Performance Artist Writes 'Mother on Fire'

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Artist and author Sandra Tsing Loh has a new book about her life as a mother of two young children and the agony and ecstasy of sending them to Los Angeles public schools. She talks with host Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Sandra Tsing Loh says that when she started out with a degree from Caltech about the soul of an artist, she aimed to be the next Amy Tan. More than 20 years later, she has to admit Amy Tan is still Amy Tan. But Sandra Tsing Loh has a new book derived from her solo show about being in her 40s and coming to terms with being a mother by definition, as much as an artist or performer, and what that entails in modern-day Los Angeles, a place where some people buy million-dollar houses just to send their children to what amounts to exclusive public schools and drive Priuses to take a private jet to get back to nature in Aspen.

Her book is called "Mother On Fire." It has a subtitle we really can't repeat. Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly. She's also been a regular on Morning Edition, This American Life, and Marketplace, and on member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. She joins us, though, today from member station WNYC in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. SANDRA TSING LOH (Actress; Writer): It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: At the heart of your book is the search for a good urban public school for your daughters. First, an observation. There are an awful lot of gifted children these days, aren't there?

Ms. TSING LOH: Yes. It turns out everybody is gifted. It's epidemic. I think it's because all that puerile, you know, (unintelligible). So everybody's gifted now. There's no average child walking around except for, I think, my own children who I noticed as they were girls, they had an incredible penchant for - they loved to bathe their stuffed animals and shampoo their unicorns. And there were true stories that I'd always hear because we wrote an L.A. Times advice blog, a parent-to-parent advice blog.

And we would literally get questions that went, you know, my son is four years old and I know he's extremely gifted. I've had him gifted by three different psychologists who said he's at the top five percent of the population, probably more than closer to the 0.1 percent. So our local public school is a prize-winning public school, has a great gifted program. Everyone's pulling their kids out of private to go to this public school. But when I went and visited it for several months, I feel Ezekiel will be bored.

And so you have this picture of a 43-year-old woman sitting through kindergarten every day, auditing kindergarten, and feeling her whole body vibrating that Ezekiel is going to be a little bit bored. And he just basically can barely wipe his rear to go to the bathroom. And they're kids. So, they are five, they need to sit in desks, and just do that. But we've had in L.A. - because I'm an activist - we've thrown events called Martinis and Magnets where we explain the magnet system to L.A. parents and then ply them with Martinis to dim the pain. It's very successful.

And so - but what we would do is we would first give out these middle-class parents, like, questionnaires, because we realize that many of these type-A parents needs therapy first. Then we can talk about schools. And so we would go, on the scale of one to ten, how anxious are you about your local public elementary? And they'd go, eleven! And you'd say, have you ever set foot inside the school? No! Do you know any living human being who's ever walked inside the school? No! Where do you get your information? Well, the front page of The New York Times, even if they don't live in New York. Or of course NPR where the reception goes in and out as you go to the grocery store. So you always hear this NPR bulletin that goes, Harvard studies have found that graduation rates are plummeting, crrrr. And then the signal goes away, and then you're left in this constant feeling of terror as a parent.

And then we would ask these same parents kind of like, what is your peak educational experience? We'd go to the back of the page just to figure out why they were so manic about schools. And we would get responses like, my peak educational experience was the day I left grad school, and I want to make sure I redo the legacy for my daughter, Sierra, who's four. Good luck, Sierra. Or it's kind of like, the day at modern dance master's degree in Oberlin when we turned our chairs to each other. That was my peak educational experience.

So these parents are trying to recreate this peak graduate school experience in - it's just kindergarten. But I think that we need therapy, because we've been through a few decades. I mean, my parents, Chinese-German, you know, were very anxious about school. So we feel if the kid doesn't get absolutely every advantage in education, they'll drop out of our middle-class meritocratic cast. And there's such fear around this. And it's very viral, and it's very irresistible, and it's really hard to fight.

SIMON: Your oldest daughter, I guess, is in a public school.

Ms. TSING LOH: Yes.

SIMON: And you like the place a lot.

Ms. TSING LOH: I do. And they're both in the same school, and it's a really interesting school. It's a small school in Los Angeles. It's a magnet school, although it is not a gifted magnet. It is just by nature of where we live. So the mix of kids - it's title one, so it's like 57 percent free and reduced lunch. It is very brown. So when my daughter first disappeared, she was the only blond in a sea of brown. And her class is one-third English learners. And I think public school gets such a bad rap. Every time you read about public school in the newspaper, it's going to be a shooting, a bombing, a fire, you know, a pit bull has gone loose and chewed off five people's arms.

But I think I was really struck when I finally found this school that looks very tattered. It's improving. But when you look past its sort of tattered surroundings, I saw teachers in there who had been teaching like 20, 30 years who were fantastic. It's a lot of people who care deeply about children every single day, because it's not an easy way to make money. And I think private school is much better at customer service and making the parents feel better, especially in Los Angeles. It's almost like a spa for the parents where you drop your kids off, where they give you a beautifully baked thing, and let the parents write their own newsletter about global warming.

But I think public school for me is like Costco, you know, that it's really ugly from the outside - horrible lighting, weird parking, towers of toilet paper, and stuff you don't want - but if you look a little bit harder, you'll find the great hothouse tomatoes and Glenlivet(ph) at an amazing price. And that's sort of what I found with my own L.A. Unified School District. It's got the biggest instrument repair workshop on the planet. It's got an unlimited number of upright pianos. You just have to ask for it. And I go, why didn't I know this? And they said, no one ever asks.

So I'm kind of one of those pushy, middle-class parents that's going to get in there and demand value. And I think that can really help. But I know parents who have been of my generation - very liberal, progressive, good parents - who were just like, the lighting, fluorescent lighting! It gives our family a headache. So they're really turned off by the aesthetics of it. But I just want our generation to toughen up. Let's fix it.

SIMON: You've started a music program at your school?

Ms. TSING LOH: Yes. And that was one thing that I had grown up in California in supposedly the golden years. And I remember our orchestra played "Petrushka" and "Pictures at an Exhibition" and "The Planets." And so at our little school, the auditorium is kind of a cracked asphalt topping with a few weeds coming out of it. And our music program - although, you know, the teachers are great - but it just bothered me that the assemblies were a little bit like singing and karaoke to prerecord and stuff. That felt very sad to me because I grew up with music in my own home, even though I hated it at the time.

And I think live music is really, really important. And I think it's very important to do together. It's much more fun to play to music together than the one person listening to their lone iPod Shuffle. I think it's an amazing way to build community and have children do things that are funded that's not a videogame. Just a sight of those kids picking up those violins, as long as they don't poke each others' eyes out, it means we are aspiring for something better. It is, you know, violins. We have a little chess club. You don't have to be a wealthy kid to enjoy this. And I do think that these things should be marketed to poor kids - who might otherwise just have a big screen TV preaching Disney at them - to market that it is fun to play an instrument and to make a chord. It's really magical.

SOMON: Sandra, so nice talking to you.

Ms. TSING LOH: It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Sandra Tsing Loh, her new book is "Mother On Fire" with a subtitle we can't exactly repeat. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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