The Mouse Race


In most normal parts of the world, when children graduate from their local middle school (also known as intermediate school or junior high school), they go onto their local high school. Their school choice is pretty much set by their address. New York City, however, given its position as most extraordinary city in the solar system, has to have a far more complex and stressful solution.
Jack, who is now 13, has to submit almost two dozen choices for school next year.
First of all, we had to decide if he should continue to go to private school or return to the public school system. If we had chosen the former, he’d have to take a very long multiple choice math and reading exam, then write essays and be interviewed at however many schools we had visited and thought good candidates. Then, if we he was accepted at one, we would spend over $100,000 to make sure he got a high school diploma.
Because we’ve opted to send him to public school. his choices are multiplied. First we had to go through a directory of NYC High schools that is over 600 pages long, listing choices from the FDNY High School for Fire and Life Safety to the Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports, from the EL Puente Academy for Peace and Justice to the School for the Future.
Patti, Jack and I, collectively and separately, have gone on scores of school tours, grilled acquaintances for inside info, read books, articles and websites, and finally narrowed down on our list to the mandatory top 12 schools. That’s right — everyone who applies to NYC public high school must rank their top dozen choices to get into even one.
Some of the schools are really amazingand we are so lucky to have them as options (we visited one that just got 12 million bucks from Bill and Melinda Gates, another which takes the kids on trips to Europe) while others are scary and ringed with metal detectors and classrooms full of hooligans and pre-cons.
There’s more. New York also has a group of “Specialized” High schools that includes schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science that are among the very best schools in the country. To even be considered for admission to these schools, Jack had to study for several months and then, last weekend, along with 25,000 other students, took a three hour test with a few insanely hard questions (in helping him prepare for this test I have had to take a nightmarish stroll down memory lanes to my dusty repository of algebra and geometry, knowledge I haven’t accessed once since Carter was in the White House). He also took yet another test for entrance to Bard, which covers all of high school and the first two years of college before the students turn eighteen.
If all all of this sounds like I am a neurotic, over achieving yuppie parent, I promise you, we are merely average in this city. As soon as you enter the maelstrom of high school selection, you inevitably are faced with all these choices and feel you must at least do what you can to give your kid the best options. And, because you have to rank those twelve schools without knowing whether your kid will get his first choice or his twelfth, you must get somewhat involved and get the lay of the land. Every one does it, from bus drivers in Staten Island to investment bankers in Brooklyn to short order cooks in the Bronx. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere. Otherwise, move to New Jersey (shudder).
Alright, I hear you wondering, so what does all this have to do with drawing?
Well, about a dozen of the schools in town are art schools of one kind of another. Most seem to be training people who will end up in making mechanicals or painting signs, anything to divert talented kids who would otherwise be spraying graffiti everywhere. We checked out a couple of these schools and they seemed quite grim, with lousy facilities, unimaginative teachers and slack-jawed students. One school, however, LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts has been top Jack’s list for a while. The guitar player from his band was admitted last year and he raves about it. LaGuardia was the basis for the movie and TV show “Fame” (“I’m gonna live forever…) and it full of amazing singers, dancers, musicians, actors and artists. Each year thousands of the most talented kids in the most talented town audition for entry. Less than 10% get in.
Jack has been working hard on his portfolio for the art program. He has to submit fewer than twenty mounted pieces and then take a test: drawing a figure from life, a still from memory and a pastel painting form his imagination.
Jack loves to draw and had filled many sketchbooks with masterpieces. However, he has never really taken much in the way of academic art and usually resists formal teaching. For his application, however, he has had to sit down and really concentrate on the sort of art neither of us particularly love to make. He has drawn long careful portraits of Patti and me, has drawn a range of still-lifes in various media, had drawn urnban landscapes, done some watercolors and has even attended four hour life drawing studio classes with me, sticking it out for the whole session (no nudes, alas).
I am amazed at his commitment and at the strength of his drawings, I had neither the ability ntr the commitment at his age.
The question of course is, will he get in? And the next question is, if he does, should he spend this much time on art? That’ss an interesting question coming form me — I have always bemoaned my own lack of formal training and would personally love to go to art school. But Jack is also a very good student, getting As and B+s in every other subject and we are concerned with whether the academics at LaGuardia will be enough. The fact is, other schools offer better social studies and writing and math programs, no question. But he loves to draw… Well, we’ll see what’s what this spring when the decisions are made by the Board of Ed and we learn the options
Meanwhile, I am posting the pieces he has made for his portfolio. Would you accept him?

Jack Tea’s Portfolio gallery