I love the middle school application process!

Let’s talk about middle school.

I grew up in Arizona where the average kid just sails through his or her local elementary, then moves to the area middle school and then on to the high school. It’s all dictated by ZIP code.

In New York, of course, there are assessments of academic achievement, interviews, harsh judgments and lots of kids getting put into a box at the early age of 10.

Initially, I figured that I would go the safe route and put my kids in private school — get them in early, in pre-school, before testing was required, and just keep them there, ego safely intact.

Yes, well. Things change. I can’t really justify the expense of private school when I had a lovely public elementary around the corner. Besides, now that we’re in the thick of the middle school application process, I see things a bit differently. I actually see the process as a positive.

Eli and I have toured a number of schools together, listened to principals and administrators speak of their programs and their areas of focus and how they try to prepare kids for their future. We have walked the halls, ducking our heads into science labs and music rooms to gauge what they actually might be like. We have held hands and stared into each other’s eyes with nervous excitement at the prospect of where he will be next year, at the idea that one of these places will be his new home away from home, where he will go every day for many hours to learn and grow.

Amazingly, instead of being stressed and strained, angry at the idea of feeding my young son to the wolves, I find myself thinking what an important experience it is for him to begin to imagine who he is and what he wants for himself at this pivotal stage of development. Maybe, just maybe, starting that process now might actually help him work toward finding the things that might really fulfill him — and feed him — in his life. I think of the state of our country right now, of all the people frustrated by the current economy and unable to figure crucial first-time careers or required transitions into new fields of employ. I cross my fingers that this figuring process, and the one in a few years from now for high school, might go some way toward helping him make sense of where he fits into the world well before many kids have to think of it for the first time to figure college.

We limited the options somewhat, ruling out places that seemed like they might be pressure cookers, simply too far from home, or a mismatch with our family’s winning-isn’t-everything philosophy. I am impressed by the schools that place attendance and enthusiasm over grades and test-based achievements (not that Eli hasn’t done well, you understand). I don’t want him to get stuck in the trap of success-by-numbers that seems all too easy to get sucked into here and increasingly everywhere.

Eli seems relaxed. He easily figured his first-ranked school, and I, blissfully, am in agreement. It is a place where experiential learning is stressed over test scores, seemingly, and where he felt the most himself.

This process has offered us the chance to discuss Eli’s strong suits, what he might do well or like to do. I am confident that what I tell him is true, that we are lucky in our district to have an embarrassment of riches even as these trying economic times tear away at school budgets. I feel sure that he will be happy in his new home if only because he makes it so and has thought about how he might do that. Unlike when I first imagined it, applying to middle school is not so scary. It is a great opportunity for self-discovery.