#320: The Mothers

May 14th, 2014

I’ll remember a lot.

I’ll remember the little kosher candies I swiped from the front desk in case I had to cough on-air.

I’ll remember the weird, slightly damp path I had to take through the construction to get to the studio, plywood separating the makeshift walkway from the parking lot, a few signs jutting out, split by the plywood so they just said “rk” or “pper Level Parking.”

I’ll remember the burger I had before that at the fake Billy Goat, the one with sunlight and sky and a view of the other pier, the one that fell apart decades ago and the city left as a rotting home for thousands of squawking, fighting gulls.

I’ll remember walking up to the big sign that says “Navy Pier” and wondering if the natives of any place I visited thought as little of me for my destinations as I do of this mass of tourist camera and cargo shorts. I mean, do Parisians think people who visit the Eiffel Tower are lame?

But I’ll remember the mothers most of all.

I was on the radio. WBEZ 91.5, Chicago’s public radio station, studio on Navy Pier. It was cool. My mom and dad listened, as did all the people from work. I specifically didn’t tell an NPR-addicted friend of mine because I knew he would hear it and it would freak him out.

It was fun, I got to promote this project and “Afternoon Shift” host Niala Boodhoo is really nice.

But after the Parisian thoughts, double cheese, damp path and kosher candies and before the on-air intro, chatting, “Thanks for having me” and a text from the NPR friend asking how I could be on the radio and not tell him, I sat in the green room with the mothers.

They were the mothers of two eighth graders who appeared on the segment before mine. The students had been two of the five subjects in a local documentary following the process of getting into selective enrollment high schools.

17,000 kids apply each year, the documentary’s website said. There are only 3,200 spots. The process for getting those slots is as cruel, haphazard and bureaucratic as the fact it’s from Chicago implies.

Of those 3,200 of the 17,000, there were five who made the documentary. And only two of them were on the radio.

Sitting in the WBEZ lobby “green room” in red art deco chairs, the mothers and I could see through soundproof glass into the studio. A small radio on a small table covered in promotional information left by previous guests brought us every word said, just a split second later.

The mothers kept their eyes locked on their children. Both had their mouths slightly open, laughing at each minor joke the kids made to Niala Boodhoo and the documentarian, crushing in sorrow each time their child said something sad.

One was a white woman with close-cropped blonde hair and a tall, earnest son. The other was Hispanic, a little shyer. She hadn’t said much since she and her daughter entered the waiting room.

The boy mentioned something on-air about the cutoff scores, the numerical system that decides a child’s high school dreams. It’s a 900-point system. He got a 900.

“He got a 900?” the shy mother asked, picking each word carefully in an English that clearly still was difficult for her.

“He’s very dedicated,” the other mother said, proud but demur.

“That’s very good,” the shy mother said before sharing her daughter’s score. It was just a hair under that.

The two talked for a bit about test scores, grades, how hard both their children worked. They talked school district rituals that seem to me cruel and Darwinian, but to them accepted as a matter of course.

They talked without bragging, just sharing the facts with someone who could understand. But for a few polite glances, their eyes were locked on their children through the studio glass the whole time they spoke.

During my segment, Boodhoo asked how I find my stories.

I chuckled. I had my answer.

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