Bon and I moved recently. A short trip. The next town over. Uncle Rico could throw a football and hit it. They say it’s a downgrade for us. Lower quality school district from that whence we came. Bigger house, but dated. Lower taxes and bigger yard, but fewer white collar folk. Fewer trendy shops. Fewer white people. The grocery store sells fewer organic, free-trade, gluten free goods. Lower resale value. You get what you pay for; less of the things that make a place one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the state.
Where we moved from was definitely one of the best places you could raise a kid. Unless you’re me. Especially if you’re me. God I hate being me…
The best, the best, the best. So many of the things in life that have the title “The Best” should never have it. The BEST place to live. Best people. Best teachers. Best opportunities. So contextual. So frustrating. So accepted.
I didn’t come from the best place so I don’t need to live there—but I did it anyway because it was the best, and you should always aspire to it. The best should associate with the best. Train with the best. Be counted among the best…
The best matters. I wish it didn’t but it does. Today, if you’re born into a wealthy family that’s part of the upper 20% in earnings, and you drop out of highschool, you’re just as likely to land a well paying job similar to or better than the job you’re impoverished counterpart from the lowest decile of earnings strata will get after putting themselves through 6 years of college and taking on massive debt in the quest for class advancement. Connections matter. The best connections matter. Today, if you’re part of the circles that the wealthy are in, you’re more likely to get tapped for a high paying job. You’re more likely to get recommended to a position of advantage. You’re more likely to be around perennial winners, secure your future, keep pace, have a better life, and on and on and on.
You can buy the best, and a family with wealth can pass wealth on. A family with a good job can’t. If you think of it like an earnings statement covering the course of your life, in all the years you spent laboring—if you came from a poor or blue collar family—your expenses will be higher which means your net revenue will be smaller because you had to spend more (on college and other education) to make more. That means less retained earnings. Less wealth. Much of it saved to pay for retirement. You’ll have less to pass on—assuming health expense don’t bleed you dry in your old age. You may be able to help your kids a little with their school, but, if education costs continue to outstrip your earnings and savings, your kids will probably not be any better off.
Sucks for blue collar folks the most. They don’t make enough to cover college expenses out of pocket. They make too much to get it subsidized. Their kids will live at home until they’re thirty or older to save money and pay down school debt. Their jobs aren’t lifetime with pensions packages, but 3-5 year stints. Then they’re expected to retrain, retool, and relocate. They’ll most likely have to get more schooling just to keep up. And, because of the glut of degrees out there now, their education investment will buy less. As the Dylan song goes, four years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.
It’s one of the great tragedies of our time, and scary as hell when you think about having kids and paying for them. Paying for their advantages. Horrifying when you correlate the best opportunities to the most expensive institutions. American class advancement is less and less about what you know, and more about who you know, where you came from, and what community of people you’re in. Step one: win the birth lottery. Step two… well, step two has become irrelevant, but, I guess you could spend ludicrous sums of money to keep your kids in the right circles of education and society.
Because I see this stratification; because I know keeping up matters; because I can articulate it enough to factor it into my political decision making, my parents think I’m a liberal sonuvabitch from a liberal school that just doesn’t understand how China and Mexico have stolen from us. Yet, because I come from the town that I do, with public/state school education that I do, my wealthy white collar friends think I’m some kind of novelty, fun to listen to, smart as far as blue collar trash goes, but not to be trusted with any real job meant for those with the best educations.
The lines between classes are getting thicker and more expensive to cross. We hoard wealth and opportunity for those we choose. I see it. I hate it. If and when I have kids, I’ll probably do it.
I want to build wealth, which means saving. A lot. Lord knows I’ll need it. If you want to adopt, you need cash on hand. Piles of it, like a drug dealer. You never know when that baby might come and you can’t finance the purchase. We sold our house and “downgraded” from Perfectville to free up cash flow and avoid capital gains taxes. We took on geographical, economical, and social change—all for a kid that we don’t yet have. May never have.
My dad used to say, “it’s just a house,” when talking about my childhood home. He said it because our place was beat up, not much to look at, a tool that provided a certain functional utility. But in many of the realities I’ve walked through in my life, a house is not just a house. It’s a resume. A symbol. A declaration. A means of keeping up. A ante. A power play. A membership into a community. It’s much more than a tool with a certain amount of functional utility.
Or, maybe I—we—we’re missing just how functional being in a nice area with a nice house connected to smart and established people is? A house isn’t just a house. A car isn’t just a car. An outfit is not just an outfit. A community is not just another place to live. Keeping up with the Jones’ is more important when Mr. Jones Sr. owns the Bank, knows the dean and sits on all the important town committees. Live near him. Let your kids play with his. Lend him a cup of gluten free flour.
Bonnie wants to move back to Perfectville if and when we have kids; to the town’s top ten schools and best in show students. Where connections and opportunities for connections abound. She wants our future little monster to be one of the best, one of the lucky ones.
Of course I do to. Of course I don’t ever. Never, ever, ever. Except that I do. I want my kid to have every advantage. But where I find that advantage is not a matter of location, but perspective.
At a recent holiday party in Perfectville, we got sucked into a conversation about college and music. One of the couples were talking about how their kid just signed up to do the History of Rock’n Roll. The wife was a piano teacher. She just came from a recital. Pearls. Black dress. Fur coat. She boasted how she made all the kids dress up in proper attire or she wouldn’t let them perform.
