Thursday, August 6, 2009


Ask people about Berkeley High and they all say the same thing: " It's either very good or very bad." Meaning, if your kid is motivated, there's sports, art, drama, music (with a renowned jazz ensemble), swim team (including a huge pool), international baccalaureate and AP classes up the wazoo. You've got all the resources you need to get junior into an Ivy or UC Berkeley. But if your kid is an underachiever whose only goal is to "do what I have to to make it through the system and accommodate my parents' values", you're in for it. Our son's first and last period teachers couldn't be bothered to take attendance, so those were the two periods he skipped most often. He also managed to come to class stoned more than once, but that, apparently, is why they call it Berkeley High. Don't even get me started on his friends. Suffice to say, they are not in the International Baccalaureate program.

So it was time, once again, for a school change. The short term goal was to get the little albatross in an environment where the teachers take attendance, parents get notified about drug or alcohol abuse and kids are suspended for bad behavior. If he makes new friends, so much the better. As for the long-term goal – well, we stopped having those a while back.

We ruled out private school because 1. He can't get in anywhere, 2. We can't shell out right now and 3. It won't make a damn bit of difference unless he makes up his mind to do the work. We toyed with moving back to the East Coast where we might have more of a support system, but there's no job for me to go back to. In fact, every single one of my friends at my former place of employment has been laid off.

You worry about your children until you die, but you only raise them for a brief period of time - especially when you have a kid who's intent, however misguidedly, on raising himself. In a couple of years, the boy will be attending community college, learning a trade, riding the rails or beginning his career as a night club bouncer. Eventually, we hope he realizes there's more to life than having a good time. Meanwhile, we have to think about where we would like to live once he is off doing his thing or figuring out what his thing might be.

Strolling through the Berkeley Hills on a glorious June day, I had an epiphany: I no longer want to move back East. We don't have the stomach for any more upheaval and none of the major decisions we've made have helped straighten out our son. Not the wilderness program, not the boarding school or the private school or the cross country move (which to be fair was partly motivated by my husband's chronic California dreaming). Besides, I love it here. I want to live where a beach, a mountain or a redwood grove are all less than an hour away. I want to watch the fog creep over the hill tops. I want to look out the window and see a teeny-tiny, lime green humming bird hovering by a tree full of teeny-tiny, lime green limes. Maybe this is an aesthete's version of hedonism and maybe it's more profound. Some people do church: I do nature.

We settled on moving to Orinda, a quiet suburban community just on the other side of the Berkeley Hills. The high school is small and secluded. It's a closed campus. They take attendance, and there's nowhere to go if you cut class. If the boy messes up, he'll get suspended or maybe expelled, which is as it should be.

Having decided to make a local move, we faced a complicated schedule: We needed to be out on the 21st but couldn't move in to our new rental place until the first. I had to work three days a week, for both weeks of the transition, and since I don't own a lap top, that meant shlepping my regular macintosh. We put the kid on a plane to Minneapolis to go see his friend from last year's boarding school, after which we hit the road for Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras.

After a too-brief mountain interlude, we had to head back so I could return to work. My husband, my mac and I spent our last three transitional days – thank you Mileage Plus – at Berkeley's fabulous old Claremont Hotel. Just 7 years shy of its 100th birthday (2016) the Claremont is elegant and honking-huge, with a classic, subdued decor and quiet, comfortable rooms. There's a very nice gym, tennis and pool club on the grounds. The landscaping features plenty of healthy, hearty, two-toned roses in romantic hues. The lobby, with its well polished dark wood counter and striking period chandeliers, evokes the ghosts of visitors past. And alas, the Claremont too looks like a ghost, as it has been painted, from foundation to roof, a hideous, unrelenting, blinding white.

At first, I accepted this strange uni-whiteness as an unfortunate fact of life. Perhaps painting it white was a green thing to do. But then, by the elevator I noticed a reproduction of an old, framed photo of the Claremont as it was meant to be. Not Casper-the-friendly-hotel, but a neo-Tudor castle.The building faces several directions at once yet somehow the whole thing works. Every outer wall is buttressed (or probably merely adorned) with precisely cut, meticulously installed beams. It's a prodigious amount of beautifully executed labor. I did a quick internet search but all I learned is that the paint job isn't new. By the mid-forties, the hotel already looked like a white, plastic toy building, abandoned at the base of the hillside by some giant, puckish toddler.

So now I am settled in Orinda, and I need to find my way out of this yarn, but I can't really tie the big white hotel back to anything. I could compare that paint job to the tough exterior my kid affects, but that would be pushing it. I could muse wistfully about a few days' limbo free from parental responsibilities towards someone who doesn't believe such a thing should exist. Nothing like hotel life for taking you out of your reality. But the true metaphor here is that I don't know the ending. For this post, and for that handsome, obstinate, rebellious boy, my son.

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