Buckaroo Banzai and Choosing the Right School for Your Child

How to choose the right school for your child - happy girl goes to high school with her friends“No matter where you go, there you are.” The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (motion picture) (1984).

In our hunt for the right high school, it is easy to lose sight of this fact, which is why this quote is currently posted on my bathroom mirror.

A year ago, when friends and family asked me what we thought our eldest daughter would do for high school, my basic reply went something like this, “Oh, I’m not worried about that yet. We have time. I just want her to enjoy her middle school experience right now. We’ve been so happy with it that I’m sure she’ll end up exactly where she needs to be for high school.”

Several months ago, I began to feel the stirrings of anxiety in my gut as I listened to the buzz of her friends’ parents discussing the merits and drawbacks of various schools they were considering. The stirring occasionally morphed into whisking as I perused emails regarding open houses and the central website for independent school applications, noting deadlines and recommendations and tests to be taken.

Numbers began to rule my sleeping hours — swirling digits of tuition, enrollment numbers, teacher/student ratios. I repeatedly reminded myself to breathe.

Over the past few months, we have visited schools, met with administrators, and picked the brains of other students and their families. Our daughter has taken the ISEE (Independent Schools Entrance Exam) and written carefully crafted essays to apply to two schools and is set to finish two more applications any day now. My husband and I have read mission statements and extolled the virtues of our firstborn child on paper and weighed pros and cons late into the night.

The process has been overwhelming and exhausting. My daughter got to the point where she refused to entertain questions from anyone about next year. She had had enough.

In the spirit of being fully informed, I have continued to solicit insight from others, but I’m learning that this continued exploration serves mostly to freak me out and will likely make little difference in the end. You see, people either want to tell you about the amazing school they attended/their kid attended/their friend teaches at or the horrid rumors of drugs/alcohol/bullying at School X.

teenagers looking at cell phoneSo far, I’ve heard perfectly terrifying stories about each and every school we’ve considered, both public and private. I have listened to the story of so-and-so’s daughter who was bullied so much that she committed suicide, heard about the kids who have so much money and freedom that they throw wild parties with drugs and no parental supervision. I’ve heard about promiscuous teens and alcohol consumption, and I’ve sat with rapt attention as others praised the virtues of “the best school EVER” and “the most AMAZING teachers!”

For each school we’ve considered, depending on whom I’m with, I have heard both frightening and uplifting anecdotes. It is increasingly difficult to sort truth from rumors to determine whether people are trying to influence our decision or simply gossiping.

I could go on weighing options forever. I could continue to believe that there are “good” and “bad” schools out there and give myself an ulcer as I search frantically for the perfect place for my daughter. In the middle of March when the letters from schools start rolling in, I could panic, my head full to bursting with plusses and minuses. I could lay out the case for or against each school, believing that there is a logical answer, a “right” answer.

Fortunately, this quote from Buckaroo Banzai allows me to pull back my focus and get perspective. I am reminded that what is important is not everyone else’s impressions (or rumors) of particular schools, but what we as a family think and feel. I am reminded that this decision, while it is important, is not as terrifying as I have let it become inside my own mind.

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

The truth is, my daughter’s basic character is not likely to be dramatically changed by the school she attends. Mine wasn’t. There were kids in my high school, oh-so-many-years ago, who did drugs or drank or shoplifted for fun.

There were teachers who wanted nothing more than to collect their paychecks and go home and others whose passion for educating kids dictated that they dedicated the vast majority of their waking hours to teaching.

There were peer counselors who would bend over backwards to make you feel welcome or listen to you talk about a rotten day and other students who would prank you in the halls and mock you mercilessly in the cafeteria at lunch.

There were hardworking, diligent students and those who couldn’t care less.

happy student girl at the libraryThere is no such thing as a school that is all bad or all good. The most important thing I can do for my daughter is recognize who she is and how she learns and find a school that will set her up for success.

The decisions she makes over the course of four years in high school will speak more about her individual personality and our parenting style than it will about the halls in which she walks five days a week.

So what it comes down to is this: our choice of schools has to be more about our daughter than the school itself. This is true of schools everywhere: preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, even colleges.

The trick to finding the right fit is to know your child. List your child’s talents and the things she struggles with most and the values your family holds most dear. Keep that list in your hip pocket. That way, when someone starts telling you about how “that school is so full of cliques,” or “I’ve heard there’s a nasty drug problem at _______,” you can ask about the teachers or the programs for special needs kids or the community service opportunities.

Truly, each and every school has good teachers and not-so-good ones, bullies and mean girls and kids who make questionable choices. But if my kid is in a place whose values and educational philosophy align with our family’s principles, she can be tested by those things without getting derailed.

There is no such thing as a perfect school, but we can do ourselves a favor by ensuring that we find one whose mission feels right to us as well as remembering that no decision is forever. If it turns out that one place isn’t what we thought it was, there’s always next year, and while I don’t relish the notion of going through this process all over again, if I have to, I will at least have learned a few things from our first go-around.

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