We’re coming to the tail end of the end of year festivities for the kids. I have a few more days of work. The house needs massive cleaning before the in-laws visit. I have to map out a plan for food on Saturday. I need to make sure that Jonah has a clean white shirt for his graduation to go with his white tux jacket.

The boys here all graduate wearing white tux jackets and black bow ties; the girls are in white formal dresses. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 30’s. The kids all look marvelous and sophisticated for their big day, like they are ready for cocktails at a mansion on the Hamptons.

After the photos with parents, the kids are whisked away to dinner and dancing. Later, they are locked away for the night in the local middle school, which has been transformed into a magical palace by parents who have spent a year constructing sets based on a theme of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. One parent constructed a twelve-foot portrait of Gene Wilder out of jelly beans and post it notes. After the night of PG fun, the kids run over to the town pool and skinny dip.

The price tag for that one night of fun? $160,000.

It’s a nice night for the kids, but that’s a lot of money. And the time that went into constructing these sets could have been spent in a much more productive way. Right here in the same town, there are hundreds of special ed kids who could some reading tutoring. Twenty minutes from here, there are kids in Newark who need a whole lot of help.

Jonah is going off to college with private school sophistication. He and his classmates look years older than his peers in other towns. They hold themselves straight. They have no body fat or zits. They look adults in the eye and ask the right questions. They feel comfortable in a tux. Jonah knows how to order food in fancy restaurants and joins his friends at their million dollar shore houses. He is utterly comfortable in those settings. Those skills will serve him well in the future, so, as a mom, I’m happy. But when I put on my social justice hat, I feel ill.

This is privilege. It’s not so much the education. Jonah’s education has been hit or miss. Jonah’s math teacher isn’t getting tenure, so she stopped working back in January. She gave all the kids 100s on their finals, which they didn’t take. Tutors work behind the scenes teaching the kids their math facts and helping them cram history facts to pass the AP exams. So the kids here end up with a better education than kids in other public schools, but it’s not solely because of the quality of the schools. What they really gain from this town and living in this rich people’s bubble are soft skills that later translate into posh jobs in the city.

These kids buy themselves out of the guilt by volunteering strategically and with well constructed essays for their Freshman lit classes. But it’s not enough.

32 thoughts on “Inequities

  1. This analysis somewhat overestimates the effect of money: the children of Asian shopkeepers in Flushing achieve much the same effect (minus the fancy restaurant expertise, but maybe with some Mandarin) via Kumon and Bronx Science. That said, I don’t know how one could redress inequities in parental investment, much less inequities, which are plentiful, resulting from misguided parental values.


    1. Just thing how much more you could do with your own actual kid instead of doing the jelly bean Gene Wilder?

      If anything, jelly bean Gene Wilder preserves equality.


  2. Through the New Deal and post-WWII spending for veterans, the United States very substantially reduced inequalities in parents income and investment among people not legally or socially barred from receiving those benefits on the basis of their race. We took a bunch of money, used it very successfully to turn a huge portion of the white poor into the middle and upper middle class people of the Baby Boom. They, as their last act before they go die, those same people blew up the fucking ladder they climbed.


    1. Bringing in millions and millions of very poor people from very poor countries can’t help but increase inequality, too.


    2. I agree completely with MH. Their parents might have been the Greatest Generation, but they really are the Worst Generation.


  3. I feel ill too. I don’t think anyone deserves this for a graduation from high school. But I am a totally negative nelly and just think high school graduation is the absolute minimum if you are an upper middle class kid. I hope to god we don’t have this when my kids are seniors! That said, I’m glad seniors do learn to look adults in the eye and speak properly!


  4. One parent constructed a twelve-foot portrait of Gene Wilder out of jelly beans and post it notes.

    That sounds like a person you should get to know better.


      1. Actually, I’m dropping by the school right now to check out this portrait. Steve who has volunteered on the construction side of things can’t stop talking about it. I must admire the insanity.


  5. Both the money question and the time question are interesting. I’d feel better if the rich-district parents were dedicating all that time to teaching their kids Mandarin or piano, but making a Gene Wilder out of jelly beans and post-its? I hope at least it was fun for the parents (which it could be for some people who aren’t me).

    In grad school I volunteered at a low-income grade school and it highlighted for me how an hour or two a week, from someone with very little training, could make a difference with a kid’s reading level. If you can make it easy for the volunteers – organize a set time to go help the special ed kids with reading, or a carpool to Newark – that always helps. (Not that you don’t already have enough to do.)

    On the up side, I assume the much-discussed prom weekend went off without any major disasters?


