her daughter was now exposed to “the real world” thanks to this school: “Her first week here she left her wallet on top of her backpack in the hall and it was stolen!”

Hmm, I thought, I wonder where she’s going with this? “We have such a wonderful, diverse group of scholarship girls here,” the mom explained. “So that was certainly a life lesson for my daughter.”

Did I really think we’d fit in at a school so posh that stolen wallets are considered a fabulous extra benefit of diversity? By that time, I have to admit, I wasn’t thinking–so dazzled was I by the five years of Latin and glamorous aura of Gatsby-like privilege. I was ridiculously upset with the inevitable rejection letter came, but my daughter was unperturbed, although curious to see the letter herself.

“Do they stamp a big red ‘L’ on the outside of the envelope for loser?” she asked excitedly.

“No…” I sniffed, as my daughter laughed at my waterworks. “Here, if you really want to look at it.”

“Huh,” she said, tossing aside the letter after glancing briefly at the school’s best wishes for her future. “Well, screw them.”

Now that I’ve regained my sanity, I’ve been having a few laughs with Sandra lately at the expense of parents who can afford never to consider anything but private schools for their kids.

Earlier this summer, for instance, we were amused by Los Angeles Times foreign editor Marjorie Miller, who’d written a rather comfort-the-comfortable lament that her daughter (and other privileged children who go to the Oaks school in Hollywood) know about box-office grosses but not local real life. Not to worry, though–their hearts are still in the right place:

Like most Angelenos, the kids don’t connect the Hollywood of film with the Hollywood that surrounds them, the underbelly of tattoo parlors and drug-tinged nightlife. They generally do not see the low-income housing, even though they drive by it. They don’t notice the public buses they rarely, if ever, have taken. But when I point these out along with the immigrants waiting on street corners for a day’s work, they catch on quickly and press to give spare change to the homeless vets.

Because naturally every homeless guy who says he’s a veteran actually is, and the best way to help the homeless is to throw spare change at them. Chaw! Everybody knows that! Nauseating bonus: At the Oaks, kids refer to South Dakota as “some wannabe state.”

Now and then I wonder about all these journalists who can afford the fancier private schools, which are awfully hard to get into even for people with money and position. Maybe if more of them sent their kids to unfancy schools, readers wouldn’t think of big media as disconnected from reality and elitist.

After reading that Marjorie Miller piece, Sandra e-mailed me that she’d asked another Times editor, who lives in the pricey (but urban) Hancock Park neighborhood, why his kids go to private school. “And he said, ‘Because the corner school is bad–no one sends their kids there.’ I said, ‘Have you ever visited the school?’ and he was stunned. The thought had never occurred to him.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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