We visited Penn Charter the morning after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. It was late to be applying to school for 3 kids. I’d had an epiphany that my manic attempts to improve my kids’ school were not going to make a difference on a timeline that made sense for our family. Perhaps the ebullient atmosphere of the entire city gave PC the advantage over its contender, but I maintain that visiting Fitz in the Choral Room clinched it for me. My beloved Aunt Mimi had passed the week before. She had been my choir director at Andover and had gone on to head the music department at Exeter. Fitz is a male replica of my Aunt. His response to John Zurcher’s introduction was, “It beats working.” As we left our tour, the security guard in the parking lot told us that he’d come out of retirement as a Philly cop to put his daughter through PC and that it was the best place on Earth. He would fit easily into a family photo of my father in law and his 13 siblings. That security guard won Tim over.
My son is easy to mold, so swaying him towards PC was easy, but the girls had preferred the single-sex-school option. That school laid the charm on thick. My girls had magical days when they visited. A week later they received hand-written thank-you notes signed in multi-colored markers by all of the girls in their respective classes. There was a photograph on the back of the cards picturing my thrilled daughters arm-in-arm with the 7 of the beaming 2nd and 4th grade girls who had hosted them. Individualized letters from the admissions office listing the strengths of my children and how these will be nurtured and bloom at that school arrived sheathing shiny, stainless steel, logo-ed water bottles. I mentioned this to John Zurcher on the phone. I could hear his eyes roll as he asked, “Do you need me to send SWAG???” I didn’t need swag, but I did go to the PC website and gather a list of Quaker virtues that my girls were not displaying to explain in a comprehensive treatise why we’d chosen a Quaker school. After a summer of whining and spewing exhaustive lists of all of the bad decisions I’d made in my life, my girls had to embrace the Quaker concept of evolving truth: they were going to PC.
I can be lackadaisical about things like “welcome e-mails” and summer reading lists. I got whipped into shape by Heather Kaplan, my “welcome mom. “ She laid down the law. After multiple attempts to reach me, she relayed 5 major points from a rest stop on her vacation:
- The fancy dress day comes fast, and your son will NEED A BELT.
- Get gym clothes
- Get your school supplies; the lists had already gone out
- Get a locker lock from the school; don’t get a lock at Home Depot; your kid will forget his/her combination.
- Sync your phone up with the PC calendar.
I’ve thanked Heather in my head multiple times this year for number 5, and who knew it’d be that hard to find a belt for an 82-lb 7th grader? All of the parents I met at summer and fall meet and greets reacted to my blithe announcement that I was moving 3 kids to PC in September with reactions of perplexed surprise or gasps of horror and disbelief. In hindsight, maybe it was rash to move all three, but I’d do it again.
My first flagrant PC-parenting fail came with my 7th grader before the school year even started. He’s not an athlete, so he opted to do cross country as his fall sport. Projecting my independent school athletics experiences onto PC and worrying about JP’s love of inertia and the ensuing effect on his cross country career, I forced him to run 2 miles with me 3 mornings a week during the month of August in preparation for the season. He wept after the first 250 yards, but I kept on him. By the time he was ready to start at PC he’d had enough running. He quit cross country before he’d even started. (Well done, mom 🙄) He did co-ed water polo instead and loved it, so all is well that ends well. I’d expected to see a token girl playing with a group of guys. Instead I saw two, colossal female twins schooling any boy that crossed her path. JP announced with reverence that they “break the sound barrier” when they shoot the ball. I was pleased to see them break gender barriers as well.
