Thursday, June 21, 2018

Flashback 1998: "Preschool: life or debt issue"

The Children of Nathan Star, by Ambrose Andrews (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    Twenty years. Twenty years of wrangling public education for our boys. Which might sound like an exaggeration, since the oldest boy is still only 22. 
    "What," you might forgiven for scoffing, "were you picking schools for him when he was 2?" 
   Yes, yes we were. And I offer up the following column, from 1998, as documentary proof.
    Twenty years. Quite a lot, really. I am not complaining. I am not am not am not. There are many parents to whom sending their kids to school would be an unattainable dream. And I'm not quite bragging either.
      So what is it then? Marking the occasion. Just saying that staggering across the finish line Friday, when the youngest graduates Northwestern, I am relieved. We are relieved. It is time. Yes, they both are going to law school, so another three years ahead of them. And to a degree us. But not the same degree. Now it's their turn. Twenty years is enough. 

     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, Aug. 25, 1998


  1. "Twenty years. Twenty years of wrangling public education for our boys. Which might sound like an exaggeration, since the oldest boy is still only 22.
    "What," you might forgiven for scoffing, "were you picking schools for him when he was 2?"
    Yes, yes we were. And I offer up the following column, from 1998, as documentary proof."

    But was it "public education"? If so, why was it expensive?

  2. Wow. 20 years ago. I could read a couple hundred of these little snippets.
    Have you ever considered compiling some of your favorite columns into book form. Perhaps with little paragraphsb to frame the event or time that makes them special or meaningful to you.
    Maybe a vanity publication? I'd buy one in a heartbeat. I'm sure you have a fan base that could support a book of columns.

    1. Pretty to think so. But self-published books inevitably look like crap and nobody buys them. It's hard enough to get people to buy well-crafted books from mainstream publishers. But a flattering thought.

    2. There are many writers who make handsome livings by self-publishing. It isn't what it was 20, or 10, or 5 years ago.

  3. Yikes! The artwork today really creeps me out. It looks like the artist set up in a wax museum and did a remarkable job reproducing the stiff soulless figures.

    1. It's an 1835 painting by an artist who some art instruction, but who is considered a primitive painter & who like many primitive painters of that period, created some paintings that are weird to us because they lack realism & all the people in them lack dimension. Everyone looks like they are frozen in place.
      However, he did understand perspective, as the buildings seen through the window are far better rendered than the people.

    2. I googled it. Some consider it his masterpiece. If that's accurate, I don't need to see any more.

  4. The painting is quite disturbing to me somehow. I guess the kids are playing badminton, but everything seems a bit off, from the kids' gaze to the view out the window.


  5. My parents worked themselves silly to give me the best private education available, starting with second grade. I didn't appreciate it at the time as much as I should have, although I was glad to be in classes where the other kids were as smart as I was, meaning the teacher could pick up the pace. (Plus my first-grade teacher was a total bitch who hated little kids and made sure we all knew it, every hour of every day.)

    Agree with Tony and John about the painting. Plus, what's the littlest kid in the middle supposed to be doing? Holding up an imaginary net?

  6. Neil,

    If you self-publish, I promise I will locate a brick-and-mortar book store and fish your book out from the bin containing the bibliographies about lizard people controlling the weather.

  7. My niece was placed in daycare almost from infancy, and was then enrolled in Montessori schools for pre-nursery, nursery school, kindergarten, and elementary grades. Her mother grew tired of hearing her older brother's jokes about how she'd someday be "mighty sorry" her daughter had gone that route. My niece recently finished her six-year doctoral and post-doctoral program in environmental biology at UC Berkeley. Apparently, the joke was on me.


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