10 December, 2007

the madness of middle school choice

















Well, it's official: my last hope of remaining above the fray in this "11+ exam" insanity has been lost like a sock in the dryer. I had just been congratulating myself mildly on getting all the paperwork for all six schools on on time (just) and was planning to stop thinking about it all until the first exam in January, and telling myself how lucky we are to be able to afford a fancy school, when in the post came... an invitation to an interview at the top school. Now, we have no idea whether this is an indication of anything exciting (like a clandestine telephone call between our headmistress and the other?), or if every single applicant gets invited. In the absence of real data, we decided to err on the side of getting excited. Then in the post yesterday came two more invitations to interviews. And we know for certain that one further school doesn't invite applicants for interviews until after the exam, but that still leaves two more exciting and scary envelopes to anticipate.

And of course each invitation requires a telephone call AND a furthering of the invitation back to the school to confirm that yes, she's coming on that day. So in fact the madness continues. Listen to the child's schedule so far in January: school starts up again January 8. Then:

January 11: exam #1
January 12: interview #1
January 15: interview #2
January 18: exam #2
January 21: interview #3
January 25: exam #3

Will she still be standing by Groundhog's Day? Will any of us? We lay in the pre-school cuddle this morning and discussed it all in the bleak December light, with cats crawling all over trying to get to the radiator and press their faces against it. Surrounded by all her horsey rosettes that hang from the ribbon around her bedposts, it seemed like the world was a cosy enough place to protect her from all the pressure and competition that will be her life in a month's time, but who knows. And me? I definitely hit a secret panic button and have been a little nervy ever since.

What really scares me is not that she won't get into a good school, or two good schools, but that she WILL. And then everything will change. I hate change! I had a really vivid dream this morning about being back at her old school in New York, where we were so extremely happy, but where she was receiving at best a lacklustre education. But I was head of the Book Fair! And on the Winter Fair committee, and the Taste of Tribeca committee, and the Auction committee. I practically lived at school. Saw Avery nearly every day during school hours! And that was, if not quite the norm, certainly a common life for a Tribeca mother to live. We all lived at the school.

So in my dream the New York school was relocated to Sloane Square, but we were all still American. There were parents in my dream who I haven't thought of more than twice since we moved, but who were lifelike to the touch as I slept, and we were all gossiping and keeping tabs on our children's activities. And the amazing thing when I awoke was this: I feel nearly as at home now in our new school. Certainly I don't live there. But then, no one does. There just isn't the same level of parental involvement in an English school as there is in American schools, although I am comparing apples to oranges a bit: what if she had gone to a fee-paying school in America? Maybe they are as hands-off with parents as our school is, and yet our school considers itself to be very welcoming to parents, unusually so. It's just a different level of expectation, and I can't help but think that it has something to do with money. Our New York school wouldn't have an art program without the Winter Fair to raise the money for it. The Silent Auction paid for the librarian. At Avery's school now, all fund-raising efforts go to the Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Well, in any case I'm sure my dream was precipitated by my impromptu meeting yesterday with Avery's headmistress, she having caught me as I went upstairs to be read to by my Form Three gulls. "Don't leave, Kristen, without coming to see me about a date for your lecture!" This announcement gave me butterflies. What on earth made me think last summer that I was any kind of expert on literacy? When Mrs D invited me to speak this upcoming spring on the subject of reading aloud and children's literacy, why did I accept? What on earth do I know, other than some horribly trite things like "it will bring you closer to your child," or "it will help your dyslexic husband overcome his fear of the written word"? Because the latter is absolutely true, and maybe that's enough to begin the lecture.

In any case, after all my children had diligently read aloud to me from their various little books in their piping voices, I headed down to Mrs D's office to talk about my lecture. But although our comments on reading aloud flew fast and furious, what warmed my heart most was her absolute love for the children of King's College. She knows Avery like the back of her hand, better than we do as far as her life as a student goes, and every anecdote and observation came with a fond, wise smile. And her irreplaceable English expressions! She is the only person I have ever heard actually utter the words, "but what really creased me up..." about something that made her smile! And "going after these exams like billy-o," and saying that when something worries her, "and it occasionally does, Kristen!" she reaches for... Malory Towers! Comfort reading for the headmistress set!

