Mother on Fire

A few years back — according to an article she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in March 2008 — the writer and NPR radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh got a chance to interview Jonathan Kozol, the author of Savage Inequalities, Shame of the Nation, and other scathing assessments of American public education. Although she counts herself as “long-time, rabid fan” of Kozol, she nevertheless had some beef with the guy. “Speaking of moral leaders,” she claims to have said, “since your work is so admired by such magazines as Harper’s and The Nation, why don’t you simply exhort those readers to SEND THEIR KIDS TO PUBLIC SCHOOL? How many of those staffers’ kids are in elite privates? Talk about Shame of The Nation!” Kozol, who has no children, politely said that he didn’t feel fit to judge other parents’ private decisions. It was up to Loh, who does have two children in the Los Angeles public schools, to do a little exhorting of her own.

And exhort she has! From her bully pulpit as a contributing editor at the Atlantic and a regular NPR commentator, Loh has emerged as this generation’s worthy — and wildly funnier — successor to Kozol. A self-described “Pushy, Type A, whitish mother” (her father is from Shanghai; her mother, from Germany) who considers herself a member of the “middle-class poor,” Loh has channeled her considerable, aggressive talents into improving her children’s school: Among other things, she’s banded together with Armenian and Salvadoran mothers to start an after-school basketball team, snagged a grant from VH1 to buy instruments and start a music program, and started a blog to help other parents navigate the “RING OF HELL” (this is a woman partial to ALL CAPS) known as the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But as her new memoir, Mother on Fire, makes abundantly clear, it was not always thus. The year her eldest daughter, Hannah, turned four, Loh pursued the perfect school with the kind of ardor usually reserved for pursuit of a lover — and initially, not a single one of them was in the L.A. public school system. In fact, while the book opens with Loh sending the Kahlo-worshipping, pierced, tattooed feminista undergrads she teaches at Marymount College into paroxysms of horror with her “portrait of the narrative in the post-feminist age” — a chalkboard scrawl that reads, “NO MORE MR. DARCY!” — each new school she visits, in her mind, is rated on how closely it resembles a suitor in Pride and Prejudice. Forget the trophy husband, Loh implies — for the modern mother, it’s all about the trophy kid. And who decides whether you’ve bred a winner? Why, the school admissions officer, of course.

Of course, trophy husbands are useful — someone has to foot the tuition for the trophy school, and sadly, Loh doesn’t have one of those. Her own husband, Mike, a bread-baking, tomato-growing, intermittently employed studio musician, is a sweet, artistic, family-oriented kind of guy described as having “the soul of Mr. Darcy with the income of Mr. Collins” (who came in dead last among the Austen-novel suitors). Loh has always been at her best when describing the crunch of being an artist with upper-middle-class tastes and middle-to-lower-middle-class income — back in her 30s, in her collection Depth Takes a Holiday, she was writing about her family’s infatuation with Ikea and Trader Joe’s — and it’s here that she differentiates herself from most contemporary writers on post-feminist family life, the vast majority of whom seem unapologetically preoccupied with the child-rearing dilemmas of “professional-class” (i.e., wealthy, educated) parents (A partial laundry list would include: Sylvia Anne Hewlett, Lisa Belkin, Allison Pearson, Meg Wolitzer, Judith Warner, Adam Gopnik, and Caitlin Flanagan, Loh’s predecessor at the Atlantic).

As a Cal Tech–educated radio personality and author of four books, Loh is hardly the poster woman for the working poor. Likewise, she’s hardly above yearning for the baubles enjoyed by her wealthy friends, be it the four-handed massage she gets at a spa day with her screenwriter friend, or admission to Wonder Canyon, the school so exclusive that no one can even get a tour. But more often than not, her writing hinges on the moment when the bill, be it literal or metaphorical, comes due and she reminds herself — and her readers — how few have the dough to pay. The cast of characters reads like a (sometimes kindly) satire of 21st-century über-parents: There’s Aimee, the pharmaceutical rep, who sends Loh dire updates on schools via BlackBerry and is convinced her son, Ben, is a violin virtuoso (when Loh replies, “Perhaps Ben can grow up to be a musician, a real working musician like Mike, and move out to where we live, in Van Nuys,” Aimee’s husband snaps back, “Well, there are plenty of surgeons who enjoy playing the violin!”). Loh’s long-lost best girlfriend, Celeste, suggests she “liquidate some stock” to pay for her child’s education (Loh has none, of course), and there are some tense years after Celeste’s stepdaughter mistakes Loh for the Third World nanny of her own blonde children. Los Angeles, Loh discovers, is suffering from “an epidemic of frighteningly gifted children,” according to their upper-middle-class parents, who wield diagnoses of ADD and Asperger’s syndrome like badges of honor and insist their offspring are too fragile for the rough-and-tumble world of subpar schools. Loh sums up one overprotective mother’s view: “Some children in this world survive without shoes; Ezekiel will not survive if he has to take French from a non-native speaker.”

Loh’s chance to secure a place for her own children in the world of the “frighteningly gifted” comes, incidentally, from a well-timed — and by now infamous — use of the F-word. When her engineer failed to bleep an expletive she let loose when she pre-recorded her public radio show, Loh was fired — and soon thereafter became a bona-fide free-speech celebrity. She was covered by CNN, the BBC, and Frank Rich, invited to gatherings where socialites smashed their NPR mugs in her honor. Most important, she was offered a slot at the Cartier of kindergartens (for only $25,000 per year!).

And yet, we all know how it ends. Loh’s “A-hah!” moment comes when she walks into Guavatorina, the neighborhood public school she has thus far likened to sending her kid to school in Mexico. “Every time I’ve spat out ‘Guavatorina,’ it never occurred to me that any of us was talking about actual children,” she writes. “I had always assumed we were talking about the Bush administration, an evil government torture institution, twin office towers full of bureaucrats, a bunch of smoky, sky-fouling oil derricks.” But standing in the classroom, looking at a room full of kindergarteners she realizes: “It’s like that moment when Charlton Heston yells, ‘Solyent green?is people!’ Oh my God, I think. The horrible truth is?Guavatorina?is children!” And those of us with kids in the public schools have found our post-feminist, post-Kozol, fire-breathing advocate. Who needs Mr. Darcy?