Here's an excerpt from the interview. To read the full story, click here.
Last June, when Los Angeles performance artist and public radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh helped lead a rally to the California state capitol for more school funding, perhaps no one was more surprised than Loh herself. Her transformation from popular author and comic to public schools activist began four years earlier, when her plans to get her older daughter into a good kindergarten went awry. She eventually started an organization called Burning Moms. Loh recounts the journey in Mother On Fire (Crown, $23). She talks with USA TODAY about her experience:
Q: It's 2004. You, your musician husband and your two daughters live in Van Nuys. Your 4-year-old is in preschool and you begin searching for a kindergarten. What happens next?
A: We're a middle-class family, which feels like we're the last middle-class family in Los Angeles — the last one had packed up the Volvo wagon and gone to Portland a year earlier. When kids hit school age, people just start fleeing the city unexplained. So I didn't have much real information. … I'd go on www.greatschools.net, look at the statistics, freak out and not even visit my local school, which is what many parents do.
Q: You began looking into private schools, but many had "nosebleed tuition."
A: I found that the religious ones were more affordable — the more religious, the more affordable. Catholics were more expensive, Lutherans middle and Baptists were the only ones we could afford. The Quakers were off the charts, particularly if there's the word "Friends" in the title — or if the kids were being taught in an old Quaker wooden schoolhouse with authentic Shaker furniture.
Q: You tried to get your daughter into a Lutheran school, but things didn't work out on the entrance exam. She was supposed to name as many animals as she could in a timed test. What happened?
A: She named animals — lion, tiger, hippopotamus — that's a big word for a 4-year-old! And then it turned out, to my horror, she had flunked the entire test and had to be held back a year because she was "developmentally impaired."
Q: Stopping at "hippopotamus" was her mistake?
A: She was waiting for praise, and the instructor just sat there with a totally flat face and a stopwatch.
Q: I don't want to give away too much, but she ends up at a nice public school where the teachers are great.
A: Many of them, they've taught for 20 years. And I think teachers are very unsung. They don't have any fancy new theory about what they're doing. They've simply moved 20 kindergartners across classrooms, playgrounds — and, of course, in and out of the bathroom! — for 20 years. The children learn, they have fun — there's no fancy new theory, it's just decades of teachers' day-in, day-out experience, the love of their work, the joy. Of course there are headaches. But in my experience, most teachers do love their work — why else would they do it? There are easier ways to make a living.