Dear Son,

I’m real proud of you for the score you got on the Gifted and Talented Assessment, which you became accustomed to over a prep course you took on Saturdays leading up to the test. Before you get all bent on me and your mother being tiger parents (Google it), I just want you to know that you really enjoyed the sessions and missed them once the course was over. 


As you can see, you did really well. How much the prep course helped will never be known to be honest, but I’d like to think it helped a lot, at least in preparing you for the structure. Practice makes perfect, they say. And having said that, there’s this unsettling reality that even with a qualifying 98, you will likely not be admitted to the District school of choice. Why? Because priority goes to qualified siblings of current students and then to those with score of 99. With limited seats and with so many kids achieving this score, based on previous years’ outcomes, let’s just say I’m not going to plan our commute to the District school just yet.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter that much at this point. You got into another public school with a great reputation. What matters is that you continue to learn and be challenged academically in a safe, happy environment, which your mother and I believe will provide. And unfortunately, a lot of families can’t say that in this city.


We received the rejection letter a couple weeks back. Your mother and I knew the odds were not in our favor given the score. I guess one must really have to have the 99 to even have a chance. Still, sadness overtook steady emotions. Then madness crept in. Not at you at all, a little at myself, but mostly at the plethora of super smart kids in the city vying for a small number of seats. For a city as wealthy as it as and a sitting mayor as committed to public education as he says he is, one would think it would not be that difficult to hire more teachers and expand the program. The good news? You'll be going to another good public school that has a sibling-guarantee admission policy. I look forward to walking you and your brother to the same school!

AuthorThomas Koo

"Hi Benjamin. How are you? What are you doing?"

"Fine. I'm building a car for me and Dexter." 

"Oh, nice! Can't wait to see what you made." 

"Mine's the fastest there ever was."

"Okay. Hey, what did you do this morning with Nai Nai and Yeh Yeh?"

"We went to park and scootered."

"That's good! Listen, I'm not going to be home for a while."

"Where are you? What are you doing?"

"I'm at work. Just wanted to say hello to you."

"Oh, that's nice. See you tomorrow!"

"Hey, I'm coming home tonight!"

He laughs. I laugh. I say goodbye and hang up.

As mundane and simple as the call was (and I may have even embellished a couple lines in recalling the exact topic of our conversation), I thoroughly enjoyed this chat with my son. It wasn't our first phone call.  It was a first time for me recognizing his awareness of this mode of communication and having the composure to be present, in the moment and no distractions, and talking to me without seeing me occupying the same room. I sound like a gushing parent on his way to plastering "Student of the Month" bumper stickers for years to come. But coupled against the nonsensical exchanges he and I had a mere three weeks ago, this was a bona fide breakthrough. That short, pleasant phone call so lifted my spirits I wanted to buy him whatever toy he wanted.

Most parents track their children's development using a list of milestones provided by pediatricians or publications. These progress checkers cover all the essential areas of childhood development: social, emotional, cognitive, language and physical. The milestones a parent should look for are similar across doctors and organizations, but I actually find the milestones listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be the most comprehensive. Even if carrying a good phone conversation isn't on there.


AuthorThomas Koo

In many cities across the country, the typical family enrolls kids at the closest public school in their neighborhood and that was that. If the school wasn't up to snuff, the family that could afford to would move to another area whose schools were better. It was this straightforward to me when I was growing up in Southern California. I learned all the "R"s (just the secular three at the time, in case you're wondering) along with all my fellow classmates. And in those pre-Common Core days, I don't ever recall taking any state tests at the end of every school year. Now, many years later, living as a New York City-dwelling father of a child who's about to start kindergarten next year, I am experiencing a process that is blowing my mind.

First, I live in a neighborhood known for a very good public primary school and my family and I are fortunate to be zoned for it. But the secret is out and has been the past few years. Many young families and couples starting one are very much aware of this school's sterling reputation and have moved to apartments within its zone. Moreover, there have been new residential buildings erected and a few more on the way that are being snatched up by real estate investors and yes, young families. Why mandates to build new schools to account for new residents aren't in place is something I'm still puzzled by and is a matter meriting a post of its own. The good public school gold rush has led to the longest kindergarten wait list in the city last year. There is now a lottery system in place to allocate 90 seats per year. A family could live directly across the street and through sheer bad luck would have to accompany its 5-year old to another school farther away.

