by Emma Parry
It’s impossible to talk about privilege without collapsing into platitudes, but that doesn’t stop a parent pondering what might give their kids an edge—which education and experience will truly prove an advantage in an age of ever-accelerating change, threats of environmental Armageddon, and proliferating chaos.
In less extreme scenarios, our kids will be competing for college with continents of kids we never had to contend with, and, when it comes to jobs, with robots. Of course, any choice is a luxury relative to less privileged others, but that’s no excuse for complacency.
Some people think New York City offers the best of everything—the epitome of privilege. But you can’t envy residents anywhere neuroses are so contagious. The competitive pressure to trend, enhance, and excel in every area is relentless. Parenting is either outsourced or an exhausting performance sport and whether it’s birthday parties or just stuff, there’s a constant inflation of expectations.
At the ground level, it’s hard to relish kids taking their first independent steps in a city where the teaming streets stink of wet dust and dog doo. Plus it’s boring overhearing the endless loop to parents’ conversations about real estate, money, and kids’ medication for behavioral difficulties.
While our daughter was still small enough to be confined to a sling, we would linger after hours outside what appeared the most desirable solutions to school available, while I wondered if I could imagine us there. The wraparound blacktop and a glimpse of a Bassett-sized rat put me off even the best of them (conveniently, this was before I had to admit the prohibitive fees and constant pressure to write fundraising checks anyway made the prospect that much more impossible).
More importantly though, with everything so streamed in New York City, we didn’t feel we could do it our way, as if it were all new, and not a series of well-worn grooves. I think we needed that freedom to feel life was ours to forge—and that we found in the Hudson Valley.
Educationally, the pressure lifted immediately the minute we left the city. We found a magical pre-school in Woodstock , Supertots, run by a singular eccentric, who had somehow retained a level of pep inaccessible to most people of 20. Completely beloved by generations of kids and their parents, Cheryl Chandler sports size 10 feet in fluffy purple slippers and holds students and their families to elevating standards. A good bit of the school has three feet ceilings and is perfectly furnished in miniature—sofas, pianos, tea sets—everything scaled to suit a two year old (which made kids thrive before your eyes). Science lessons were held in a tree house; the kids grew their own berries and vegetables and went sledding in the schoolyard each winter. It was a lucky and happy beginning. When I think of those little kid years there, the memories come at me like confetti.
When it came to elementary school we listened to the one parent from Supertots who didn’t seem depressed by what was next, and made our way down Route 209 to High Meadow School. The pretty brick mansion is framed by trees, the playground lined with woodchips and hay. As we first arrived on campus, a cowbell rang for recess and kids came spilling out, skirts and scarves whirling and wheeling in the sunshine. A bunch of girls settled on top of the monkey bars like some exotic flock of birds. Another group of kids were building a big village out of sticks. I’m not kidding. Even eighth graders were running like actual kids. The school was literally a dream come true; I had dreamed about a timber-beamed assembly room and felt a happy flash of recognition to find that was what they had. The school was an impractical distance from home—35 minutes—and the fees would always be hard to find, but once we’d seen it we were bound to make it work.
Those High Meadow teachers were like rock stars, glowing with energy and vocation—and it was the happiest campus I could imagine. It was an independent progressive school which basically seemed to mean you had to call the teachers by their first names, and it was all about being nurturing and non-competitive and curating your own pace because the student was the center of the learning experience, and sure they played sport but mostly things like Capture the Flag where there’s a flag for everyone. Maybe because there were no arbitrary rules to beg rebellion, discipline never seemed an issue.
With no testing, there were times the whole slow schooling thing felt worrying (what if what that was actually about was over-attached parents), but the education was so considered, and the girls seemed to retain and enjoy everything they were taught, plus the parent body was such a lovely one to be in—the school community truly a secular church—that leaving was out of the question.
Except making money in Ulster County isn’t easy. Time came we had to be nearer to the city, and that coincided with being ready for the girls to get measured academically. We crossed the river to Rhinebeck School District.
Growing up in England watching American TV, US public school always seemed very scary. As a teen, I happily rough camped through Africa for a year, but nervously declined the chance to spend a semester in the American school system. With its endless epoxy hallways, queen bees, and bullying, American public school felt like the place you would see just how mean kids could be.
Thankfully we’ve had none of that. And for all the riveting differences between the schools and parent bodies across the River, the teachers are as energetic, accessible and committed as I could ever hope they’d be. Perhaps because I was taught by nuns and academics for whom teaching could only ever be a necessary evil, I love that I see that certain feeling in teachers here that they’re doing the right thing.
Who doesn’t sooner celebrate a thing than feel afraid of jinxing it? There is a particular terror in even momentary complacency over parenting. I touch wood to placate fate as I say: this is an amazing place to raise children. Touch wood, I love who’s doing the schooling here.