My kids are angry at me. Angry at me and Husband both. (That they’re angry at both is refreshing. Usually it’s just me.)

We told them yesterday that after the winter break they’re going to switch schools.

Husband and I are calling it a “mid-term correction” but the boys don’t appreciate the humor.

Here’s the thing: the boys are at a school here in Abu Dhabi that to the eyes of jaded New York public-school veterans like us looks like paradise: lots of patios and terraces, lovely playing fields, shaded areas where kids can sit outside and study.  Classes are small (no more than 20), elementary school teachers have classroom assistants five days a week, there are computer labs, and a swimming pool.  Amazing, right? Even more amazing? The school has virtually no poverty–it’s a private school and many people have the tuition paid by their employers. No one gets free lunch because no one needs it; there are no kids bouncing around in foster care programs; no kids come to school without having had breakfast; there are almost no students with IEPs. From my perspective as a former high school teacher, teaching at this place looks like a pretty good gig, like teaching at Patio Central.

The school organized a sixth-grade week-long trip to Turkey (the 7th grade went to Capodocia, the 8th grade to Thailand)–parents had to pay for this adventure, but what an amazing experience, right?

When we started the school, our hopes were high. We knew going in that the school was not perhaps as crazy-rigorous as the Tiger Mom Academy that they went to in New York (and let me be clear: they went to TMA because we couldn’t be sure of getting a variance for Caleb to his brother’s school; Liam was enrolled at this school for 6th grade because the school goes through high school and he would be guaranteed a spot. In other words, public school pragmatism drove our decisions, not a belief that eight thousand hours of homework is a badge of distinction.)

Anyway. Off they went on the first day of school, a bit nervous with the newness of it all and…it was fine.


Now, sometimes fine is…fine. And sometimes fine is not fine.

As it turned out, fine at Patio Central turned into dull. Boring. Homework got finished in an eyeblink; classrooms seemed devoid of  “differentiation,” or at least it didn’t happen in any way that our kids seemed to notice. (“Differentiation:” the bureaucratic way of saying give individual kids what they need to feed their minds.) Day after day, week after week…no spark, no “wow.” And we’re not saying we needed teachers to be putting on a song-and-dance revue here. We were just looking for one kid, one day, to come home interested in something other than what happened at recess. We hired a tutor to do extra math with both boys and you’d have thought we were offering to connect Caleb to a chocolate IV drip, he was that excited. When a seven-year-old boy is jonesing for a math tutor, you know that “fine” is not fine.

And yet. The boys started to make friends. Patio Central is close to our apartment. It’s an established school, been around for almost twenty years; it’s got a good reputation. It’s easy and comfortable; a little U.S. oasis in the middle of the Middle East.  Husband and I went round and round: what makes an “education?” Should we limit our definition of education to only what happens in the classroom? So okay, the classrooms weren’t hotbeds of dynamism.  Isn’t the sheer fact of living in another country an education, in and of itself?

I kept asking myself how we could ask the boys to undergo yet another change, after they’d handled this first big change so well.

And yet. We saw Caleb starting to talk about school being “lame” and saying that he didn’t need to concentrate on his handwriting or his punctuation because the teacher “didn’t care.” (And we saw no evidence to the contrary). We saw both boys getting terrific grades without really breaking a sweat, and while we are proud of the fact that despite all the changes in their lives they were able to get such excellent report cards, there’s something a little out of whack if a 6th grader can pull a 4.0 while spending maybe–maybe–30 minutes a night on his school work.

Well, yes, it’s true. My children are geniuses. They’re also magnificent humanitarians, infinitely kind to one another, and deeply concerned about the fate of the planet.

Or at least they would be, if they could stop trying to kill each other over whose turn it is to play “Age of Empires” on the computer.

On a whim last week, Husband and I went to tour the new K-12 British school that opened this fall. It’s very British, albeit housed in a brand-new sprawling faux-Spanish-tiled complex just outside of town. Kids wear uniforms; Prince Andrew visited last week. It’s got a lot to prove (it’s an offshoot of a big-name UK school) and wham, it seemed they had seats available for January; boom! the boys didn’t hate it when they went to visit!; zipzapzoop, they were admitted; and zing! the decision was made.

Because we are toys of the gods, however, on the same day that the boys got letters of admission to Neckerchief Prep, Liam made the soccer football team at Patio.  All he’s talked about from the moment he found out about Patio is making the school team…and now he was on the squad.  Now we’re supposed to say, “um, sweetie? Don’t get too attached to that football uniform…”

Argh.What do you do? What’s “best” in this situation?  People talk at business meetings about “best practices.” So what’s “best practice” here? Choose brand-new Neckerchief Prep because we think the classroom experience will be challenging and creative? Remain at Patio because, eh, it’s fine, and Liam is over the moon about being one of 5 sixth graders chosen for the middle-school squad?

Well, dear reader, Neckerchief won. We told the boys the other night and now…they’re mad. Not furious, but mad. And sad. And nervous about yet another change. Caleb said “mommy, I have a lot of feelings right now.” Fabulous that he can articulate himself but I gotta tell ya, in terms of acting on those feelings?  He might as well be Bette Davis telling us to fasten our seatbelts because it’s going to be a bumpy night.

We reassure the boys that this decision is for the best, that we know this shift will be hard but, in the long run, they will be happier at Neckerchief.

(what if we’re wrong?)


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