Bonnie also came from a recital. For special needs kids. Jeans. Sneakers. Branded T-shirt. “Share Day,” it’s called. The kids dress however they want. One was a Disney Princess. Some try to take off their clothes before, during or after their performance. It’s monumental, considering their backgrounds and disabilities, to get them to perform in front of peers—even if they just scream into the mic and run around, they perform.
“Oh, rock history at Kent?” Said my wife. “I know the professor who teaches that. He’s great. Dr. Shahriari.”
“Oh, goodness, no.” They laughed. “Kent… No, no. Our daughter goes to Cornell.” Like we should have known. Like it was insulting to insinuate Kent. Like it fucking mattered—and it does.
We nod. We sip our drink. Then someone starts talking about how many hospitals he runs. Why, I have no idea. It wasn’t even remotely relevant. Common to hear about at these events, but not relevant.
Merry Christmas & Happy Humblebrag. Boasts bubbling up under the champagne, hiding in the after-taste of expensive wines. I notice it. I can’t not notice it. I hate that I notice it. I’d drill a hole in my head to get it out. But it splashes across my palate; subtle hints of caramel, berry, and douchebaggery. I need to Queen Elsa this crap, but it’s hard. Especially when those undertones mock pillars of your own background. I got my degrees at Kent. I’m in the Hall of Fame there. I took rock history. I made the best I could from my opportunities. Your kid might be at Cornell, but I dare them to accomplish half the shit I have 10 years after college you condescending fu——
Inner Dirk: STOP IT, DIRK. THINK OF YOUR UNBORN/BOUGHT CHILD. THESE PEOPLE STILL LIKE YOU. YOU NEED THEM TO LIKE YOU.
This looks like a job for alcohol. I get up. head to the refreshments table.
Bonnie is infinitely more patient. She sees more need in the upper class than she does in her special needs clients. She adjusts. She endures. She remains, listening to the man talk about his hospitals and how his daughters go to other big name schools.
Brooding in the corner, Pride and I are going at it. I won’t lose. Once a competitor always a competitor.
Inner Dirk: God, why are you like this? Our old neighbor was from here and he went to Kent and he wasn’t a douche. You could run into people like this anywhere.
Other Inner Dirk: I’m like this because I don’t want my kid to be around people who compare colleges in transparent dick-measuring contests over Christmas cookies. I don’t want to live in a world where earning a chance to go to school is dismissed because it wasn’t the right school.
Inner Dirk: Oh yes you do, you want our kid to go to Cornell, too. MIT. Fuck it, Both. Every parent would do this.
Other Inner Dirk: God I hope our kid is good at math because we suck at it. We need to move back here! They have good math here. Kent was not a challenging school and I know this because I can’t find a job worth a crap…
Inner Dirk: Jesus, Dirk, Inferiority complex much?
Other Inner Dirk: Shut up Dirk, I’m vulnerable.
Inner Dirk: No, Dirk, you’re sad they’re not talking about stuff you’ve done, hypocrite.
There is no way my kid makes it to adulthood without bearing some horrible scar because of me. *More alcohol*
Bonnie sees that I’m spent. I need to go. Must go now. So we go. But, if we return, to this town, to live, she and I both know I will inevitably get into it with someone, sooner or later. She’s knows who she married. She knows what lurks underneath. But it’s a cross she’ll carry to give her kid an advantage.
We moved because it made financial sense, for cash on hand, to adopt without breaking or nest egg, to preserve our financial advantages. It’s difficult to finance a baby, yes, but most of us will be financing our babies for the rest of their natural life, and that’s saying nothing of expenses hidden behind the what type of opportunities do we want our kid to have decisions; what kind of child are we raising, decisions; the how will they look back at us decisions. The second guessing, and triple guessing, and weighing of opportunities—some that only happen because of the area and connections and district you’re in. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Decisions made for a life that won’t even understand why we’re making/made them. Decisions that will simply be that child’s reality, if and when it actually arrives. Decisions we have to get right for them. Make the right decisions. Make the best decisions.
“They’re not that bad.” Says Bonnie, after we’ve escaped the party. “They’re just proud of their kids.”
“I know… I know…”
“Every social group does this, to one extreme or another.”
“I know… I know… “
“You should let it go. If not for you, then for our kid. You always take it so personally.”
*sigh* *hands on head* *head on console* *sigh*
“I will read to our child.”
“I know. I will also read—”
“I will read to our child because it’s proven to work. Because I like it. Because I want them to like it. Because I want them to like knowledge. Because I want them to go to school to learn more about things we already taught them outside of it. Because what we do with and for him or her—if and when—is important, just as if not more so then what happens in school. I will be authoritative. I will not praise them just because praise is what you’re supposed to do, but when they earn it. I will motivate them, not just in sports, but in everything. I will never let them think it’s okay to not work hard to be good at something, even when they’re good at something else. They will earn respect. They will learn to be strong. They will have love. They will overcome pain. They will be pushed because I will push them. You’ll tell me to stop pushing so hard and I’ll tell you to stop being so soft, and somewhere in there we’ll find a balance. We’ll try to offer unbiased opinions to them, and we’ll blow it. They will learn to create opportunities. They tell us they can before we think they can. We will help them see over the horizon. But… “
“…. But they will not be the sum of the town—no matter what town we move to— its connections or its school district. Our child will be the sum of us. It starts with us. It ends with us. We are their advantage.”