January 7: The line to drop off my son’s application for kindergarten at Lusher Charter Elementary School is more than an hour long, I’m advised. I wonder if this is simply because I waited until the second-to-last day to turn in Ryan’s packet. Surely, that’s the reason, I tell myself.
While waiting, I overhear two parents behind me discussing their quest to get children into Lusher. One mother says she recently had her boy tested by a psychologist who declared his IQ to be in the genius range. The other mother says she enrolled her child at Newman after failing to get her into Lusher kindergarten; now she’s hoping to get her into first grade at Lusher.
I have an attack of second thoughts: Am I wasting my time? Ryan’s only wish yesterday was to catch a lizard. Now, to gain entry to Lusher, he is up against little Einsteins — professional test takers with the money to hire psychologists. Oh, my!
I will later learn that Ryan is one of a slew of kids competing for fewer than two dozen seats that remain to be filled.
The mother whose child went to Newman begins talking to me. I want to play it cool, so I try to think of something great Ryan has done. I quickly realize I’m not going to need it. She dominates the conversation so completely, I’ll be lucky to get a word in edgewise.
She informs me that she was not pleased with the score her daughter got last year. Indeed, she was so disappointed, she called Lusher and requested a meeting. Her child had been enrolled in a premier preschool, she contended; there was nothing on the test her daughter wouldn’t have known. She argued her case passionately, but to no avail. The score stayed unchanged.
After dropping off the application, I head to my local Dollar Tree and buy some educational workbooks. It won’t compare with IQ testing at a psychologist’s office, but maybe the practice exercises, coupled with spending meaningful time with Ryan, will be enough. We do puzzles; we go to the zoo; we read books together.
The test is only the beginning, of course. Next comes the lottery. As an out-of-district applicant, Ryan’s fate will hinge on the luck of the draw. I try to tell myself that it’s not all that important, this business of getting into kindergarten, but I know myself better than that.
I am desperate for Ryan to prove his worth on the test and make it to the lottery phase. Indeed, the whole move back to New Orleans from LaPlace, my refuge ever since Hurricane Katrina, has been about getting him into a good public school.
I have gone to the Internet to read up on Lusher, Hynes and Audubon. I’ve applied to all three of them, but Lusher is my first choice. Reader comment about the admission process only heightens my fears. Commenters speak of “discriminatory” practices “loaded dice,” “special permissions” and “back-room deals.” They offer no proof, but the negatives stay with me.
During the two-week period between dropping off the application and the actual test date, I do everything they tell you not to do. I drill Ryan: Which has more sides, an octagon or a pentagon? What number comes after 5? What state do we live in? And on … and on … and on. Ryan picks up on my nervousness and starts to worry. I feel like a stage mom. Two days prior to the test, I give up and try to act normal.
January 21: Test Day
As we drive to Lusher, Ryan seems unfocused, unaware how important this day is to his future. He talks about jumping on his friend’s trampoline later in the afternoon. But then the test comes back to mind. “Mommy,” he says, “I don’t know if I will pass, but I will do my best.” Ryan’s dad meets us at Lusher. He’s usually the cool-headed one, but I see worry in his eyes. So much is riding on this test.
A test administrator chats with us for a few minutes — small talk, a “warm-up” period, I conclude. Ryan just celebrated his fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. She asks him what his favorite birthday present was. “Nunchucks,” he tells her. The test administrator looks puzzled. Ryan clues her in: “The Ninja Turtles,” he says. My heart sinks: OMG! I hope she doesn’t think he is violent!
Ryan high-fives his dad and goes in to take the test. About 30 minutes later, he bursts back through the door: “I got all the answers right!” I glance up at the test administrator, but can’t quite read the look on her face. All I remember her saying is the word “thoughtful.”
I ask for a more definitive assessment of my little five-year-old and get no answer. Test results will be mailed to us, I’m told.
Did Ryan really do well or was his optimism just one moment in the “loaded” dice game I read about. Our roll of the dice didn’t include clinical testing, $15K preschools or European summer vacations. Surely, if the “special permissions” I read about are true, none will be granted to my son. For now, I have no choice but to anxiously wait, trusting in the process.
March 2: Ryan’s test score arrives in he mail. I tear open the envelope and start to scream: A perfect matrix score of 30! 95th percentile in reading comprehension, and 90th in math! WOW, Tier I!
With the good news, some bad news: Word comes from Hynes and Audubon. They will not be including Ryan in their lotteries. So what! Lusher is the one we really want.
I am on pins and needles. No, I am beside myself! The Lusher lottery and Ryan’s chances of surviving it are all I talk about.
March 11: The lottery scheduled for today is postponed for a week due to inclement weather
March 18: Lottery Day
The lottery starts at 2 p.m. Unfortunately, I have a 9:30 a.m. meeting in Baton Rouge to discuss the care of our current hospice patients. I try to think of a way to get out of the morning meeting but decide that I can’t let my obsession with the lottery interfere with my job.
I stop by a patient’s house after the meeting is over, a native New Orleanian who went to Lusher “eons” ago. She knows what today means to me. Our visit ends in prayer, and she tells me, “It’s done.” I am so touched by that, the concern of a dying woman for my son. This has to work!
On the drive back to New Orleans I debate whether to bring Ryan to the lottery. A friend tells me I shouldn’t because if Ryan doesn’t get in, he will feel defeated. I decide to bring him anyway. My mother and Ryan’s dad come with us. The car ride to Lusher is silent, except for Ryan’s tablet dinging as he racks up points on his favorite game. We park and say a prayer before getting out of the car.
On the way into the auditorium, my mother suddenly grabs my hand and pulls me away from the guys. “Don’t cry in front of everybody if Ryan doesn’t get in,” she warns. I tell her I won’t but secretly wonder if I’ll be able to restrain myself.
The auditorium is packed. I’m glad to see that a few other parents also brought their kids. We sit in the back row while lotteries for higher grade levels wrap up.
The principal takes the microphone. Now that siblings and in-district applicants have been admitted, only 38 places remain for next year’s kindergarten, we are told — and half of those 38 are reserved for children of Tulane faculty. That leaves 19 seats. Wow! I try to remain calm. I tell myself I only need one.
I become entranced by the projection screen, as if I can magically make Ryan’s lottery number — 506 — appear.
First pick … my heart pounds … not his number. Second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth. My palms are sweating and I feel fluttering in my chest. Seventh pick: number 506 is called! We jump up silently. I want to shout but I know it would be poor form. I see the intensity and anxiety on the faces of other parents.
My mom and Ryan’s dad thank the principal as we exit. I can’t open my mouth to speak. Outside the building, I look up at the sky and slowly say two words: “Thank you.” The four of us hug each other. The feeling is one of immeasurable joy, of answered prayers, of great things approaching. My mother is tearful but they are the best tears ever. As we walk back to our car, Ryan sees the school playground and asks, “Now can I play?” We burst into laughter. “Soon,” I reply.
So Ryan is off to Lusher in August! I am proud that I didn’t get discouraged by everything I heard and read. If I had, I would have missed a great opportunity for my son. But I can’t help thinking about the other Ryans out there. The ones who didn’t pass the test. Or, worse yet, the ones who aced it, then fell short in the lottery.
Chanell Williams, a New Orleans native, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in 1999 and went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from SUNO. A licensed clinical social worker, she provides services to hospice patients and their families. She identifies herself as a devoted Game of Thrones fan.