I just wanted to leap across the desk and hug her. How lucky we have been to have her in our lives. I'm grateful, in a cowardly way, that we're leaving when she retires. King's College without her is unthinkable. At last I stood up to go, and saw the Christmas card from a former school family whose elder daughter is now gravely ill, and we talked for a moment about the family, our memories of them, the frightening prognosis. And then she did hug me. I've never cried in a headmistress' office before, but as she did as well, it seemed all right. "Right, that's enough of that, then, onward and upward!" she sniffed, and walked me to the door. What a lady.

Let's see, what else are we up to? We've been decorating Christmas cards, and it's really embarrassing when your child pats you on the hand and says, "Your ivy is getting much better, Mummy! Good on you! You're making great progress." Clearly she has been taking note of the English methods of encouraging backward pupils. She is an amazingly confident artist, and angels, bells, trumpets bearing tapestries, and snowflakes of every description flowed from her metallic pens. "The good thing about snowflakes is that no two are exactly alike, so it's all right if yours are a bit... unpredictable!"

Do you by any chance need a nice holiday dip? I must pass along a quintessentially American-tasting concoction kindly provided by my dear friend Shannon, one of the Form Six Mums' Choir (that just makes me laugh), who made it for us to tuck into after our choir practice on Monday. It's simple, sweet, and you dip apples into it, so it's even good for you.

Shannon's Pumpkin Dip

3/4 cup light cream cheese
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
2 tsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Place first three ingredients in a medium size bowl, beat until well blended. Add syrup and cinnamon, beat until smooth. Chill and serve with sliced apples.

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And Christmas shopping by mail! My new favorite store is Pedlars, and I guarantee you a quick look will solve your shopping trials for at least one person, adult or child. I have made some very satisfying purchases for certain people, so give it a try yourself.

Remember my scallops in scotch and creme fraiche, from Vincent's recipe? Well, in my time-honoured tradition of never being able to leave a recipe alone, I made it again last night with the addition of saffron, which made a lovely aroma and colour. It's worth posting again here to save you the trouble of going back, but one of my goals for the New Year is to fashion some sort of index for all my recipes. I can call it "working on my cookbook," to justify the time spent.

Scallops with Single-Malt Scotch, Creme Fraiche and Saffron
(serves 2 really hungry people)


16 King Scallops (the biggest you can get, roe on or off as you like)
4 tbsps unsalted butter
1 cup creme fraiche (or a mix of single and soured creams)
two shots good single malt scotch
juice of a half lemon
salt, pepper
pinch of saffron threads soaked in hot water for 10 minutes

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and simmer until it begins to brown, then lay the scallops in, clockwise so you remember which went in first. Cook until the edges begin to brown on the underside, and then turn the scallops over in the order in which you laid them in the skillet. Expect major splattering of butter. When the second side browns nicely, remove the scallops (again, in the proper order) to a waiting plate. This whole process should take about 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

To the skillet add the creme fraiche or creams. Simmer until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Add the scotch and cook down until no more smell of alcohol rises from the skillet. Taste and add lime juice, then salt and pepper and saffron. Return the scallops to the skillet and toss in the sauce for a minute. Plate up with sauce on the bottom, a nice helping of celeriac-potato mash, top with scallops and serve with sauteed asparagus.

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We had some bizarre gimmicky purple asparagus from Marks and Sparks, but don't bother. It stays very little purple after being cooked and tastes just like regular asparagus.

