Actual (Sort-of) Advice if You Have the Misfortune of Having an 8th Grader Applying to High School in NYC*

This is a semi-specific sort of post, except it's also not really. See, if you happen to live in New York City, and you have a child in 8th grade whom you plan on sending to public high school, you are right now gazing into a wide, hideous maw of despair. There is this matching/applying/testing/auditioning sort of process that is…well, it's bad. Really bad. It chips away at hearth, home, serenity, well-being, etc.

I went through it last year, and while we emerged and it's over and Diana is more-or-less-happily-(for-a-14-year-old) ensconced in a high school, it was pretty traumatic, and when I have a terrible cold and I can't sleep, I sometimes think about the people who have to go through it this year, and how tough it will be on them. And so I have come up with a list of things I think would have helped me, if I had been capable of being helped.

* I think perhaps maybe they're also actually things that would help in LIFE. Which is, in general, a lot better than applying to high school.

1. Get a buddy. Seriously, this was the only really helpful thing I did. It's excellent for the crazy time when it's 5:30 and you're across town from the stupid open house you were supposed to go to at 5, except you thought it was the east side, and you're on the west side, and you know your kid won't get in anyway because of the zone, but it's supposed to be really good, and…. Basically, you're in tears and your buddy will have gotten there on time and told you not to worry about it.

2. Don't be snarky. I go through life ready to scorn just about anything that comes before my eyes, but the truth is if you do this, you will hate everything and that feels terrible. There is ALWAYS something not to like, but your purpose is not to ferret out faults, but to find multiple schools that will feel OK to send your kid to. If you convince yourself you hate them all, then you are in a terrible situation where you hate all your options. Do you know someone who is positive and sees the good in things? Channel that person.

3. Don't get hung up on prestige. Seriously. It's a phantom, but it's such an enticing one! I mean, it exists, for sure—prestige does—and it's tempting to want to go only to places that everyone thinks are "the best," but truly it ends up being one of those desperate yearning/impossible to satisfy things, and it won't get you anywhere good mentally. Closely related to scorn, #2.

4. Be nice to your kid. When you're going through the high school process, your kid is probably 13 or 14. This can be…challenging. However, your kid is also being put through a truly terrible, damaging experience, and it hurts them. At every single high school event I went to last year there was at least one kid crying. CRYING. These are 13 year olds, they're not so keen on public crying generally, but the pressure was ridiculous. So even if your kid is driving you nuts by dint of being a 13-year-old, my extremely acute hindsight tells me that you won't regret doing nice things for him or her: a trip to the bookstore, a cup of hot chocolate, a movie. Especially after a truly heinous even (interviews, auditions, massive exams). You will end colluding with this terrible system in torturing your child; try to ameliorate the damage when/where possible.

5. Remember that it's possible to run off with your kid and live on nuts and berries. I'm not saying that you need to opt out totally and live in the wild with your kid and a stack of Russian novels, only to return for college. Though it is tempting. If you do it, I salute you. But offering yourself that possibility might help you find some sort of peace with the situation you're in.

6. Be nice to yourself. This is (for some) the hardest one. Everything comes under it, really: remembering that this is not the be-all and end-all, that your kid is awesome in ways only you know about right now, and that that's true no matter what happens. Call up your buddy and go out for delicious drinks and complain loudly about your plight. Talk about something else entirely (the economy! the election! what you're going to order!) and remind yourself about the wider world. Skip an open house and take a nap instead. The less insane you go, the better for everyone.

So I don't know: are these rules for life? Or just for applying to NYC high schools? I wish I knew. I wish I were actually able to take my own advice (I will need it again next year). I wish it weren't such a damnable system. But anyway, I couldn't sleep and now the thoughts are out of my brain and onto paper, so maybe I can sleep tonight.

6 thoughts on “Actual (Sort-of) Advice if You Have the Misfortune of Having an 8th Grader Applying to High School in NYC*

  1. I am grateful that 1) I come from the burbs (Yay Bayside, Queens!) and 2) this system wasn’t in place to such a degree when I was a kid. (I went to I.S. 74 / Cardozo High School)
    It could be worse, though. We moved to Florida around high school time. The schools in Florida? Horrible. I was doing things I did in 4th grade in New York.
    The system sucks up there but at least the schooling isn’t medieval. As horrible as it is, you can all comfort yourself that your children will be literate and not completely broken by the system.
    Glad you survived it all 🙂


  2. This is a very useful post for many circumstances. We’ll be dealing with the interviews/tests here in Northern CA. Heck, we dealt with this for elementary school. I think the prestige discussion is critical. It isn’t what others think is best, it is where the child fits best.
    And it is good to know that hot chocolate still solves many 13 year old problems. It works wonders for my almost 7 year old.


  3. They would work in Los Angeles as well, so perhaps they are rules for life. I’m particularly drawn to the life of nuts, berries and Russian novels. I’d add that running to the hills with poetry is another coping mechanism — the possibilities abound.


  4. finding a KINDERGARTEN for my daughter in Los Angeles is making me a little crazed. Thanks for this post. A buddy is a good idea and yeah, to hell with prestige.


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