Learning to breathe through the panic of NYC school admissions



My ten-year-old tore open the envelope, a slightly unhinged smile of anticipation on his face, and pulled out the sheet of paper inside. I held my breath. The paper rattled slightly in his hands.


He stared.

I would have snatched it from him, but my own hands were shaking too much. “What’s it say?”

“I don’t…. know?” He handed me the letter, and I understood his confusion instantly, with dismay: the middle school he had been matched with was not on the list of the schools that we had ranked.

“Oh. Well…I guess…” I looked at his deeply baffled face and screwed up my courage to finish the sentence. “You didn’t get into any of the schools on our list, honey, so they….they put you in this one. But we can –”

He didn’t hear the rest, though. He was sobbing too loudly.

The rest of that April afternoon was a bit of a blur. Tears and texts, as all of his friends’ parents texted me with their matched school: “447! You?” “51! First choice!” Except for our closest friends, we chose not to respond. Two of his best friends, though, both stellar students and cheerful, polite kids with the requisite good test scores, had found themselves in the same situation as my son, and came over ashen and crying.

We ended up having a damp dinner at the local burger joint, our children drowning their sorrows in shakes while their friends and their families, a few tables away, celebrated their good news.

We, the parents of these “unlucky” sons, were drowning our sorrows too, with something a bit stronger than milkshakes. Some of us were angry. Emails were sent. Others were grim, despairing. “We’re going to have to move out of the city,” one groaned. Another mentioned homeschooling, followed by hysterical laughter. (Nobody mentioned going to the underperforming school where we had been placed; perhaps we should have sent them there anyway, there’s an argument for that, a very long one, or maybe a simple one: but that’s not what this piece is about.)

This piece is about what happens when the school choice process sloshes you around in its mysterious and complicated maw and then spits you right out.

That night, my husband and I sat on the edge of our son’s bed and promised him that somehow we’d find a way to get him into a place we’d all be comfortable with, and eventually he fell asleep, which is more than I can say for myself.

It was a new world I’d stepped into; a nightmarish one of negotiating this bureaucracy, learning how to make that proverbial wheel make just the right kind of squeak, not too loud, not too soft. Within a couple of weeks, we met the parent coordinator, wrote a note to the principal, got letters of support from teachers and afterschool program educators, solicited advice from everyone, called a schools expert, and sent a heartfelt (but hopefully not too desperate) letter and extra recommendations to a school where we’d been waitlisted. We heard rumors about kids in this position who got into private schools to which they hadn’t originally applied. There was a lot of squeaking going on in Brownstone Brooklyn.

“What’d I do wrong?” my son kept asking. I told him he had done nothing wrong. He had worked hard and done well; his teachers always said he was a joy to have in the classroom, and even though I was his mother, and thus intensely unreliable, I tended to believe them.

“It’ll be fine,” some people said. They seemed polyanna-ish, or delusional.

“You got unlucky,” others said. “You were screwed by the algorithim.”

This was slightly more comforting, and maybe true, but also kind of creepy.

“You need to calm down,” my husband said.

Meanwhile, I watched cooler heads than mine totally lose their marbles.

One friend, whose son was in the same position as mine, was the kind of laid-back yet absolutely together professional mom who seems always to have a handle on things. The sort of mom you’d trust to take your kid to the ocean for a week. She found herself yelling at the principal, firing off hostile emails, considering a move. She would say of this time later that she thinks she went “a little insane.”

Neither my son nor I could sleep very well. Our appeals and applications were in, there was nothing more to be done, but that didn’t stop the anxiety.

“You need to calm down,” my husband said.

I figured he was right; if I were calm I could probably help my son better, and maybe even get some rest.

Put your own oxygen mask on first, and then help those around you. That’s what they say in the airplanes, of course, and the same idea holds for parenting. Get your own act together, first. You can’t really help them otherwise.

I took a meditation class. (It was my husband’s idea.) This made me feel a tiny bit better, or at least a little less panicked.

I went again. And then again. I began to breathe, partly from learning how to pay attention to my breath in the meditation and stop following my anxious/quasi-hysterical thoughts, but also from a larger perspective that started slowly to seep in: certain ideas that at first seemed obvious but were in fact relatively mind-shattering when you started to apply them, like “stop resisting what’s happening and accept it and then you can deal with things with a calmer mind. ”

Gradually, I calmed down. My son calmed down. I started to relax, and my son took this as his cue to do what kids can do naturally: to enjoy his life, moment to moment. He played with his friends, practiced guitar, threw a ball around with his brother, laughed, slept, ate too much pizza. It was amazing. Things weren’t going perfectly, he didn’t know where he’d end up going to school, but he was having fun, anyway. He couldn’t control it, and he wasn’t thinking about it.

It sounds simple, to stop resisting what’s happening, to stop trying to control what we can’t control, to stop thinking thoughts that don’t help us; yeah, yeah, we think, we KNOW this, but it’s incredible how rarely we do it, anyway, especially in these situations where we think we know what’s best for our kids.

And the truth is we don’t always know what’s best for them. One friend was initially upset that her son didn’t get his first choice school; at his “unchosen” school he ended up discovering a passion for an art form he wouldn’t have been exposed to at the school he’d originally wanted.

As for us?

It was fine.A few weeks later, in May, my son got into a school where he’d been waitlisted—a school he now loves. His friends all got into schools, too—and they liked them, to varying degrees. Whether it was their first choice or no choice at all, all of the schools his friends are going to are imperfect, and the kids’ experiences range. They have good and not-so-good experiences and they learn resilience. The ones who struggled socially learned how to find their footing in the end, or how to be okay eating lunch by themselves with a good book. The ones who didn’t feel their school was a good fit switched to other schools or figured out how to make it okay for themselves, or wrote poetry or took their frustration out on the drums. They’re still figuring it all out. Who isn’t?

Me? I calmed down. I started to meditate regularly and take classes and eventually that changed the quality of my mornings. And then my days. And then my life.
I even started teaching a meditation class of my own, for New York City teens. It became so clear to me that it’s very stressful to be a teenager here, especially in terms of high stakes test-taking, the competitive high school and college application processes, and the heavy workloads of the high school years. More students than ever before are seeking mental health counseling by the time they enroll in college.

The methods I learned to calm down can help kids as well. I tell them that our stress/anger/fear isn’t us— those emotions are just clouds passing through the blue sky of our minds, and if we learn to let them go (and we CAN learn this), we can tap into a calm state naturally.

As for me: I went through the same middle school application process last year for my younger son, and I’m relieved to say that my hands only shook once.



Sharon Guskin is the author of the novel, The Forgetting Time. She teaches a meditation class for teens in Manhattan and Brooklyn; the next one-hour class is in Brooklyn on May 7th. All are welcome; for more information, email her at sharon@sharonguskin.com.

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