Sunday, September 20, 2009

Schooling, Drooling, Fooling, and, um, Goo(g)ling . . . ?

The first thing we did back in February when we found out we were going to spend a year in Hong Kong, was start to look for an English-speaking school for the kids.

Turns out it was already too late. 

For most international schools in Hong Kong, applications are due in early December.  Acceptance letters come at the beginning of February.  Receive your Fulbright acceptance February 13th and have two school-aged kids?  Two words:  home schooling. 

Now, Ellen was very excited about the prospect of having her first every extended leave from any job, any where, at any time ever in her life.  Ellen was excited about spending a year exploring the streets and neighborhoods of Hong Kong.  Ellen was excited about expanding our childrens’ horizons by taking them to a completely different place.

Ellen was not excited about the prospect of home schooling. 

“It’ll be fun,” I told her.  “Think of how much time you’ll get to spend with the kids.  Think of the impact you’ll have on their lives.”

“Think,” she said, “of how difficult it will be for you to contact your divorce lawyer while you’re in Hong Kong, and me and the kids are here.  With-‘” she added, “public schooling.”

Frantically, we Googled “Tai Po and International Schools,” “Tai Po and English schools,” “Tai Po and schools,” “Tai Po and Nude Body Painting” (actually, that last one might’ve just been something else).  Four came up.  We e-mailed all of them.  Two replied.  One of the two was full, with an extensive waiting list.  The other said they still had room, and if we’d like to talk with them on the phone about the possibility of our kids attending, they’d be happy to give us a call.


Logic says that if every good school in Hong Kong is booked up, with waiting lists for every grade stretching into the hundreds, and there’s one school that is not booked up and does not have a waiting list, then there can be only one conclusion:  that school is not very good.  And if that school is not very good, then a logical person can have only one response: 

“Sign ‘em up!”

Ellen just ignored me, scrolling on her computer through the website of the other school, the one that got back to us but wasn’t holding out any hope.  “I think we should wait,” she said. 

“Why?  They’ve got space.  They seem desperate.  It would be un-American not to take advantage of the situation.”

It didn’t help that when I e-mailed one of my soon-to-be colleagues in Hong Kong and mentioned the two schools we were considering, her response was to rave about the Other school (that didn’t have room, but would let us go on their waiting list) and to say about the school with room, simply that, “It doesn’t have the best academic reputation.”

“Sign ‘em up!” I said. 

“If they fall behind, they’ll never catch up.  You know how Lexington is,” Ellen replied.  “Do you want your children to be tracked as ‘special’ for the rest of their lives?”

“I do if it saves me tens of thousands of dollars.”

“That’s Hong Kong money, you idiot.  Convert it to US dollars and it’s maybe 200 bucks.”

Making everything tougher, of course, is that we were 8.000 miles away from both schools.  Here you are, trying to decide where your blood of blood and flesh of flesh will spend most of their waking hours, and you can’t even go look at the place, much less talk to the teachers and make sure their sense of pedagogy doesn’t involve hickory.

Needless to say, we did what any good, doting, hovering American helicopter parents would do:  we acted like idiots.

We e-mailed what few HK contacts we had three or four times a day for weeks running.  We e-mailed any friends they had who knew anything about either of the schools.  We e-mailed their friends’ friends, and their colleagues’ friends, and their friends’ colleague.  We e-mailed people we didn’t even know, but whose names appeared when we did a Google search of the neighborhoods surrounding the schools.  We e-mailed people who’s names appeared even when we didn’t Google (which explains how I made a very nice friend in a Sri Lankan prison).  Some replied.  Some didn’t.  Some filed restraining orders.

We talked to the principle of the school that had space on the phone.  I thought he seemed very knowledgeable, very nice (“Too nice,” muttered Ellen, who was clearly angling for the other school.  “You never heard of David Koresh?”).  We managed, through wrangling and mangling and pure luck to get Lucy moved up from 207th on the waiting list to 3rd, which made her chances look pretty good.  Will, though,  sat tight at 40th.  As insane as we were, we had at least enough sense to not send the kids to two different schools.  It was the least we could do, seeing as how we’d already destroyed their little lives.

