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August 2011

Family Affair

In spring 2010 my wife and I got a letter from Denver Public Schools informing us that True, the older of our two sons, had tested into the “Highly Gifted and Talented” program—HGT, in DPS parlance. What this meant, I learned from the letter, was that our then nine-year-old was in the top one percent of the student population. Good news. Naturally, as parents we felt extraordinarily fortunate. As we read on, the letter informed us of our options: Already, DPS had reserved a spot for him in a nearby school’s HGT program; we could try to “choice” him into another district HGT program; he could stay at his current school; or we could remove him from DPS and enroll him elsewhere. Naturally, as parents we were now freaked out.

The thing about parenting is that you’re always wanting to make the right choice for your kid, and you’re always second-guessing yourself. You question the call you make in the moment, just after the moment, or maybe long after the moment. Is another hour of TV too much? Would a sleepover at that kid’s house be the best idea? A pocketknife? Did I need to yell? As your children hit the teen years, you still wonder if the real-time decisions you make for your kid will be the right ones later. What if what I’m deciding turns my child into an adult with a shrink on speed dial, or creates a cult member, or God forbid, another mime?

Excluding medical issues, no choices are more ulcer-inducing for a parent than the ones about school. We’re talking about education, the most critical factor in determining a person’s chances for success in life. And, oh, by the way, embedded in the school choice is the social and psychological everything else. School choice, now here’s an opportunity for us to really make or mess up our kid’s life. Sing it with me: Krishna. Krishna-Krishna.

So, there we were with this letter feeling fortunate and, as only parents would be, overwhelmed. Regarding this HGT business, there was not only True’s welfare to consider; there was also his brother, Jack, who’s 20 months younger than his brother, a grade behind. They are extremely close. During the daily eight-block walk to their shared school, I’ve taken dozens of pictures of the two from behind; in almost all of them, they’re holding hands. By then they’d been attending the same school for four years. They’d developed the same circle of friends, and as far as they were concerned, their brotherly bond was the core. What now?

Along with the questions about how we should explain all this to True in a way that would be constructive, there was the question of how to explain it to Jack—Jack, who himself is intellectually nimble, a street-smart, knee-high ninja-meets-ward-boss. In the backseat of the car one day, True said he wanted to go to a college where they teach you how to build fighter jets; Jack said he wanted to go to the school where they teach you how to fly fighter jets. Which sounds about right. Complicating everything was the clock: Thanks to the DPS bureaucracy, we had less than two weeks to—in a single omnipotent verb—decide. And one of those two weeks was spring break, so that made visiting any other DPS schools challenging.

We talked to True first. We told him about the letter and, in short, conveyed that he learned more rapidly and differently. We said that an HGT school was designed to teach kids like him. Honestly, my wife and I weren’t sure where we stood on all of this. We had some thoughts, but we were going to take our cues from True’s reactions. He was seated in a chair on our patio, hands pushed deep in his pockets, legs crossed, professorially so, as is his way. After we had our say, he had two questions: Would we have to move from our house? He didn’t want to because our neighborhood, his elementary school, had become—and these were his words—“a second family.” It was a warm, sunny day, and my wife and I were both wearing sunglasses, which was good, because my eyes began to tear. No, I said, we won’t have to move.

His second question was what the student-teacher ratio would be at the new program. When I was nine, I didn’t even know what the word “ratio” meant, and I certainly didn’t care how many kids were in my class. We said we weren’t sure, but that we could visit the other school. He said he’d like that. Nine-year-old True said he was “leaning toward” going to the HGT program. “This is a lot to take in,” he said. “Can I have some time to decide?” Of course. Just as he was about to get up from the patio chair, he asked, “Are you going to talk to Jack, or should I?”

A few hours later, when we broached the topic with Jack, who was seven at the time, he had only two responses: “Why can’t the school where we are now give True’s brain what it needs?” Moments later, he said, “I understand True needs to go where he can be the best person he can be.” My wife and I looked at each other, stunned that these children were ostensibly so comfortable with such change, such risk, such…

So, True visited the other school. He liked it. We could have tried to choice Jack into that school as well, and we discussed that with him, but he declined, emphatically.

Their first year apart wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns. The new school’s bus picked up True at his old school, Jack’s current one, and for the first few days, after True left, Jack would quietly go off to a bench or a swing and miss his bro. It was heartbreaking. But in time, in no time, really, Jack created his own groove in the schoolyard of friends. He became even more of who he is—and perhaps more of who he’s going to become—which is pretty independent. He continued to do very well at school. He even wrote an essay about his hero: his brother, “Truey.”

Meanwhile, True’s brain got what it needed: field trips to the National Renewable Energy Lab, research papers on sensors and publicly traded companies, and an assignment to build a “Solar Cooker.” His mother and I had been extremely concerned that HGT might be too serious, too rigorous, too something, and that maybe he should have stayed put—maybe we should have made that decision instead. And so we turned to his teacher. During our first meeting, I looked the teacher in the eye and said, “Please, what we want to know is, is this the right place for him?” I could tell he could tell what I was asking. “Yes,” he said. “This is where he belongs.”

Belongs. That word has lingered with me. Belongs. That, too, is what parents want for their child: to belong, right? And belonging requires change. And doesn’t all change come with a certain amount of risk?

Recently, I asked True about the past year and he said all of the changes have gone “pretty much as I expected.” Jack, who was standing by, nodded in agreement, then grabbed True’s arm and said, “C’mon, Truey.” They took off to the yard.

Did we do the right thing? Really? For the long run? Are these changes really the best for our kids? The truth is, I don’t know. I mean, it seems great now, but still…. We made a choice. As parents, we do what we think is the right thing, and we second-guess ourselves. When picking schools, there’s no way of knowing, no way of being certain. But I do know that, as of now, our boys feel like they belong, their brains appear to be getting what they need, and they’re still holding hands.

-Maximillian Potter