Sunday, March 19, 2017

Flashback 1998—Preschool: a matter of life or debt

    With Northwestern nearly snatching victory from Gonzaga—we was robbed!—Saturday afternoon, I fell to wondering what I'd written about my alma mater over the years. I tiptoed into Nexis and found of a 1997 column that was such a bitter keel-hauling of my alma mater that I just couldn't bring myself to re-print it now, not with my kid having two years to go there. 
    But I did find this, from the summer of 1998. I would point out that the toddler we ponied up the big bucks to go to pre-school—the Apple School, in the shadow of Cabrini-Green, if I recall—is now 21 and we're still paying for his school!  Though there was a break, here in the suburbs, and the end does hove into sight, at long last. One more year, and he finally gets to spread his wings and fly into life, his tank topped with expensive education, while his mother and I, our vitality drained by paying for it all, economically and emotionally, are discarded like two dry husks. Such is life.

     There was an article in Harper's awhile back by a man who had driven his family deep into debt. Despite an income, with his wife, of $ 100,000, they had been plunged into bankruptcy and ruin. Their home was beset by bill collectors and credit card companies, all demanding, in shrill and rising tones, the tens of thousands of dollars the family owed.
     What had brought them to such ruin? Gambling? Drugs? Psychic hotline addiction?
     No; private schools.
     The family has three children and, unwilling to subject them to public schools, wrecked themselves trying to pay for private education.
     I have been thinking about that family all week, brooding, like Saul in his tent, over their fate, the first whiff of which, I believe, I have just deeply inhaled. Wearing roller skates and poised at the top of that short slope to utter financial disaster, I felt the first sharp poke in my back.
     Our 2 1/2-year-old was accepted into a pre-nursery school for the fall.
     People who are reading this on farms, with the wind rustling the willows and their children playing out back with Spot the dog and Fluffy the cat, might not quite understand the concept of a pre-nursery school. "What kind of people would send their li'l ones away so young?" says grandma, coming through the screen door with a freshly baked huckleberry pie.
     "I don't know, Nana," says Bea, drying the dishes with a patch of homespun and gazing at her children, running through the rye. "It must be a city thing."
     You're right, Bea, it is a city thing. Though for the life of me, I can't understand it either. My mother didn't pack me off to preschool until I was 4, and then I made her pull me out because there were other children there and, frankly, I didn't like them.
     Two-and-a-half hours a day, three days a week. It isn't as if we're sending him away to a boarding school in Switzerland. (Hmmm . . .) Just enough to get him to learn to share his toys and finger paint and socialize with others and be spared the life of maladjusted elitism that, well, afflicts so many people nowadays.
     Then there is the break it provides his mother. A few gasps of air; the difference between swimming and drowning.
     My wife searched for a preschool with the tenacity of a young actress trying to land her first role, and with about the same initial success. The prestigious day care a block from our house (it's in a brownstone, like an embassy) rejected us with a form letter (a form letter addressed to a different child but sent to our home, to add insult to injury). Other places turned up their noses as well.
     Finally, the call came, just when she had given up hope. I was there when my wife took the call. It was like one of those Publishers Clearinghouse commercials.
     "It's pretty expensive," she said, a little later, after composing herself. "What do you think?"
     "Well," I said, "given the fact that you wept like a baby for joy when they called, I guess we sort of have to."
     Now, with so many columnists making up things nowadays, I want to point out that the above conversation really, truly happened. We also discussed whether we should pay for the school by not paying our real estate taxes. I called out after her, as she hurried to the school to give them our check, "Honey, remember to rob a liquor store on your way home."
     The preschool tuition, I noted with horror, was as much as the tuition I paid Northwestern University the fall semester of my freshman year.
     I'm certainly not looking for pity. I just want readers to understand that, when I start writing column after column about our cute little farm 50 miles away in Harvard, Ill., I didn't move out of the city on a lark.
                      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 25, 1998.


  1. Which FLW home is that in the photo?

    1. I didn't read the plaque. Forest, just south of Chicago Avenue.

    2. That's the Arthur Heurtley House. In the summer, the built in urns and plant boxes on the house look great.

  2. Neil obviously dodged the problem with the second child by moving to the burbs, but two questions remain unaddressed, probably because they are unanswerable. Did the investment in big bucks, in retrospect, pay off? (I'm inclined to believe the kid would have done fine just by reason of growing up in a literate household.) And why all the rejections?


  3. Perfect timing for my daughter, whom I'm visiting in Seattle, with her 2 boys, Charlie age 2 and Chistian, born just 11 days ago. A fellow Northwestern alumna, she is already sending Charlie to pre-pre-school and contemplating the load of debt looming over the horizon. The priest this morning mentioned the 19-year-old nuns whom accompanied Mother Cabrini to the wilds of Seattle some 100 years ago. Most of the died within 2 years of their arrival, from TB.


  4. My parents had me in private schools starting in second grade. I went to boarding school at age 14. Didn't like the kids there much more than Neil liked his preschool classmates, but I had no choice.

    Not sorry it happened, though. At least I got a good education. My sister went to the local high school and told me she didn't learn much there.


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