I have two children who attend a private school in Baltimore county. They are getting a great academic education where they are also learning to fence, play guitar, recite poetry, speak persuasively, act in musicals, and, well, interact with people who are much wealthier than they are. This, too, is good for them.
You see, combined, my husband and I make less than $100,000 — he’s a teacher, I’m a writer. My children attend this excellent school for one reason only: My husband teaches here and we get an 80 percent tuition break. What this also means, beyond their good education, is my children provide the school with some economic diversity. In a sea of powerful, influential, wealthy suburban parents, we offer an important perspective and diversity — that of the lower middle class.
My kids — the teacher’s kids — are the poorest kids in their classes by several hundreds of thousands of dollars of parental income.
My husband and I work hard. We just don’t have a lot of money and that’s conveniently leading to unexpected conversations with our children about career choices, private school culture, wealth, privilege, and stuff.
Like this gem: “Why don’t we have a Maserati?” my 10-year-old son asked after being picked up for a play date in said car.
My husband and I looked at each other like, Where in the parenting manual does it address sports cars? That page never made it into our book. We drive a used Hyundai and are proud to make the payments. And so from a young age, we’ve talked openly about money so that our kids understand. They know they don’t have the toys, clothes, or vacations their friends have and this admittedly leads to some tough feelings for a kid who’s 10. “No one wants to trade Lego mini figs with me,” our son said. “Mine are crusty.”
I’ve said the usual things. You’re more than the sum of your things, son. You have character. Soul. Empathy. Creativity. I’ve told him that despite the fancy basement basketball courts and specialty Legos, people are all the same. We all want food to eat, a home, the love of our families.
“Whatever,” he has said. “I want to be rich.”
My son is realizing that in the world there is disparity, and that he, in comparison to his friends, is poor. There are further comparisons locally to the economic disparity between Baltimore City and Baltimore County, horse farms and country clubs and boarded-up row houses and the riots, and he rightly wonders why.
But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t perfect trying to be okay in the midst of all this wealth. Despite all of our conversations and trying to make things understandable to our children, our son started taking things things from his friend’s houses. Light sabers. Harry Potter memorabilia. Kylo Ren. Other parents were calling us. It was embarrassing. And it fit seamlessly into a tired American stereotype: the poor kid was the bad kid, the one from the wrong side of the tracks (of a private school campus).
My husband and I called a family meeting. We agreed that yes, perceived from the angle of socioeconomics, class, and income, we don’t fit in at this school. But in the ways that are more important, we do. My kids are smart. They’ve got grit. They like STEM.
But, you can’t steal things, I said. You’re here to learn, I said. Not just about academic school subjects, but about life. I explained that the way we live is the way the 99 percent majority of the people in the United States live: somewhere on the income graph in the squished and sloping middle.
Because of this, I think my kids have a unique perspective growing up on a private school campus among much more privileged peers. They are gaining a real understanding of what money can and can not buy. My kids know the value of a dollar and its power.
My son returned everything and wrote notes of apology. We’ve started talking to his teachers, and other parents, too. Laying out the situation plainly: we can’t give him $50 for the Scholastic book fair, he can’t go skiing. The teachers and the parents of my kids’ friends have been receptive to our concerns, and sympathetic. Who hasn’t at one point or another felt less than?
The father with the Maserati told me he has questions about how to address wealth with his son, too. He knows he needs to. This fascinated me. The experiences my kids are having are already broader than the ones my husband and I ever had. “It’s all how you look at it,” my husband told my son. “You got to ride in an Italian sports car.”
My son brightened. “You’re right, Dad,” he said. And, “Maybe in high school I can go on the choir trip to Sweden and Denmark, places you have never been!” “I think my argumentative skills would be great on debate team!” I think he’s realizing that he has inherent worth and that he can go far.
Maybe what we bring to the table is perspective, the diversity of point of view of a lower middle class family at an elite private high school. It’s hard for my kids to know their friends are flying to Venice for spring break, but that also is a good education. It begs deep thinking. I think they’ll engage their whole lives with the issues that were brought up by living on a private school campus.
Perhaps my kids will be economists, community organizers, Nobel peace prize laureates, activists. Teachers. Or writers.
Right now what’s important is that they’re learning to ask good questions about living in a community where — just by being who they are — they give as important a perspective as they gain.
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