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Sep 25 2013

Elementary School Bumper Sticker Pride is Now a Thing

By at 9:55 am

los angeles carsAs in all parts of the country, cars in California are used as vehicles–so to speak–for brandishing school pride. Graduates of USC, UC campuses, the many Cal States, Stanford, and other places of higher education give nods to their west coast alma maters.

Yet now there’s another genre of institution affiliation symbol, one that starts much earlier than college: elementary school. And not your garden variety “My Child Is an Honor Student” genre of bumper sticker. Those are downright quaint in the context of current parenting culture.

Instead what I’m noticing around town generally falls into two categories: stickers featuring model public schools, i.e. those with high test scores and an active support network, often charters, or fancy private schools. In all honesty, I find public school pride way less irksome, and if anything, it’s often an important symbol, given the ravaged state of public education in this state.

What to make of it? Is early school spirit expression just an L.A. thing? I doubt it. A friend who relocated to Charleston points to that town’s bumper sticker madness. Regardless of this phenomenon’s ubiquity on a national scale, its implications are complicated.

On the one hand, major kudos to involved parents. Times have changed since the days when my folks’ job was basically to make sure we got to school, came home safely, finished our homework, and tried a couple of extra curricular activities. I think we made a Betty Crocker cake for a bake sale once, which pretty much totaled the extent of their engagement outside of struggling to make tuition payments. Which was definitely more than enough.

We didn’t talk about a school “community.” Parents had their distinct place–in my case, both their respective offices–and kids had ours. We didn’t socialize much with the other families, outside of kid playdates. This boundary has been intensely blurred in recent years, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the much, much better. Just ask me about that when I’m still kibitzing with fellow parents half hour after drop-off, or I’m doing some school-related volunteer project.

Broadcasting to the world (or at least to the other people in nearby passing cars) what college you went to is a form of showing dignified allegiance, or maybe it’s showing off. Call it what you want. Publicly identifying where your kids go to school, especially when they haven’t hit double digits? Sweet and caring–but also a little weird.

Did the children fill out the kindergarten applications on their own? While their awesomeness helped land them in a dream school, what really got them there? The answer has more to do with the parents than the kids, and maybe here’s another example of how we’re ego merging too much, too soon. While the news regarding the overall academic aptitude of American students is grim, competition at the most elite institutions has never been tougher. Now the entire family is getting caught in the undertow.

I would have been mortified if my folks replaced the Toyota of Hollywood plate frame with one emblazoned with bouncy letters representing the initials of our now harder-to-get-into-than-Harvard elementary school. It also would’ve provided an amusing juxtaposition given our fancy school and our not-fancy cars. Not surprisingly, upscale school markers tend to be affixed to high-end autos.

I’m not above the fray either, however. Our synagogue, where our son goes to day school, requires that members place a permit on the driver’s side front windshield. So when I recognize that logo around town, I know I see one of us, and they might know I’m one of them, too.

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