In its attempt to remedy this overcrowding problem, the Department of Education and the Citywide Education Council proposed 1) rezoning my neighborhood and 2) creating a super zone so students could be randomly placed in one of the three schools in the area. The huge elephant in the room is one of these three schools has a history of being academically inferior. And just this past summer, it was designated as "persistently dangerous" by the state, apparently for habitual acts of violence of various degrees. You can imagine the reaction to these proposals at the town hall meetings. I attended a couple and appreciated the impassioned pleas and arguments on both sides. The DOE reminded worried parents the dangerous school's new leadership has set a course to remove the label and improve its academics. I sensed strongly that most parents would not brave sending their kids to the school despite whatever the charismatic principal has promised. And my wife and I would put ourselves in this hell-no camp. The way I and many others see it, the first proposal is a bandage solution. It could alleviate overcrowding for a couple years, but I can see families just moving to be zoned to the good school. The second proposal could work long term if the inferior school could raise its academic standing. The school, a K-5 program, had about 200 open seats last year. I am pulling for the new principal like the biggest underdog in the biggest fight.

So now what? The CEC recently made its decision. After hearing parents' questions, concerns and complaints (mostly complaints), it decided on doing nothing, which means there will be a long wait list again this year. Only this time, it directly impacts my son. Last week, I submitted his application with our choices of schools ranked by our preference. Now it's a waiting game. My wife and I have looked at other options short of private school. These alternates are public or free admission schools, but require students to be exceptional in however they define it. But involved are psychoanalytic assessments, forms with essays, weekend prep classes and interviews with administrators. I felt like I was applying for college again, but for an innocent, train-loving, nose-picking boy. In the end, if he gets into his "safe" school, even if by luck, it will all have been worth it.

AuthorThomas Koo

In the afternoon rush, the city sidewalks are overtaken by human ants, of whom I am one.

Many stride, some saunter, a few even schlep, but we're all moving. With pure, inharmonious randomness.

To the train, to the park, to the cupcake shop, we are locals and we are visitors.

We know who we all are. Locals scurry, zigzagging with purpose. Visitors ramble, pausing at times for photos.

Whatever our gait, we are all expressionless strangers to each other.

A smile in the direction of oncoming passersby is asking for askance looks, especially when walking alone.

Rare is the smile in return, in which case it could lead to the start of a beautiful relationship.

Walking by myself I have been smiling a lot lately. Not overtly, but enough to draw attention from a fellow ant.

And not because I am looking for a beautiful relationship. I already have one, with you.

It is thinking about you that I smile, strangers' reactions be damned.

AuthorThomas Koo

I became a parent in the age of smartphone apps. As a father of two boys in New York City, I have a very hard time imagining raising them without the aid of this technology. Never mind the high probability that 99.9% of smartphone users, parents and non-parents alike, rely on a maps app to get from Point A to Point B faster (I'm looking at you, Uber drivers). Or text apps to send "Yo" to a waiting friend they're almost at the meeting spot.

But as a working parent, I have come to rely on a whole host of other apps to help me save time being a father and to quickly discover new ways to educate, entertain and enrich my entire family's lives. By this, I don't mean rushing through time spent with my sons or wife. Quite the opposite, really. I mean I want to cut down the time spent on researching various topics from health concerns to finding activities to do and events to attend so I can actually be more present with them in whatever we do. In this context, I here now present my list of top five apps that are making fatherhood a little less difficult and more fun.

  1. IF - Started out known as IFTTT (If This Then That), this app lets me create conditional connections between apps that I use. If an action is true or executed in one app, then another action will automatically run in a second app that I have connected. For example, I have an IF recipe (as that's what app connections are called) to upload automatically to Google Drive photos I take with my phone's camera. I could take 100 photos with my smartphone of my sons playing soccer and know that by the time I get home to my desktop computer and log into my Google Drive, copies of those same 100 photos would be there for me to edit, print, create online albums, whatever. 

