Out of America: Anxious parents stake their claim

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - It was mid-afternoon when my wife hit the panic button. If we were serious about getting our three-year-old son into the local school in September, we had better get over there and start queuing. Never mind that registration would not begin until nine o'clock - the next morning.

We had been warned about this, but I had never quite believed it. Every year, it seems, when our neighbourhood school takes names in the summer for its extremely popular - and oversubscribed - pre-kindergarten class in the autumn, the same peculiar ritual occurs.

At some unpredictable hour the day before, anxious parents will start forming a line outside the main school doors, just as if they were queuing for Wimbledon or the Harrods sale.

The secret, it seemed to me, was to determine the critical moment when staying away was no longer wise. I had just made my second run past the school in the car and could see the momentum was gathering. There must have been at least 20 people in the pretty front courtyard.

Some were in deck chairs reading, others were attempting to put up tents. My wife was right. It was action- stations time. Those already there - some since 8.30am - had already set down the rules. First stop was a list pinned up on the school wall. Relief] We had number 25 out of a total of 40 places.

A card with our number marked on it was handed to me by a tall man who clearly had emerged as camp commandant. We could leave for 10-minute 'rest-room' breaks only, he said, otherwise we were there for the duration. Camp the night, or lose your number.

Granny, on the last day of a week's stay from England, thought the whole affair most strange, but happily agreed to do the first shift.

My wife would do the longest stretch - from early evening until 5am - when I, happily spared the worst, would take over until the end.

By mid-evening, there were still fewer than 40 who had signed up and I began to suspect we had been tricked. Though the weather was warm, this was not convenient. We had had other plans for my mother's last night in America. And those around us seemed to me to be altogether too cheerful, apparently relishing the adventure of joining the ranks of Washington's homeless just for a night.

Pizza was ordered for those who wanted it. Somebody produced a bottle of wine. A television crew showed up to film the strange scene.

Things were more sorry when my shift started just an hour before dawn. A thin rain was starting. Katie, a big cheese in Congress, had been driven from her foam mattress by cockroaches and was curled up in my reclining garden chair. Already dressed for work, I settled on the mattress, creepy-crawlies or not. I even slept a bit.

While the almost Germanic display of discipline and community togetherness had irritated me the night before, now, at 7am, I was humbled by it as volunteers of the parent-teachers association made their way up from the street, bearing doughnuts and coffee.

Then it suddenly all got serious. At 8am precisely, the doors swung open. 'Line up in the order in which you arrived and come inside,' the school principal barked. Obediently, we formed a thin queue out into the rain and filed in. One by one, we surrendered our precious cards and took new ones from a teacher inside. It seemed we were more than 40 after all - about 45 in fact. Things went briefly awry after we were inside the assembly hall, where, an hour later, we would finally register. Mr Wu, the Chinese gentleman who spoke no English and who had been outside since the previous morning, had been taking his rest-room break at the precise moment the doors had opened.

Suddenly, the card he had held on to all night was worthless. He did not have one of the new cards, and they had all gone.

The tall man grabbed the microphone of the hall's PA system from the head teacher. Mr Wu, he reasoned, must be rescued from his plight. But this meant whoever had received number 40 would have to give it up. The latter looked sullen.

More than a place, there was serious money involved. If you don't get your child into the pre-K in Lafayette you have two options: keep him or her at home or pay the fees at one of the the many private nursery schools in the area. And you are talking about at least dollars 3,500 ( pounds 2,300) a year.

It was a tricky moment, but Mr Wu got his slot back. The few who had not made it on to the list wondered out loud whether everybody who claimed to have spent the whole night actually had done so. But that was all. The disciplined, American sense of order prevailed, and 45 minutes later, Jonathan Usborne had officially made it into the Lafayette fold. And I went to work.