    1. I volunteer with a local literacy charity that provides one-on-one tutoring for elementary school-aged kids. I see 6 kids for a half hour each for the entire school year. It’s for kids in that grey area who don’t have a diagnosed learning challenge (many are too young yet to be diagnosed) yet are below grade level in reading. Some just need more practice, some are scratch decoders but need strategies for comprehension, etc.

      I can tell you first hand that it makes a huge difference in their reading. And I imagine that part of it is the one on one relationship too.

      Our charity giving tends to centre around the arts, literacy, child poverty. It’s been also wonderful to do some hands on volunteering that has a big impact. I’ve done enough board work over the years and the grass roots volunteering is a nice balance.

      Back to the topic at hand – I’d say scale back the party a bit and add in a meaningful service/volunteer requirement. Make it an “and” rather than and “either/or”. You hit the nail on the head with the privilege – knowing how to be plus having the contacts is a huge benefit.

      And I too would love to meet the jellybean Gene Wilder person! Did anyone take photos?


    2. Yes. All was fine. Steve, Ian, and I stayed in a near by motel and dropped in a few times. Turning a blind eye to the beer pong table in the living room, everything else looked fine.


    3. Really? I’d way rather the rich-district parents spent their time making Gene Wilder out of jelly beans than teaching their kids mandarin or piano. The jelly bean portrait basically has nothing to do with the kids. B


    4. C wants to do a school read-aloud thing this summer out in the hood.

      It’s going to be outside, which is somewhat unappealing in TX.


  6. Oh my–is there any chance of getting a photo of the Gene Wilder-As-Willy Wonka-Jelly-Bean-Post-It-Note sculpture? I’m massively curious to see it.


  7. I’ve yet to see a *required* service commitment that successfully taught the lessons we hope to teach. For kids who aren’t natural givers, modeling the behavior in a family seems to help. But the carefully crafted service requirements of private schools? Sometimes they provide exposure, and sometimes without teaching the lesson of otherness, but I’ve not been generally impressed.

    Also, I don’t particularly care what other people choose to spend their money on. My preferred method of providing services is a required commitment to funding the common good (taxation) while letting people decide whether they want to build sets for their children’ s schools or the community theater or support the production of beautiful gowns.

    Regarding taxation, I’ve noted a number of articles concerning the super rich and how the hope to teach their children solid values. One example was visiting a grandparents working farm — but flying there in s private plane. I think there aren’t any simple tricks.

    Bezels recently tweeted a request to suggest ideas for spending his money for the public good — my main thought after considering some ideas was that the fundamental premise was wrong. Society can’t be built by the kindness of strangers. We need to fund the things we can agree on to build for the common good.


    1. I completely agree. It’s profoundly undemocratic to have a society where public goods are based on the whims of billionaires. Charity is nice, but I can’t respect the wealthy who complain about taxes and support charity instead. I see it as a way they like to play aristocracy.


  8. My own town and issues are different (Australian school,funding issues are equally inequitable but in different ways). I want to say though how much I love your last paragraph. It encapsulates the arguments my friends and I have over school choices for your own children and society as a whole. Thanks.


  9. The local public high school has a similar system of locking the students in for prom. They’re locked in the gym all night. This would have been my exact definition of Hell, back in high school.

    I once read a research study that claimed that geographic areas (cities vs. suburbs vs. rural) determined many school characteristics, rather than public vs. private. In the suburbs, kids can drive drunk. In the cities, there are many safe ways to return home without getting behind the wheel.

    Back in the old days, some students died during Prom season. every. year. The message against drinking and driving does seem to have sunk in, at least progress has been made on that front since MADD was founded.

    Students are patted down by parent volunteers here, before boarding buses for the prom. No longer can Johnnie drive his date to prom in a convertible. Back on the bus! No, you can’t be trusted not to be an idiot.

    On the other hand, I really don’t know how swaddling late teenagers will turn out in the long run. I’m now hearing of parents (usually mothers) apartment hunting with their children after college. Our parents didn’t do that.


    1. Cranberry said:

      ” I’m now hearing of parents (usually mothers) apartment hunting with their children after college. Our parents didn’t do that.”

      *shuffles uncomfortably*

      My FIL chose our first suburban MD apartment back in 2001, when my husband was 28 and I was 26.

      It was in a great location (15 minute walk to Red Line), brand spanking new, but sadly much too expensive for us at the time. I’m not sure I would have done better on our own, though.

      The first housing I actually chose for myself was in 2007, when I was 31 and my husband was 34 and we were moving to TX. Previously, I’d been assigned housing (college), been given housing (Peace Corps or faculty-in-residence) been recommended a particular landlord (first year grad school) or FIL picked it out for us (once).

