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Middle School Madness

An education in New York City.

11:00 PM, Dec 5, 2007 • By KEVIN KUSINITZ
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THER WAS A BIT of contention recently over a "quiz" given to some sixth-graders in New York. In conjunction with their study of the 2008 election, the kids were asked if they agreed with the Iraq war, abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, and the death penalty. Many conservatives smelled a liberal indoctrination afoot.

As the father of a sixth grader, let me assure you: just the process of getting your kid into a New York middle school is more insufferable than any alleged political precept they'll face there.

You remember graduating from elementary school, right? You knew exactly what junior high you'd be attending in September. All you needed was to stock up on new clothes, notebooks and excuses to skip class.

Boy, I sure miss those days. Because if you're a parent in New York, you spend three months touring what they now call "middle schools." (I'm guessing that "junior high" is considered too detrimental to the adolescent psyche.) You have to apply to them, listing each choice in order from one to five--out of a possible fourteen. And only two of them are in walking distance from our apartment on the Upper East Side.

Some are out of the question--although the idea of sending my kid to Sun Yat Sen Middle School appeals to my sense of humor. If only it wasn't officially designated "SINI." That's not a new police show; it's short for "School In Need of Improvement." Mr. Sen would bow his head in shame.

If you've never been on a New York middle school tour, let me give you the rundown: they're all the same. You're herded into the auditorium, where the warm-up act--the assistant principal--answers questions before the headliner--the real principal--saunters in. The spiel is always the same: This is the greatest school in town, and if you don't put us on the top of your list, your kid will be out on the street next year.

Something else they do is share their "philosophy" of education. Picture a Krispy Kreme employee giving you his philosophy of donut making, and you get the idea. I always had the urge to ask, "Excuse me, does your 'philosophy of education' include making sure my kid learns long division, that 'i' comes before 'e', and that the United States isn't a hotbed of fascism?" but was afraid of the possible answer.

The parents are then lead around the school by the (presumably) A-students. These kids are at a rather awkward age, as you'd probably prefer to forget. The boys resemble a mash-up of Ashton Kutcher and the Piltdown Man. The girls, however, are more mature; that is, most of them are dressed like 10th Avenue hookers. And these are the good schools.

One school tour on the lower West Side was especially memorable. As I settled into the auditorium, I noticed graffiti scrawled on the seat in front of me: HUNG LIKE A HOBBIT! Oh, yeah--this is just what I want my eleven year-old daughter to see. But that kind of badinage is supposed to be irrelevant. You see, my wife's marching orders were, "When you go through the classrooms, look in the students' eyes." In other words, See if there are a lot of Asians. In New York math, many Asians = good school. Sun Yat Sen could've told you that. That's why they don't go to his lousy school.

Our tour leader, as it turns out, was an Asian boy who talked like a valley girl. You know, with that weird uptick at the end of every sentence: "This room is--our science lab? Where we do, like, experiments?" I think to myself, This is, like, the worst example of cultural influence evah?

Alright, so kids are kids. It's the education that counts, I remind myself, as we get dragged from room to room. There's a door to an English class made up to look like Edgar Allan Poe's grave. Clever, only they've spelled his middle name "Allen." Not good for an English class... We walk into a math class, where the teacher has written 6+6/2 X 2 =? on the blackboard. One student raises his hand: "Twelve." The teacher disagrees. Not good for a math teacher...

We pass by a science project that compares a cell to the thrash-metal band Linkin Park. (You don't understand? Founding member Mike Shinoda is the nucleus. Duh!) We see a project headlined "LEGACY OF SLAVERY"--the legacy being classes devoted to the legacy of slavery. Catchy phrases are written over doorways throughout the halls. One reads "INFINITE CHOICES." A dandy thought, only it looks like "INFINITE AHOLES." Definitely not a penmanship class.