What finally solved it was when my friend Susan, who was in the first cohort of general education Fulbrights in Hong Kong. offered to go up and visit the school with openings.  “I can’t guarantee anything,” she said.  “But I’ll take a look around.”

The morning after her visit, I checked my e-mail.  “Let’s skype,” she wrote.  Uh-oh, I thought.

Telling me about the school, her social-scientific background came through:  first there was an objective report, walking up to the school, describing the neighborhood, the building, the interior, the staff, the classrooms, her conversations with the principal.  Then came her analysis, very measured, very calm, very thoughtful:  the neighborhood was nice, you could hear birds, the kids would like that particularly after the usual chaos of Hong Kong.  The building was clean and well taken care of.  The principal was nice, the teachers very professional.  All in all, she thought, it was a very nice place. 

“Nice?” I said.  Nice was a word girls used to use with me in college to explain why I probably wouldn’t be having sex with them any time soon. 

“Very nice,” she said, ever the measured social scientist.  “My only hesitation was that the pedagogy seemed a bit—well, traditional.  You know:  they were lined up in rows.  The teacher stood at the front of the room.  She talked, they listened.  That sort of thing.”

Okay, geek alert:  for most of you, such an analysis wouldn’t give you pause.  What’s wrong with rows?  What’s wrong with the teacher standing up front?  What’s wrong with the students listening?  Isn’t that how education works? 

But to people who are involved in curricular and faculty development, “traditional” is shorthand for “stuck somewhere in the stone ages, with their heads up their very uniformed butts.”  Seriously.  We now have decades worth of studies—real studies, by real scientists, with real electro-gizmo probes that make you uncomfortable in a kind of sexy, itch-where-it-hurts-to-scratch-it kind of way—that indicate that a student sitting on his or her butt being “exposed” to information works well for smart and associative people, but pretty much no one else.  So talking about rows?  Talking about teachers preaching and students dutifully taking notes?  Pretty much the kiss of death for geeks like me. 

“Oh,” I said to Susan, my little heart sinking.  “Interesting.”  

“Uh-huh,” she said, her tone exactly the same as Darth Vadar’s when he said “Luke, I am your father.”   Or Renee Zellweger’s when she said, “You had me at ‘hello’.”  Same difference.   

“Huh,” I said, wondering if maybe the Fulbright people would let Ellen do the curricular revision while I did the home schooling.  Or maybe Hong Kong people could be convinced that “Paul” was actually a woman’s name?

“Can I say something?”  It was Gary, Susan’s banker husband, who’d quit his lucrative career so that his wife could take a one-year position in a really cool place and their kids could experience an extraordinary culture.  Have to like a guy like that.

“Sure,” I said, but really what I meant was, “Whatever.”

He came into view on the screen.  He’s a big guy, like me, only less flabby and whiny.  And his eyes gleam with this weird light that someone once told me was something called ‘common sense.’  I nodded like I knew what they meant, but what I was really thinking about at the time was Bac’n Bits. 

“Listen,” he said.  “Traditional or whatever, I don’t know.  I’m not the pedagogy expert here.  But what I saw in those classrooms was exactly the kind of education we had when we were kids..  And it didn’t hurt us. We all turned out fine. You know what I’m saying?”

“Um . . . no.”

“It was a normal school,” he said.  “It was clean.  It was quiet.  The teachers cared about the students.  Hong Kong is a hectic place, a crazy place.  If my kids were a little younger and I had to do it all over again, I’d love to send them to this school.”


Ten minutes later, I went down into the kitchen where Ellen was doing the dishes. 

“So?” she said, looking over her shoulder.

“All set,” I said.  “Sign ‘em up.”



Please Note:  This is a personal blog, gull dang it, and not a statement of Fulbright philosophy, politics, policies, or pastry.  So suck it up and get a grip already, okay?  

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