I had chosen PC for its academics and its music department. I’d not noticed that it is actually a super-sporty school. The first “intramurals” day was a nightmare for JP. He was put in the goal, let in countless goals, and was completely demoralized. I was stung when one of my college friends suggested that I (a jock) felt comfortable at PC and wanted my kids there because it would have been perfect for me-not because it was perfect for them. I turned into a WRECK about having made the switch to PC. By week 2, I was convinced that JP was being bullied. There was some sort of skirmish over a specific lunch table that often rendered JP eating alone. Academically, he’d gleaned that if his math class was called, “advanced math,” then that meant there was a non-advanced option, and he was doing his best to achieve a demotion. I was also flummoxed that he was expected to attend sports but his free ride home would not be an option as he’d miss the bus every day. However, he was not eligible for a free Septa pass. (On principal, I marched my case to the school district and got him a Septa pass. I didn’t like the idea that kids who don’t have parents with the freedom to pick them up might miss out on things at. PC. I still don’t, but I understand that PC’s hands are tied on this one. A previous, manic-probably not unlike myself, PC mom worked to get the school a hazardous designation that forced the district to provide the yellow school buses, so now the school cannot give out Septa passes) In any event, I was terrified that I’d made a terrible mistake and that PC was class-blind and only good super-motivated jocks.
About a month into the school year, the 7th grade goes on a camping trip. JP was put in a cabin with some of the feuding lunchroom posse. It rained most of the week. They had the cool counsellor, so they stayed up late and played poker all week. Upon his return, I anxiously asked, “Were those guys in your cabin jerks?” He responded “Yes!” My heart sank. “Mom! I’m a jerk too. All middle school boys are jerks!” He actually said the words, “Mom, I misjudged those guys.” He has since told me on multiple occasions that there is NO BULLYING at PC. He is a tiny, unathletic, hearing-impaired, theater guy with pink hair; if he’s not getting bullied, I actually believe that no one is. (He has also managed to get a “hiking in the Wissahickon” option with his artsy friends on Intramurals day. 🤓 )
I wept (with joy) multiple times at the MS Back to School night. My mom taught at a private school so my brother and I could go there for free. Many of the PC teachers reminded me of the incredible teachers I was lucky enough to have. Sr. Calvo had them listening to Spanish pop music and playing games involving super-heroes. Learning the culture is what makes the drudgery of memorizing the new, foreign words manageable. (I can still sing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” by heart because my effusive 7th grade French teacher insisted that we all learn it and eschew our pubescent self-consciousness to sing it out loud like drunks.) It was clear to me after my 20 minutes of geography with Ms. Bateman that by Christmas JP would have a better handle on the nations/cultures in our world than I do. (That’s not saying much, but still…) It blew my mind that the QUADs class was using a visual/conceptual art project to explain this year’s “evolving truth” idea. Mr. Skelly reminded us of the accessibility of the story of Romeo and Juliet in his brief, hilarious synopsis; it’s a perfect example of the explosive impulsivity that we are dealing with on a daily basis as we parent our 13 year olds. The 20 minutes of math reminded me of the creativity involved in solving complex math problems and the satisfaction one can get from that process. I’d forgotten. It was such a pleasure to see a young, engaging female science teacher. Perhaps her charisma will keep our girls from abandoning their interest in science as is still so common in teenage girls. I have since attended a middle school morning assembly and was once again, blown away by the dearth of eye-rolling and the love, support and humor that these kids experience in middle school.
My 5th grader was going to be the toughest nut for PC to crack. She was the most livid that we’d ignored her desire to go to another school. She was prepared to hate PC to spite me and to prove me wrong. I’d been asked what would be a good fit for her in a teacher. I’d responded that a male would be best, so Steel wouldn’t spend most of her energy mentally styling the teacher and giving her a makeover rather than listening to her. She’d also had a few female teachers in the past that seemed to be closer to BFF’s than teachers; it had been fine, but I was hoping for something different at PC. She not only got a male teacher; She got a male teacher with a CHINCHILLA. That ball of fur whipped the spite right out of her. Steel had felt a lot of “mean girl” stuff during her two days visiting PC. It was one of the things that had put her off of the school. The confidence and self-possession that the six new 5th grade girls displayed at the “new 5th grader orientation” assuaged a lot of my fears. These girls were going to shake things up if they indeed, needed shaking. I will never know whether the admissions office actively pursued a posse of powerhouse females for that grade, but considering how thoughtful PC is about things, it would not surprise me.
