“Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.”
– Carl Sandburg
It’s been a year.
As I waited with my co-workers in the starting corral of the Shamrock Shuffle – the spring kick-off run for Chicago – I marveled at time’s healing touch.
Tears began to pool.
I channelled core strength to sprint the final 200 meters. I dug in faster across the finish line, fighting back tears.
Let’s take a stroll back to late March 2012.
I kept mailbox watch all week.
Thursday. No letter.
Friday. No letter.
Yet I knew CPS mailed them. Because I called headquarters. Three times.
I was so anxious. Pulse-checkingly anxious. I just wanted to know already – did she get into my school or not?
In Chicago, school is a hot topic.
School choices paint a vast (and overwhelming) landscape. Publicly, the schools run the gamut. There’s neighborhood, which is automatic. Or there’s magnet, classical, gifted, and charter. Privately, the options are numerous. There are parochial and non. These schools cost money – often 10k + and sometimes close to 30k.
We decided to start with our public options and go from there. We had reason to believe she would get into my school and as our neighborhood school was not a viable option, we did what so many Chicago families do … we applied to the city-wide lottery for magnet schools.
We crossed our fingers, toes, and knees as the competition for a seat at a magnet school is fierce.
The sixty Kindergarten spots first go to children who have siblings attending the school. The next 40 percent of spots are filled through a proximity lottery – children living in the magnet school’s 1.5 mile attendance boundary. Any leftover spots are citywide, divided amongst thousands of applicants, in a socio-economic based lottery.
Translation: Unless you have siblings at the school, your chances are slim.
That Saturday, I was fixated on the letter, so I veered from my normal morning gym/grocery store routine. I pushed the food run back to the afternoon, willing distraction.
I rarely bump into my students outside of school. I teach on the near West side and live in Logan Square. It creates enough of a distance that our worlds almost never overlap. This Saturday was different. I bumped into two – one family at our fruit and vegetable market, and another at Target. One asked about schools. She knew I had a preschooler and was desperately waiting for the letter.
I was on pins and needles.
Once home, I obsessively check the mailbox for the umpteenth time (or so it felt).
This time, I spotted it. Holy Hell, it was here. THE letter with the CPS logo emblazoned on it.
My heart started racing, my palms began sweating. I jumped into our house, announcing the letter’s arrival to my husband. And sans réserve, I tore it open.
I scanned the dense list of schools – we applied to 20, the maximum. I zeroed in on the name of my school. I was confident I would see the words: Offered.
I didn’t see that.
I looked again, sure my eyes must have missed it. I was in disbelief. I saw it again. What? Wait-list: 102.
I blurted, “She didn’t get in,” to my husband, who silently paced by my side.
“What are you talking about? Let me see it.” He grabbed the letter. He never doubted that Veronica would get a spot. He thought the application process was merely a formality. That was my fault. I led him to believe that we would apply, and then … well, and then, it was basically automatic.
Complete disclosure: I felt confident my oldest daughter would be offered a coveted seat at my school.
I assumed because you know, it’s Chicago. That, and there was a wink and a nod.
In retrospect it seems delusional.
I felt stupid.
She was not offered a spot. At. My. School.
I was floored.
Verging on a panic attack, I called a co-worker to break the anticipated news. She immediately drove to my house, gently wiped my tears, and urged me to go out with her to unload. And get drunk. Not a proud choice, but I was shattered.
Circle back to last year’s Shuffle. I ditched it. Not so much because I was hung-over (oh, I was!), but because I couldn’t face my team – my co-workers – knowing my daughter would not be part of our community.
Straightaway, I spoke to my principal, praying for a loophole.
I mean, this is Chicago. Can we find a back booth and work with out?
She belonged at our school. Three of my co-workers’ children attend our school. Was that a fluke? Had they all won the lottery?
“Can you move her to the top of the wait-list?” I asked him.
To my dismay, he said no. I tried several other angles, pulling from the list my husband and I prepared.
No. No. No. And No.
