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Downing

One kid's great education—yeah, in Tucson, Arizona

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When the U.S. News and World Report national high school rankings came out a couple of weeks ago, I got the word that University High had come in at No. 4—in the entire fricking country (!)—in an email from my son.

I was a little startled to see something from him in my inbox, especially labeled "Woohoo!" He's laconic, digitally speaking. He's a computer-music guy in grad school, on his machine all day long working, and he doesn't use it for chitchat, at least not with me.

But ping me and his dad, he did, out of a bubbling excess of sheer glee, which he (uncharacteristically) copped to, and which I utterly shared. That Tucson also had the No. 6 school, BASIS Tucson, only added to our innocent, chauvinistic delight in seeing a) Dave's alma mater get the recognition it so richly deserves, and b) Tucson score some good press for a change.

My pleasure was increased by several things: The school is four blocks from my house, and its founding principal, the astounding Carolyn Kemmeries, is a beloved friend.

Then there's the fact that back in the spring of 1996, Dave's letter of acceptance came in the same day's mail as the hefty first invoice from the private high school that was our (distant) second choice.

I remember exactly where I was standing in the kitchen when I read that message from TUSD—so delightful, so exactly what I wanted that I could barely believe that it said what it did. I remember, too, blissfully tossing the suddenly impotent invoice into the trash. Dave's dad and I had been paying tuition for eight years—and would again when he went to a private college—so it is without shame that I say the afternoon we learned that Dave got into UHS was one of the happiest of my entire life. Also, it was where Dave wanted to go. And did I mention that it's just four blocks from my house? My God! The boy could walk to school!

The really interesting thing to me about the excellence of UHS, though—and this is not taking anything away from it—is that the fourth-best high school in the U.S. is not the best school my son went to in this town. UHS, which was supposed to be demanding, was basically a walk for him after eight years at St. Michael's, the Episcopal parish school at Fifth Street and Wilmot Road. There, under the calm, kindly tutelage of a series of crackerjack teachers, he got such a solid, old-fashioned grounding in the skills and knowledge he'd need later that nothing that's come after has really been hard for him. It's not just me saying this—it's been him, over the years, reflecting as he's cruised through high school and college and then grad school. The elementary school staff and, at the end, the mighty team of Mrs. Breault (math), Mr. Smith (science) and Mr. Schultz (English) taught him that well.

Once again, though, St. Michael's—good as it was—still wasn't the best school he attended. That, actually, would be St. Mark's, the preschool at the big Presbyterian church on Third Street, where I would have been happy to have him stay through college had that been possible.

St. Mark's in the mid-'80s was an educational paradise for the 3-through-5 set, with cheerful, colorful rooms wrapped around a great playground and a staff of some of the loveliest, smartest women I've ever met. The first year, when Dave was 3, is the one that stays in my mind. The Challenger blew up. Dave and his friend Anthony played Luke Skywalker and Han Solo endlessly, except when they were playing Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott. There was a wonderful field trip to, of all places, Red Lobster.

At the end of the year, the moms got together to make an elaborate scrapbook for the kids' teacher, the great Doris Canada. Patient, loving and soft-voiced, with a wonderful sense of humor, she'd kept effortless order as she led that gaggle of funny little 3-year-olds—still so close to babyhood—through her seemingly endless repertoire of fascinating things to see and hear and do and learn. It was a sort of enchantment just to watch her.

Doris made school magic for those kids. That's a magic that lasts.

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