Making The Grade

March 20, 2005   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The New York Times Magazine

When I started inquiring about cram schools for my 5-year-old son’s primary-school entrance exams, I knew I would be chastised for starting late. It was May, and most children in Tokyo had already been studying a year or two for the tests in November. ”You haven’t done any preparation yet?” one woman from a major chain of cram schools asked me. I confessed that I was a single parent working full time. ”Oh, you are on your own,” she replied. ”A private school might be difficult.”

Single working mothers are increasingly common in Japan but remain a rarity in the exclusive world of primary-school entrance examinations, where the two-parent family with a stay-at-home mom is the norm. Most schools consider a single mother too harried to raise a well-adjusted child and too poor to afford the tuition. For eight years, my ex-husband and I lived in Berlin, Beijing and Moscow, where we had adopted our son from Kazakhstan. After our divorce three years ago, my ex, who is American, stayed abroad and I came home with Yataro.

Since our return, I still hadn’t grown accustomed to being underestimated. I kept hoping for the best for Yataro with or without a father. I was not alone. One aspiring mother put it plainly on an exam-information Web site fittingly called Espoir: ”Can one not enter a private elementary school without a father?” The reply from the site wasn’t encouraging: ”The highly competitive schools or schools for boys and girls of good upbringing would be difficult,” adding that for lower-ranked schools ”we don’t rule out the possibility.”

Of course, Seikei Elementary, the school I was interested in, had five stars. My father is an alumnus, but that wasn’t guaranteed to help. As luck would have it, Seikei is known for denying entrance to many children of graduates in the name of fairness.

During the next months, several afternoons a week, Yataro attended one cram school for his written exam and craft making and another for sports and more crafts. I relied on my mother and baby sitters to take him to the schools and often rushed in at the end when the teachers summarized the lesson and offered pointers to parents. ”Don’t take such a big bag to the test,” one teacher told me, gesturing toward my briefcase. A handbag and tote were preferred. We were also instructed to wear dark suits to the schools even if we were just picking up an application.

These were easy compromises; my divorce was going to be more of a stumbling block. At a lecture on parental interviews, a former private-school teacher advised, ”Just explain, before you take your seat, that you are divorced and therefore had to come to the interview alone.” Translation: admit your guilt before being charged. Two of Yataro’s cram-school teachers recommended toning down our application essay. There was no need to spell out that I was divorced and had adopted Yataro (another quirk considered suspect). I didn’t want to hide facts I felt had shaped Yataro. But was I sacrificing my son’s opportunities for some lofty principles? I caved in and took out the word ”divorced” and just said that Yataro and I lived alone.

In the frenzied run-up to exams, a cram-school teacher asked students to name what they had eaten for breakfast. Yataro answered: yogurt, a kiwi and a prune, bread and cheese. ”That is an excellent breakfast, everyone,” the teacher exalted. ”The school will think, There is a wonderful mother.” Praised as a good mother before a room of full-time moms, I was beaming.

But later when I was coaching Yataro with another question — ”When does your mother praise you?” — he replied, ”When I give the correct response about breakfast.” I started to laugh then caught myself. Here I was twisting truths to come across as the best parent, and Yataro had called my bluff.

On interview day at Seikei, two days after Yataro took his written exam, mothers and fathers in nearly identical dark blue or black suits and children in navy shorts or skirts and white shirts filled the waiting room. I ran into a business acquaintance and her attractive husband. I wondered if Yataro had noticed that we were the only pair among threesomes.

First, the children were sent to classrooms where teachers observed them in group activities — Seikei’s alternative to individual child interviews. Once I was called, I entered a room with three young male teachers. I skipped the suggested apologetic divorce confession and sat down. One teacher asked, ”What considerations do you have in raising Yataro?”

”He needs to be strong to survive societal prejudices,” I said. ”But I hope he can also, because of his background, understand the pain of others and be that much kinder.”

Two days later, Yataro’s registration number was on the acceptance list posted at the school. I’ll never know what got him in, but standing there next to other parents, all in the requisite dark suits, I had become part of the group.