OPINION: Presumptuous, perhaps, on my part. I just figured if you worked in a bookshop you'd be able to spell. The young woman on the Whitcoulls' counter clearly couldn't. The Wreckage, I asked. Have you got it? No, she said, nothing's coming up. But, I protested, The Canberra Times says it's "one of the highlights of the crime fiction year". No, nothing, she said. And then I noticed she was typing it in without the all important silent consonant. I had to have this book. It was a birthday request. There's a "W", I said. What? There's a "W", I repeated. She looked at me blankly. There's a "W", I said, before the "R".
Are you thick or something? That's what I thought, as she flushed deeply, hating myself for thinking it.
I think it sometimes, too, when my almost eight-year-old, tells me for the third time that week that 3x4=11.
And I think it sometimes when friends and fellow parents tell me they will be sending their children to private school, that the local is not good enough. Sometimes, curiously, and despite their own not particularly stellar job prospects, they have based their decision on the fact they went to some flash school. Sometimes, curiously, and despite the fact their own perfectly adequate state education has done them proud, they have discovered some previously concealed, inner-snob.
Education, I have discovered, especially in my middle-class hood, stirs up both emotion and obsession. People who were entirely wild in their youth, who snuck out to hear a band play in some smoky pub when they were meant to be swotting for School C Geography, suddenly get all het up about their educational expectations for their own offspring. When it comes to your child you either want what you had or, conversely, what you didn't have: you want better.
I don't like private schools. They offend my own (admittedly sometimes concealed) inner-socialist. Parents cite the quality of the education received (Timothy got an A+ for his essay on why the Powelliphanta `Augustus' snail is not endangered by West Coast mineral exploration!), the extracurricular activities (Rose's woodwind quintet are touring the former Eastern Bloc next month!), the longstanding networks formed (Old Boys' Friday night drinks at the Northern Club. Members only!).
Life, especially in a market economy, isn't fair. It isn't fair that some can wear Zambesi while others must be satisfied with Glassons. It isn't fair that some buy Tuesday night's eye fillet at Nosh while others must make do with Pak 'n Save home-brand sausages. Yet it seems particularly unfair, disgusting even, that a small percentage of children should have all the advantages a private education affords, purely because their parents can stump up for it, while the rest must suffer under whatever the government of the day deals them.
And yet, recently, I had to ask myself whether I was thick or something. I had the opportunity to visit two very different schools. One with a high ratio of Pacific Islanders and a decile rating of five, the other, primarily Pakeha, where the fees are $18,000 a year. At the former, I struggled to connect with the students. Most said there were rarely newspapers in their homes. It was difficult for them to get their heads around the concepts I was discussing. At the latter, I marvelled. At the beauty of the grounds and the luxury of the aquatic centre, but mostly at the students and their level of engagement. They were interested and interesting. And while my instinct was to resent them their privilege, for the first time I considered why, if financially all this was within your reach, you would deny your child the benefits. I have friends for whom it wasn't within their parents' reach, and yet their parents scrimped and they saved, sacrificing personal indulgences, holidays, restaurant dinners, better models of cars, all so their child could attend a private school. I often wonder whether, now their children are grown, on measure they decide it was worth it. And whether, in their place, I would be so selfless.
Amidst the furore this past week over the Government's plans to increase class sizes, John Key was reminded that a few years ago he said he had sent his own children to private school because the teacher to student ratio was better than in state schools.
Money might not buy you happiness but evidently it can buy you a stonking education.
Education, though, should not be measured in purely scholastic terms. When I think back to my school days, what left the greatest impression were the friendships made, the extraordinary fourth form social studies teacher who coached me as the prosecution to win a classroom trial, and watching our champion Samoan cultural group practise their sasa in preparation for the annual interschool Polyfest. I'm not sure having my own tablet or horse riding lessons at lunchtime would have enhanced it at all. There's something to be said too, I think, for being able to walk to school with your best mate who lives down the road. A real sense of being part of a community.
My husband, a man who runs a successful company, cannot spell to save himself. He left school as soon as he could. Hated being told what to do. Still does. He regularly has me proofread his reports and tenders.
The other day he rang asking me how to spell "continual". Even Spell Check can't help me, he pleaded. Sound it out, I suggested. "P.I.S.S. O.F.F." he spelt.
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