Bottom line: He said he had no pull. He said that principal discretion – the ability for principals to handpick a percentage of students – was no longer for elementary principals.
I was furious, and sad. I know it’s not health, but … I’m a planner. And this was not part of my plan.
Foolishly, I had put faith in a broken system (and a nod). Allowing a teacher to choose to have their children attend their schooI seemed logical – a win-win benefit CPS could offer its’ teachers. It builds community, supports families, and keeps the teachers’ energy in one spot.
Without my safety net, I fell hard into a hole mixed with rage and despair. I talked to anyone who would listen to me, and share their opinions and experiences. Can you believe this? was my victim platform. I was obsessed with what I thought should have been. I logged more hours than I care to admit on the website CPS Obsessed.
True be told, the day we got THE letter, the words OFFERED were next to the name of another magnet school. It was neither near our home nor my school. I knew very little about the school other than it was good, so it felt scary to me. Of course, we accepted the spot (you don’t let them go), but I didn’t accept the spot in my brain. I was just not certain we would keep the spot.
I drummed up enthusiasm to talk to my daughter about school. I dreaded breaking the news that we would not be together. I was so sad that I wouldn’t be able to just pop into her classroom, her Holiday performances, her Valentine’s Day parties (which of course I didn’t say to her).
Her response was, “you know, mommy, I just really wanted to be with you.”
Tears welling, I answered, “Me too, love. Me too.”
She questioned why four of her preschool friends, one of which was a co-worker’s daughter, would go there. I explained in five-year old language that their names were in a different lottery (a different hat). They were guaranteed admission because they have siblings at the school.
I decided to focus my energy on the magnet nearest my school. We were number 14 on their wait-list. I envisioned her there. I spend the next two weeks with my phone glued to me, summoning a 773-534…number to call. I had heard rumors of parents missing a call, and schools not leaving a message. I prayed we would get the call …
We never did.
And I’m so grateful that we didn’t.
Life is wild. A year has passed and I know this is how life often rolls, but wow, now I see. I had blinders on.
I was so focused on one school – my school – that I overlooked what in front of my eyes. We had won the lottery. Out of thousands of applications, she was offered a city-wide spot at a top-notch magnet school. She won a spot at school that so many families vie for and do not get.
We toured the school. The vibe was welcoming and warm, with art everywhere. We felt at home. We left the school visit saying, she could belong there, we could be part of that community – different than planned, yet promising.
Alors? Fear is paralyzing. Fear leaves us feeling so flipping helpless. So, fear be gone. I decided to re-envision her education and created new action.
Gift. The start was at Piccolo Sogno over an outstanding Italian dinner and a bottle of wine on a remarkable terrace. My husband and I anguished over where to send her. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was clarity. But I said, “This is a gift. It has to be. I don’t know why. But there is a reason.”
I clung to faith. Belief in a higher reason was my comforting beacon of hope. My mission: Try the school. It’s as you say to your kids the first time they are offered broccoli – just try it. Saying, “I will do this for a year and then…,” enabled me to let go and let be. I stepped fully onboard – no review mirror – at her school.
Circle of Influence. Then in June, my school started the Leader in Me program. I learned the following technique:
First, he suggests for you to voice your concerns. I had a litany of concerns. Take transportation. How will she get to school? We have one car. Should we get a second car? Can she take the bus? A Kindergartener on the bus? Is that crazy? Should I buy her a cell phone?
I widened my circle of concern. How will I see her holiday performances, or volunteer in her classroom?
Second, Covey says to hone in on your influence. What can I do, instead of what can I worry about. I determined to focus more of my energy on the circle where I had influence. My circle of concern started to shrink.
It’s been a year, and I’ve done a 180.
As said in the Brad song, Make the Pain Go Away, “sometimes decisions seem right out of the blue, sometimes you ask for something you never knew.”
This school is what we asked for, we just didn’t know it at the time.
Recently, on spring break, my daughter asked, “Can we move to Florida?” She paused, reflecting, “But, can I take my school with me?”
She is happy. Her school is outstanding. We are part of a remarkable community.