While Jonah has a whole lot more options and opportunities than I did, and certainly more than my parents and most other college students, there is also something deeply unhealthy and sucky about his situation.
We made the decision a while back that we would invest heavily in his education before college. That meant that we moved to an upper middle class community, when he was in middle school. We bought an over-priced house with a 30-year mortgage, rather than staying put and setting up a 529 for him. We didn’t have enough money for both.
We figured that it was better for him to have peers who were all college bound, educated by teachers that were well compensated, and have the plenty of after school activities. If he had a solid foundation, we thought, there would be more college options. In hindsight, I’m not sure that we chose well.
While his teachers for the most part were adequate and well compensated (the median salary for teachers in our school district is $95,000), they are currently distracted by a labor dispute over their growing contributions in their paychecks to their health care plan and a $5 co-pay on doctor’s visits. They are on a work slowdown and haven’t been available for questions or extra help after school hours. They might strike this fall and refuse to write college recommendations for the kids.
The competition is intense. The kids in the advanced classes regularly put in all nighters. Five hours of nightly homework combined with three hour sports practices, makes for some very sleepy teenagers. The PTAs has brought in speakers to talk about managing stress, including Madeline Levine, who wrote about the high rates of depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses in upper middle class communities in her book, The Price of Privilege.
And within these communities, there are big divisions between the rich and everyone else. The rich buy $100 per hour tutors for their kids. The waiting room at the Kumon office is packed with parents gossiping about little 1.1s and 1.2s on the market. (Translation — 1.1 million dollar houses.) They send their kids to summer educational enrichment camps, pull strings with their buddies to set up exciting internships at Wall Street firms, and fly the kids to overseas do-good missions that look good on the college application.
With all this intensity and competition and support, it’s hard to get A’s. Would it have been better to keep Jonah in a less competitive school district, where the 4.0 GPA would have come easier? The big fish in the small pond? Hard to know.
The biggest toll of this environment is that kids don’t have the time to figure out to develop their own interests. Teenagers need time to squander. It’s only through squandering time that they figure out what they like, what they are good at. They need time to figure out what music they like, to develop inside jokes with friends, to explore the woods behind the house.
But truly, this is a poor, little rich kid talk. Jonah doesn’t have to miss school to watch younger siblings. He always knows that there will be dinner on the table. He’ll go a college. And going to a college, having little debt, and graduating in four years is really all that matters. It puts him miles ahead of most kids in this country.
Almost any discussion about college involves a small subset of elite Americans, unless you’re talking about community college, food pantries, and on campus daycare. I think it’s really important to tell our kids that fact over and over. And it’s important to tell ourselves that fact.