We have to find a middle school for Liam. His lovely neighborhood school ends at 5th grade, so we have entered the “middle school search.” (Cue ominous music here)

When the process started,  I thought, well, I’ve got a smart kid who “tests well” as they say, and so how hard can it be to find a middle school, really?

Um…needle? Haystack?

First of all, we’re looking in District Two, in Manhattan. If you look on that map (which I found not on the DOE site but an independent school search site)  you can see that the boundaries of District Two were drawn by drunks, or monkeys, or drunken monkeys. District Two stretches from 97th street on the East Side down to about Houston Street (about 100 blocks), then from 57th street down to the southernmost tip of Manhattan, with a little notch carved out for Chinatown, basically.  The boundaries make no geographic sense whatsoever.

Okay, you say, so it’s a big district. At least you have a lot of choices, and that’s a good thing, right? You’re not being shoveled into whatever school is nearby–you can find the school that’s the right fit for your kid.

True dat. Let me ask you, though: have you ever found yourself utterly paralyzed in front of the cereal selection (or the yogurt selection, or the bread selection) at the store? You read the labels and look at the prices and think maybe this one, maybe that one, maybe this one? Or what about in front of the haircare products? Maybe this one will make my hair bouncier, smoother, shinier.

Exactly. Now imagine yourself standing in front of a shelf of middle schools. Some get ruled out right away: too far away, poor academics, unsafe.  But that still leaves us with a shelf full of choices and it’s hard not to be all the wrong choice and he’s going to be living in a box under the Brooklyn Bridge…

So we–and all the other fifth grade families looking in District Two–go trooping off to tour middle schools. Because of course, that’s what we all have lots of time for: spending an hour, or two, at middle schools all over District Two, listening to principals extol the virtues of their schools. I’ve heard way more than I need to know about project-based learning, and collaborative learning, and student-centered learning… Here’s what we want: a clean building, challenging teachers, reasonable students, arts programs, a soccer team. classes with fewer than 30 kids in the class. Doesn’t seem like such an outlandish list, does it? I’m not asking that every student get an iPad or that the entire 6th grade gets flown to Italy to study the Renaissance or anything.

Apparently, however, this list is akin to the Grail: people claim to have seen this school, but no one can be exactly sure where, or if it’s still there.

Right. So I’m standing in front of my shelf of middle schools, hoping that somewhere on that shelf is the Grail School, and then the DOE in its infinite wisdom throws another wrench in the works.

The application process itself isn’t the same from school to school. We make a list, rank our top five choices, and then the schools contact us for more information. Some want an interview. Some want an interview and a test. Some want an interview and a test and a portfolio of writing. Some only want a portfolio. Some only want a test. Some want you to solve a problem in collaboration with four other applicants, while an administrator watches you work. Some want 4th grade test scores, some don’t.  And we go through all this mishegas in order to get what?

A seat in a class with …30, 32, 36, 38 other kids.

Got that?

It’s enough to make a person seriously consider robbing a bank in order to finance the $30,000 for private school. Of course, it would have to be ongoing bank robbery, given the pesky fact that tuition needs to be paid every year.

Middle school grail hunting started in late September. We file our list of five top choices in December. In February, applicants are called for interviews (or tests or portfolio discussions or whatever the hell a particular school requires: bathing suit competitions, perhaps).  Students are notified of the decisions sometime in late May.

After this process, applying to college is going to be a piece of cake.