      So, it’s not totally crazypants for parents to help new college grads with this. It’s an especially good idea in high cost-of-living areas, as there are some fire trap rentals.


    2. Mine did, helping me find my studio for grad school. Could I have done it without them? Almost certainly. But their help helped.


    3. There’s making them helpless and there’s helping/coaching them with a new skill/task. And a lot of room in between. Some kids are going to need more help learning the skills to navigate the outside world. Others appear born with that capability.

      In other words, not an either/or. Coaching them/making explicit what you’re doing & why will save them some headaches. Doing it all for them and just showing up to give them the key? Not so much.


      1. Since I hopped on a plane to the west coast a few weeks after college graduation I couldn’t rely on my parents for help. I searched with a friend and did fine. But they did lend me money from time to time. My mother did help my sister sift through ads for apartments since my sister was working a lot of hours.
        I do think that one great benefit of living in a high cost of living area can be having to live with roommates. I learned a lot about getting along with people during my 20s and early 30s. I learned to be frugal so as to have enough money to pay to move if things didn’t work out. These were skills my parents only peripherally taught me.


  10. Wow. $160K on a party? That’s not a typo? I can’t imagine that. My son will start high school next year. His elementary and middle school were 75 – 79% free/reduced lunch and there are only a few white/middle-class/privileged kids in his class. They couldn’t even do many field trips – when only 4-5 kids in the class can bring in the $10, it’s just not worth it.

    We are unusual in our neighborhood – Almost all of our neighbors open-enroll to other schools, but we had a great experience. I think going to school outside the bubble has brought more benefit than costs. And he still is right at home in the neighborhood country club. (way more at home than I ever am!) He doesn’t have to go volunteer to interact with people of different backgrounds – they are his best friends. (But he does volunteer – a lot. I think seeing the effects of poverty in people he cares for deeply has made an impact.)

    I think the experience of not seeing different people as “other” will, in the end, help him more than any party or AP class or fancy field trips that we will miss out on. (But we are definitely not in the majority with this viewpoint! Most of our neighbors think we are crazy for going to high-poverty schools. We’ll see…)


  11. So, interesting answers. I had assumed most college graduates had followed the pattern of my classmates. Most of us lived in apartments in Big Cities shared with college friends or relatives, found through the newspapers. I had thought online resources would make it easier for today’s graduates to find housing.


    1. My parents never helped me find an apartment, but my dad helped me find my first 3 cars. (The first two were 1972 Pontiac Catalinas, which were over 15 years old when I got them and didn’t last very long. Blew the head gasket on both, probably because they burned oil like a mofo and I could never keep up.) (Fun story–I lost the Deathmobile – a black 72 Catalina – on 95 near Petersburg in May coming back from grad school in North Carolina. It was about 100 degrees out, and my car had all my stuff and my cat in a cat carrier. When the car broke down and was pretty much irreparable, we couldn’t figure out how to get me back to NY because I couldn’t take the cat on a train or plane, and I was under 25 and couldn’t rent a car. My dad ended up driving about 8 hours down to Petersburg to pick me up. We sold the car for a buck three eighty to the guy at the gas station.)


      1. My parents had a 71 or 72 Catalina station wagon. My grandma drove it into a post office in about 1991 or so.


      2. “My” first and only car was a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, purchased by my dad in 1972. I drove it 2002-2005. Before that, my brother drove it from 96-2001 or thereabouts. It had a hole in the floor eaten out by battery acid. First we put a bathmat down, and eventually my grandfather welded a piece of sheet metal over it. We had to take out the front passenger seat, so it was a three-seater with lots of legroom. It had problems with the transmission, and sticky gears. It really hated to go into first gear, but luckily you could start it straight into third if you didn’t mind leaping onto the road. It wasn’t very safe to drive over 50 mph, and sometimes it would slow down to about 20, shake, and make actual put put noises (related to the transmission is what I was told). The turn signals didn’t work and the front driver’s window wouldn’t roll down, but there was a little aviator window I could snake my arm out when I needed to signal a turn. The heat was broken and the radio had been stolen and never replaced. Also the gas gauge didn’t work, so there was a notebook to write down when you’d filled it and with how much, and then you had to calculate how much gas was left. Also, it only took leaded gasoline. My mother eventually junked it after the breaks failed twice (both times her employee was driving it, when I was in college she lent it to him to drive around, and he was clear headed enough to employ the emergency break, luckily. Also luckily, he didn’t sue my mother for trying to kill him). The first time she got them repaired, and after the second time she wasn’t taking any chances. My best friend’s parents wouldn’t allow her to ride in the car, probably because she was an only child. I was one of three, so my mother had extras.


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