Q.I was the son of a minister with no money and went to the best schools, where almost everyone else came from well-off families. This can be an immense problem for a child, even in college, and it can be a problem, too, for the child who befriends a poorer child. What do you advise? Offering sympathy? Explaining that money is nearly as primal and private a matter as sex, as apt to cause embarrassment, as unique to the situation and personality, etc.? After 30-odd years, I'm still hypersensitive on this matter. A.A. So was Miss Manners' dear A. friend, Anthony Trollope, writing about similar experiences 48-odd years after they occurred. It is now, by Miss Manners' calculation, 160 years since the dear man left Winchester College, and although she hasn't spoken to him in far too long, she is quite sure he is still as hypersensitive on the matter as you.
His was admittedly a more extreme case. The Trollope family had gone off to America without him in vain pursuit of a fortune. (Mamma Trollope invented the shopping mall in Cincinnati, unfortunately many decades before anyone could see the sense of wandering around a huge building buying things they didn't need. She only did all right by coming home and publishing nasty things about the state of American manners, an occupation that Miss Manners, being a lady, doesn't want to discuss.)
"My college bills had not been paid," he reminisced bitterly, "and the school tradesmen who administered to the wants of the boys were told not to extend their credit to me. Boots, waistcoats and pocket handkerchiefs, which, with some slight superveillance, were at the command of other scholars, were closed luxuries to me. My schoolfellows, of course, knew that it was so, and I became a pariah. It is the nature of boys to be cruel. I have sometimes doubted whether among each other they do usually suffer much, one from the other's cruelty; but I suffered horribly! I could make no stand against it. I had no friend to whom I could pour out my sorrows. I was big and awkward and ugly, and I have no doubt, skulked about in a most unattractive manner. Of course I was ill-dressed and dirty. But, ah! how well I remember all the agonies of my young heart; how I considered whether I should always be alone; whether I could not find my way up to the top of that college tower, and from thence put a stop to everything?"
And so on. Miss Manners does not mean to top your own painful memory, nor to make light of the pain of children now in this predicament by implying that it is good training for a novelist.
She brought it up as evidence that it is indeed in the nature of children to judge one another callously by material standards. One job of child rearing is to change this nature to something more civilized by instructing children of all financial backgrounds of how little importance fortune is in assessing people's worth, and how capricious it is -- and therefore how precarious a matter for bragging. The wise rich have traditionally kept their young children on strict budgets. Miss Manners remembers from her school days that what the major heiresses had in common was a need to borrow quarters for the laundry machine from the overflowing pockets of the daughters of the middle class.
Few parents seem to do this, and Miss Manners hears far too much instead about money forked over for frivolities "because everybody else in school" has one fad item or another. Miss Manners doesn't doubt this, but is surprised that parents continue to give weight to such a silly argument. The true class division in America, it seems to her, is between those who "make statements" with dry goods, and those who don't bother.
The poor child who is in a school where consumer competition is common will have social difficulties that one hopes are compensated by educational advantages. A strong character, bolstered by his parents' values, may be able to ignore or even triumph over the disadvantage, but strong characters do not often develop at tender ages.
If possible, the child should be allowed to approximate the ordinary standard of clothes or equipment at the school -- one sweater like his classmates' instead of several cheaper ones, for example.
He must also be given instructions on the futility of trying to keep up and the necessity of employing quiet techniques for avoiding debt. He can't go along on expensive outings, because sooner or later the others will resent paying for him, but he can be as hospitable with lemonade or coffee; he can play ball rather than polo; and he can suggest walks or museum trips with friends, rather than shopping and restaurant expeditions.
There will also be times when he will simply have to say, without any apology, "No, I can't afford that." Of course, in a sophisticated school, this means he will also have to put up with being suspected of being outrageously rich. Q.Q. I have been confronted with a Q. new kind of snob. A guest in my house demanded a paper napkin at lunch, refusing to use my immaculately laundered linen one. Since I never use paper ones, I was embarrassed. To my dismay, the other guests also quietly scorned my linen.
Should I change my way of living? I feel my guests and I rate the best. Or should I simply never invite these clods again for a meal? A.A. Miss Manners is delighted A. that you recognize this for what it is -- sheer nasty snobbery.
Her advice is exactly what it would be if a guest in a house where paper napkins were used indicated scorn and demanded a linen one. The host should reply, "I'm so sorry I can't provide you with what you're used to. I wonder if you would be kind enough to try to make do with what I have."
Whether you wish to entertain again people who sneer at your household arrangements, Miss Manners will not presume to say. But she cannot imagine that you are seriously entertaining the idea of redoing these arrangements to suit such people.