My son chose public school. I worried

Marni Jackson

National Post

The National Post asked eight "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the seventh in our series, which will run weekdays in this section until May 14.

- - -

With what mixed emotions I hear about other people's children, and their time at private schools -- the rowing teams, the elaborate production of West Side Story, the inspired (and well-paid) teacher who turned around a math-phobic daughter. Lucky them. Part of me resents these families for deserting our public school system, and another part, a quite sizeable one, still feels a pang. What did our son, a public school boy all the way, miss out on?

Private school was never seriously on our agenda (although it was always a little voice nagging away at the back of my mind, about the Road Not Taken). The most important reason for our non-decision was the fact our son did not ever want to go to a private school. (Inner voice: "But you don't know what you're saying no to.") His sense of indignation at social inequities and the gap between rich and poor was running at its highest pitch around the age of 13, when the choice of high schools came around. It just didn't make sense to him, growing up in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America, to learn about the world in an environment that would be mostly white, moneyed, and possibly single-gender too. His father, a graduate of Upper Canada College, agreed with him on this. ("But private schools are trying to be more diverse now.") Money was also an issue, as it is with most people. With two writer-parents, private school would have been a stretch -- doable, but a stretch. As for me, I harboured fantasies of the sort of public school experience I grew up with -- the smallish neighbourhood institution where you lucked into one or two outstanding teachers, walked home with your friends and never dreamed of changing schools. Call me pre-millennial, but I still believe in public education.

Well, those days are gone. Four years of pummelling by the Harris government, with budget bloodshed and curriculum chaos, have left the public system in Ontario almost unrecognizable. High-school students now migrate restlessly from big academic schools to small alternative ones, and back again, looking for something that no longer exists. Our son went through three high schools, and most of his friends moved at least once, looking for the right fit. But he is 18 now, doing well in his first year of arts and science at McGill -- not an easy school to get into. It was the public system, even battered and on the ropes, with its thinning ranks of teacher-warriors, that got him there. So it must be doing something right.

When I asked him if he had any regrets about the path he took, he recalled what Jarvis Collegiate was like in Grade 12, a year that coincided with the worst of the budget cuts and strikes.

"We barely had any sports or extracurricular activities in my last year. You just had the impression that things were on a steady path to hell. The teachers were worried and overworked, and the support staff was on strike a lot. There was a time when the school had to be closed down, as a health hazard." They were turbulent times, and looking back, he wishes he could have had a "simpler" high-school life. Nevertheless, he concluded, "I'm glad I went to public schools."

Although McGill is full of privileged students, he is still wary of the elitism of private schools. "Going to private school also means that you've lost faith in whatever is left of the public system. There's no reason why richer people should deserve a better education." Well, yes, but as a parent, one's ideals are often in conflict with the primal, apolitical urge to get your own child to the front of the line, and damn the consequences. But whenever I would tentatively raise the private-school issue, he was unwavering in his choice. "I wanted to be exposed to the wider world," he said, "and exposed I was."

Yes indeed. Fast-tracking through high school in four years, he ran the gamut of the Toronto public spectrum, beginning with Interact, a small school for students with extracurricular demands (i.e. fledgling careers, not that he had one) housed in Oakwood Collegiate, to SEED, a downtown alternative school, to Jarvis Collegiate, where he spent the last two years of high school. Jarvis prepared him well for college. There were wonderful, committed teachers in each of his schools and those teachers were the stepping stones that carried him across the tricky currents of adolescence and a system under siege. He did well in each environment, but, in our search for a school that could never exist, given the political environment, he missed out on the stability of staying in one place. I sometimes wonder if maybe that one good place would have been ivy-covered, and expensive.

And yet, and yet -- I will never forget one of the student programs he participated in at Jarvis. It was the last of a 25-year tradition, the famous "Mosaic" variety show, a showcase of the astonishing range of cultures and talents that come together in a school like this one. There were Tamil dances, a Cantonese choir, opera, hip hop, Latin salsa, with the occasional WASP songwriter thrown in. It was one of the most magical stage shows I've ever seen, high school or otherwise, and it could only have happened in a world-mirroring school such as Jarvis.

Diversity is not simply a floaty political ideal. It is an education in itself, shaping people in all sorts of ways. This year our son took an ecology class, where the notion of diversity has a different, but analogous meaning. "In ecology," he explained, "biodiversity is a good thing, and that's what you get in public school. It's healthy to have a big population with a wide range of individuals, each grouped in their own niches. It's also good to have a wide range of challenges and pressures (like the ones you get in public school), because it creates a population that can adapt more easily to other environments." The real world, for example.

Or, as one of his Jarvis teachers likes to say to his students, "A flexible mind never gets bent out of shape."

Go To The Next Article