I remember the day I met Bernard. I was in Jackson, Wyoming on a mission to determine whether or not my sister had lost her mind. Six weeks earlier she had called in the middle of the night to inform me she was getting married. This news was a surprise, as the last time I had spoken with her she was in tears over how much she hated Jackson and wanted to come home.
“You’ll love Rick, I promise. He’s from Andover, and he’s just like all those preppy people you went to college with. Come visit, and you’ll see.” Then she added, “And he’s got this great roommate from Santa Fe. He’s funny and artsy, and he builds stuff. You can’t date him, but you’ll really enjoy meeting him.”
So there I was, standing on the deck of my future brother-in-law’s condo, watching my future husband bound down the hill and across the creek. I should mention that my sister is a most artful conniver.
The differences between Bernard and me are extraordinary. He’s a public school kid from the great outdoors of the Southwest, one of four boys born to a Dutch school teacher and Notre Dame engineer-turned art dealer. I am a private school scholar, one of two girls born to Maid of Cotton Tour public relations manager and University of Virginia cheerful troublemaker. He’s Catholic; I’m Protestant. He can’t spell; I can’t ski. I masquerade as a nonconformist; he’s a card-carrying, genuine iconoclast.
When we met, Bernard was managing a ski rental shop and building elk antler chandeliers. I was working for an advertising agency and being recruited for a marketing job with a large telecommunications company. Our joke was that I was smart about the smart stuff, and he was smart about the dumb stuff. We dated for four years, while he was living in Wyoming and I in Omaha, before we came to Memphis to fix up a rental property I owned. Our plan was to move west within six months as Memphis wasn’t a first choice, or second or even tenth, for either of us. When my mother got sick, six months became a year, then two years when we started a family, then, somehow, fourteen.
Our first argument as parents was about school, private versus public, for our son. I won the initial round. I said horrible, mean, unforgivable things and won. Sure that I knew what was best for the child’s future, I put him where I felt most comfortable.
After a few years, however, it was obvious that the school wasn’t a match for our son, or for us. We took what was for me a great leap and moved him to a public school. The school we selected had high academic standards for admission and a decades-long track record of performance. What made it a perfect fit, however, had little to do with its formal credentials. The school was full of students, teachers and parents who were different from one another and different from us. My son, like his father, felt completely at home. Surprisingly, so did I.
Our son is now finishing elementary school, and we face the task of selecting a middle school. This time there is no argument. Our son’s first choice, which also happens to be ours, is the optional (magnet) program at the public school close to his elementary school. The only way to gain admission, if you live outside the school’s district boundaries and meet the admission requirements, is to take a number. The lower the number, the better your chances. Tents go up five days before the school board starts distributing forms.
Last Friday at 5 a.m. Bernard packed his warmest gear and most comfortable camping chair to queue up with the rest of the out-of-district parents to get our son into the school we both want. It was an all-in commitment, from Friday at 5 a.m to Tuesday morning at 6:30. We embraced the ridiculousness of the long weekend apart with each of us accepting our destined roles, Bernard’s in Tent City kibitzing with the crowd and mine in our kitchen, planning what’s next. As our daughter put it, “Mama’s good at paperwork; Daddy’s good at camping.”