Steel was excited about her first PC writing assignment. She was going to write about Marlee. Marlee was her friend who had succumbed to brain cancer on a snow day in the middle of Steel’s 4th grade year. Steel and her classmates had watched Marlee’s year-long demise. It was excruciating as a parent to know the probable outcome of Marlee’s rare cancer and to listen to my daughter and her friends’ insistence that, “Marlee was strong, and she was going to fight.” I hoped that Steel’s enthusiasm to write about Marlee meant that she was processing her death in a healthy way. She was, but Steel broke down in the middle of a writing class and had to go to “the feelings teacher.” I’m a potter. I’d answered the ensuing phone call with dirty hands and a little trepidation. Doesn’t everyone panic when they see “Penn Charter” on the caller ID? Ms. Redick explained what had happened. I was relieved that no one had died and was calmly discussing the situation when she asked me, “How are YOU handling Marlee’s death?” No one had asked. I unraveled into a gelatinous pile of parent. We can be such myopic assessors a child’s strengths upon which to capitalize and weaknesses to surmount. PC embraces my children as individuals but also as members of families and a larger community. Her question was so refreshing and kind.
The fifth grade at PC (now moving into 6th) is an impressive group of kids. They are very theatrical; the poetry showcase demonstrated this so well. It was amazing from the poetry to the beat percussion to the all-black attire and berets. I will probably remember some of those poems when I watch those kids graduate in 7 years. I’ve volunteered on open house days, and those 5th graders proved to be knowledgable, confident tour guides as well. With powerful, dramatic personalities comes dramatic situations. I’ve been impressed with how the 5th grade team handles things. More important, Steel has been impressed. She admires the thoughtful and inclusive approaches of her teachers when kids have been profane, challenging or provocative. The community of the 5th grade parents at PC is strong. I’ve had candid conversations about some sticky issues. Yes, there has been some inappropriate flying-off-the-handle to defend a child, but open, problem-solving conversations have been more common.
My favorite part of Steel’s fifth grade experience is that she’s been challenged. I know that comparing kids to each other and even thinking in terms of competition is a no-no, but my fifth grade girl is a competitive person; she comes by it honestly. There is a specific boy who she feels bests her at almost everything. She rages about it at home. She was cursing this boy for his math, writing, social studies and athletic skills. My youngest daughter was jumping on the bandwagon to attack this accomplished kid. Toby said, “Is he kind of a jerk, too???” To which Steel replied, “NO! That’s what’s even MORE annoying!!!! He’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met!”
My third child entered the 3rd grade last September. When we received the name of her teacher, I did a search for her on Facebook. She’s a tall Sagittarius who took and posted a TON of pictures at the flower show. Basically Toby was going to have a version of her own mother as a 3rd grade teacher. That seemed fine with me. Will’s mom, Cindy was my first PC mom interaction. Will had been a new kid in the 2nd grade. When he heard that a boy named Toby was going to be coming in 3rd grade, he’d said to his mom, “I’m going to be so nice to Toby. I know what it’s like to be a new kid.” The first thing he said to his mom after his first day of school was, “Mom! Toby is NOT A BOY!!!!!” Nevertheless, Will has had my little girl’s back. That incident and others have made me so happy the chose the co-ed option. I want my kids to have good friends of both sexes before the craziness of hormones kicks in.
We had our first parent-teacher conference with Ms. Hopkins, and she did prove to be a very similar person to me. Sagittarius people often say the wrong thing in the name of honesty. She told us that she’d retired from Green Street Friends School after 22 years, but that she’d been working at PC for 3 on year-long contracts that she’d renewed. This was definitely going to be her LAST YEAR, though. That is not the thing a teacher should say to new parents who are stressing about paying for school. The wonderful, energetic 3rd grade teacher at their old school flashed through my brain. We could have had her for free, and now we were paying dearly for someone who has just told us she’s done with teaching?????? Fast forward to our next conference when Ms. Hopkins told us that she’s had such an amazing time with Toby’s class; she can’t possibly stop teaching. What does a woman who has been teaching for 25 years have? (Duh! EXPERIENCE.) Besides the fact that Ms. Hopkins “makes fractions fun” she has created a motley family out of that group of 15 kids. Toby says they have jokes that are WHOLE CLASS jokes: all of them laugh together about the same thing. Not only did she create community; she also embraced their individuality. The wax museum project is such a highlight of 3rd grade at PC. Toby was Sacajawea as was another girl. It was so great to hear each Sacajawea give a completely different presentation. My daughter could not have cared less about Sacajawea’s guiding the explorers out west. She latched onto the fact that Sacajawea was forced to marry and have children at such a young age. Toby was allowed by all of her teachers and librarians to pursue what interested her about her subject. This seems like an insignificant no-brainer, but it’s not. It’s the basis of a progressive education, and it works to keep kids motivated and engaged.