Now I'm having trouble with the green notion of eating only things that can be had seasonally in Britain (or wherever you live). I do get nervous at the proud little airplane on some Marks and Sparks vegetable packages, since we're meant to be AVOIDING food with air miles, not gravitating toward it. And I know some cookery writers say valiantly that no one REALLY wants strawberries in February, or asparagus in December, and that if we followed our taste instincts we would all want to eat nothing but root vegetables in all the months ending in R, and then live on tomatoes and corn on the cob during the summer. But in my heart of hearts, I want what I want, when I want it, and so does my family. Avery absolutely thrives on a bowl of mixed fruit every afternoon when she does her homework. And in December, it can't be only apples! And anyway, don't we need to support the people who grow bananas at Christmastime, for example? And what would we in Britain do for an avocado or lemon, I wonder? I'm getting curmudgeonly and it's just from guilt. I'd be interested in hearing how other real people get on in food shopping and cooking, and how we can get away with ordering soft shell crabs from Thailand. Help, someone!

Oh, we've been loving the new BBC programme, "Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work." It's a series of episodes watching the Queen make a state visit to Washington (President Bush actually appears in a very charming light, as a real person rather nervous to meet the Queen, as he is nervous about displeasing his own mum!), and receiving delegations from Commonwealth nations, and having tea with Tony Blair at Balmoral. It's very relaxing because it is so far removed from any normal person's way of life that the viewer can just sit back and enjoy, with no possibility of empathy!

Lastly, I wanted to tell you about a cooking disaster I had, turned successful. Bless my mother in law for rising to the occasion and coming up with a solution. The real message here is that I should never try to bake. My friend Twiggy has a theory that one cannot successfully cook anything that one does not look forward to eating. The upshot of this for me is that anything that includes sugar will not be something I want to eat, and yet every once in awhile some maternal instinct gone horribly wrong forces me to reach for the baking powder and hand blender and try to produce something sweet. I can recommend these cookies, partly because they're not particularly sweet, and partly for the burn of cinnamon that, frankly, makes them not much of a kid-pleaser. So last week when the itch to bake hit me, I thought, "Those cookies are foolproof, and if I make just half a batch, we should be able to appreciate them all. Plus cinnamon smells so Christmassy." With these mindless justifications to hand, I began.

And promptly screwed up. Because if you change two cups of sugar to one cup, and a teaspoon of something or other into a half teaspoon, guess how two eggs should end up? Not as two eggs! But I did, put in both eggs, I mean, and immediately could see that I had turned cookie dough into... something not cookie dough. Double hogwash! I was so annoyed with myself that I just left it all on the counter, and walked out in a huff to pick Avery up at school. On the way I called my mother in law in defeat. "Just pitch it and start over," was her first very welcome suggestion, but then we started to feel guilty over the air miles of my organic caster sugar, so she said bravely, with the air of a surgeon proposing one last, desperate measure to save the patient, "How about spread it in a big baking dish and make brownies?"

And it worked perfectly. They are dark, chewy, spicy and they keep forever (so far, over a week in an airtight biscuit tin). So try it yourself, do.

Treacle Brownies with Cinnamon
(makes about 32 brownies)


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp each ground cloves, cinnamon and ginger
dash salt
3/4 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups caster sugar
1/2 cup black treacle
2 large eggs

Mix all dry ingredients in a medium bowl, and the butter and sugar in a larger bowl. Beat the butter and sugar till fluffy, then add the treacle and mix well, then the eggs (both of them!). Finally with a beater on low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet, then spread in a 9x13 glass dish that's been sprayed with nonstick spray. Bake at 325 degrees for about 35-40 minutes, till center is cooked through.

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And you know what? The ARE Christmassy.

1 comment:

Lynette said...

Kristen,

I can't quite figure out how to e-mail you directly, so I'll try this route.

I stumbled on your blog in October as Pascal and I were preparing a quick trip to New York; I was thinking I might drop by your gallery! (I obviously hadn't heard of your move.)

Anyway, I just now heard on the radio that Dan Fogelberg passed away this morning. I was instantly transported to a time when you were a big part of my life. (I see that he's still on your list of favorites!)

I thought I'd use this excuse to let you know that you've come to mind several times lately. Good luck with the cookbook! It looks like a fun and delicious project. Happy holidays, too, by the way. I guess it's that time of year....

Lynette