    A very useful recipe I like is getting emails whenever the New York Times publishes event listings related to "Children" and "Family." My wife and I are always on the lookout for cool family activities to do outside the home. Each email IF sends me has a link to the event webpage containing more details. I save a ton of time having these notifications come direct to my inbox for easy parsing and planning. 
  2. SimplePrints - Creating and ordering a photo album could not be easier with this app, especially for people who use their smartphones as cameras to capture most of life's moments. The app has several page layout options to choose from. Selecting, rearranging and removing photos are a breeze. I could write captions if I so choose. The only limitation one may see with this app is the inability to edit photos. I'm actually fine with this because I have other apps that already do an amazing job in this department. In under five minutes, I was able to assemble a reasonably affordable 24-page album of my sons to send to my parents, who don't get to see their grandchildren often. While I regularly share photos with my parents online, I like the idea of sharing photos in a more tangible form, like a thoughtful keepsake. In our hyper-connected world now, it can be nice to make something more analog, even if I'm using high tech to achieve it. 
  3. HealthTap - The key selling point of this app allows users to connect directly with real doctors over the web by emails or live video chats, 24/7 if patients are willing to subscribe to such services. I can see how valuable this can be to folks with chronic ailments who'd like to follow up with doctors in between actual in-person office visits. However, I like using the app for its free content, namely pediatricians' responses to the many questions I have on parenting. When it comes to raising a child, we all know there isn't always one right answer to each inquiry. That's why I appreciate reading all the experts' opinions and forming my own conclusion. I also find comfort in reading about concerns that are similar to mine because it indicates I'm not the only parent facing them. In other words, apart from the health education, I obtain a sense of community as well.
  4. Sunrise - I use this calendar/scheduling app to keep tabs on all my family's appointments. I multitask too much as it is at work and have to attend meetings nearly everyday. Where I live, a lot of personal appointments need to be many weeks in advance. (Even some of our sons' playdates need to be scheduled way ahead of time.) The last thing I need is forgetting a dentist appointment I made two months ago for Benjamin. The truth of the matter is almost all calendar apps, including iPhone's native one, can handle my scheduling needs, including the ability to share information with my wife and other caretakers. I just like the user experience better with Sunrise. 
  5. iMotion - Like many other toddlers, my sons love playing with their wooden train sets. I see them taking pleasure in the simple act of pushing their connected train cars around their track over and over, which is utterly endearing to me. (I'll be sad when they part ways with their train table.) To help immortalize their play, I've been using this app to stop-motion animate their trains. Its interface is like a regular camera and is very easy to use. It is also quite flexible in that I can set my own frame rate to make the animation run more smooth or more rough depending on the number of photos I take and the style I'm going for. I can even apply a music soundtrack to further bring the video to life. When they first viewed the video, the boys laughed hysterically watching their wooden MTA trains going around by themselves, forgetting about or not making the connection that it was them who moved the trains inch by inch and getting out of the frame. Whether it turns them into budding Tim Burtons or Wes Andersons or not, this app forces my sons to not only think creatively, but also about the details and how each action impacts the next. In other words, it can be a good educational tool.


A lot of preschools these days ask (if not outright require) parents of attending toddlers to participate in their class during the school year. Reading to children, chaperoning trips to museums, leading art projects, these are all typical activities many parents are asked to help out with. I'm a big believer in parental involvement in school, so when my wife signed us up, I happily obliged, especially when it called for any creative-type activity. Plus, it's about four months into my son's introduction to a structured system of formal education and I've been curious to learn what and how things are taught at his school. Yes, I realize I'm talking about preschool where playing, singing and napping are standards on the syllabus, but I've read a little about the importance of early education. I wouldn't classify my family as economically disadvantaged, but I do think my son could benefit from learning to socialize in groups at an earlier age. I also want to discern for myself the value I'm getting for the money at his private school.

My wife and I were asked to come up with an in-class, one-hour activity to complement the winter season the children were learning about. She said topics about animals usually hold the most interest among toddlers. She has a degree in education so who am I to argue? So I agreed with her suggestion to talk about snow owls. We split up the lesson plan. She'll present interesting facts and pictures about owls, complete with a YouTube video song. I'd handle the art project of having the children create their own owl. Now it has been a while since I did anything in "fine arts," but I looked forward to it, from finding the idea to getting the supplies.

I envisioned grand ideas like a diorama displaying owl figurines set against hand-painted Arctic landscapes or paper mache-ing a good-sized owl and then airbrushing detailed feathers on it. Two seconds later, I remembered this is a class of three-year-olds and we had just 60 minutes to do everything. To the Internet I went to look for simpler ideas. As an aside, let me just say Pinterest is awesome for stuff like this. I was really inspired by many of the cool ideas. The winning idea came from "No Time for Flash Cards," a blog touting the benefits of early education and creative play. From a whole category on owl crafts, I selected one I thought would be perfect since my son's class was set to learn about the letter "O." From buying the supplies to prepping the pieces for 24 kids to ultimately showing them how to make one, I enjoyed the process and delighted in seeing many of them doing a pretty darn good job!

After immersing myself in the activity and observing each child's individuality, I am glad my son is attending Pre-K3 at his school. He may already know most of the subjects taught in class because his mother and I try to teach him as many things he's shown interest in, which ultimately get covered by his teachers. Still, I know he's developing in other ways, just being around other adults and his unique classmates.  

AuthorThomas Koo