Toby’s dad, an architect, and I are trying to squelch the architect gene in our children. (Being an architect is a BRUTAL way to make a living.) PC is not doing us any favors in this architect redirection project. The desire to design and build keeps popping up in Toby, and she was paired with a daughter of TWO architects to design a playground in science out of (among other things) toilet paper rolls. “Motivated and engaged” are understatements;Toby was beside herself in Mr. Ford and Mr. Wade’s science class. Unfortunately this gene also manifests in a predilection for nice homes and nice stuff. Toby returned from her first PC playdate literally weeping. “Why is her home so NICE? Why is our home so DUMPY?” Toby enlisted her sister in a group attack against Daddy with these queries. He responded, “Well, you’re right, what are you guys going to do about it?” They organized kitchen drawers, scoured, and put out flowers. I returned home to a completely different kitchen. It was fabulous. This did not stop me from taking advantage of the PC outreach project that weekend. We helped move homeless families from one church to another. At the end of that project I asked the girls pointedly how their rooms in our dumpy house looked to them now.
We have some battles ahead. Obviously screens are going to be a constant worry no matter where they go to school unless we Waldorf it. Our son will always have trouble ignoring the temptation to ignore his teachers and surf the internet. The privilege problem will be recurring. I went to a PC mom pot luck that was far nicer than my own wedding. There was valet parking, incredible flowers and gorgeous cocktails. I will never be able to match that, but it was lovely and kind. In the face of this, my plea to the parents of the kids invited to my son’s birthday party was that they lower the bar set by the unbelievably generous Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties. My daughter is now asking for brand name clothing. When I asked for that sort of thing, my mom told me that of course she’d let me wear Ralph Lauren’s clothing…as soon as he called up and offered to pay me to be a billboard for him. I have responded similarly to my fashionista and have gone further to say not only do I not want her to be a free advertisement for Brandy Melville, but also I don’t want her to be a walking endorsement for those vacuous values, in general. (She is responding, as I did, by becoming an avid 2nd-hand shopper.)
The only upsetting thing about my love of PC is knowing every kid doesn’t have access to something like it. I wholeheartedly believe that it isn’t the bells and whistles. Yes, having two kids in the phenomenal all-school musical at the phenomenal Kurtz Center was a treat. Yes I loved hearing my daughter gush about the satisfaction she felt hitting a field hockey ball squarely as she walked off of the gorgeous fields. Yes PC teachers have their attentions divided by 15 rather than 30, but the crux of the experience is not these things. It is the community as a whole: students, parents, teachers, administration that creates this thoughtful, supportive and magical environment. We were a part of the first two PC bike trains. The organizers reached out to me because I show up for everything sweaty with a helmet on. My three kids and I met the train of PC cyclists a block from our house and picked up other families on the way. Now my kids understand why/how I commute by bike. I am a potter. I was able to teach a summer camp at PC using old wheels that have been sitting in the Middle School basement. I had the support of Middle School teachers and the PC summer camps administration to get it going. Everyone from the Upper School Art department to the security guards to the to the maintenance guys who sorted out my electrical issues was inviting and helpful. It was empowering to share clay with eight screen-obsessed kids and have them fall in love as I did. The big-picture environment at PC made it easy to propose and do something new. Education is the only thing that will arm us against the lies and propaganda surrounding climate-change, globalism and race that are so pervasive these days. I chose PC because it has the most socio-economic diversity of any of the Philly private schools. My hope is that our well-educated kids can figure out a way to bring this environment to every kid in our country.