Tuesday, March 18, 2008

So much privilege, so little time

“We think she’s ready to make the trip,” said Burberry Mom 1 to Burberry Mom 2. “We have her in Chinese immersion, she’s taking a cultural supplement on China and the language tutoring is doing a wonderful job getting her ready. So we think she’ll do fine. I have her as well prepared as possible. The interesting question will be what she decides to do with it once she comes back.”

“Oh, you must be so proud of the job you’ve done!” reassured Burberry Mom 2 to Burberry Mom 1. “A trip to China is such a big deal. Whatever happens, you really outdid yourself preparing your daughter for this trip. And you must be really happy you chose to put her in Holton. What a great thing for a school to do! I’m so glad I talked you into coming to our school!”

Not so, said Burberry Mom 1. “I don’t think that’s the way I remember it,” she said through smiling, though gritted, teeth. “We decided to come to Holton before (tapping Burberry Mom 2’s wrist for emphasis) we even met.” And then Burberry Mom pulled out the big gun.

“That’s why I was able to come in as a room parent,” said Burberry Mom 1. “And chair the auction this year.”

Conversation over. Back to their planners.

The daughter in question is a 14 year-old girl who takes an individual tennis lesson at the Cabin John indoor tennis facility while my nine year-old teenage daughter, sporting her “Future Mama for Obama” button, toils away in the group lesson. Holton is Holton Arms, one of the most elite girls’ schools in the Washington, D.C. area, the kind of school where the girls and their moms wear Lily Pulitzer, Martha’s Vineyard and Talbot’s clothing, with the occasional Ugg boot thrown in to acknowledge at least one post 1940s-fashion trend, without any sense of irony, have so many bows and ribbons in their hair that their heads look like bobbing birthday gifts just wrapped at Toys-R-Us and carry themselves with an ardor that says, “One day, if you work hard and play by the rules the rest of us ignore, you can wash our cars, clean our houses and pick up our dry cleaning. . . .

. . . . but in the meantime, run out and pick us up a latte, no foam, half-soy, half-caf, with a shot of vanilla, but not a full shot, a dash of chocolate, a pinch – a small pinch – and, should I write this down for you? BEEP-BEEP! BEEP-BEEP! Sorry, gotta take this call! The Blackberry never stops!”

No, it doesn’t. Just imagine how much worse it would be if she had a job.

Seems the class trip this year for the 15 year-old Holton girls is an excursion to China. During my 10th grade year, which took place when I was 15, a remarkable chronological achievement for a student in the Georgia public schools, I accompanied a friend of mine who said he was 16 but really wasn’t for a car ride around I-285 in Atlanta, the city’s “Beltway.” Our transport consisted of a 1966 Chevy Impala that, to the best of my recollection, had no seatbelts and only an AM radio to amuse us. We made it around I-285 in about 45 minutes, impressive when you consider that one complete loop was around 65 miles and the speed limit had just been lowered, thanks to then-president Gerald Ford, to 55 miles per hour.

I’ll admit, without a note of jealousy, that a trip to China at 15 is much cooler than a 65 mile trip around your hometown in a beat-up old car. But the I-285 trip was a step up from our usual out-of-the-ordinary entertainment, which consisted of taking the number 30 bus downtown and riding the glass elevators at the Hyatt Regency up and down until we were nauseous, and then walking the streets in search of nothing in particular, although we were always curious about what was so adult about the adult book stores whose blue and yellow painted windows prevented us from seeing what was inside.

But had my school offered me a trip to China when I was in 10th grade, would I have gone? I don’t know. The only trip my school offered me at that age was to the assistant principal’s office, where, instead of choosing which four-star hotel I would stay in while in Bejing or whether I should board the luxury bus with or without a translator while making the rounds to historic sites, I had to weigh the relative merits of taking two whacks from Mr. McKee’s paddle or spending four days in detention.

Easy choice. Take the licks, sign the paddle (I’m convinced the deranged surplus store operator in “Pulp Fiction” and the psychopath in “No Country for Old Men,” were each based on Mr. McKee. How else do you explain the glee of a grown man who hit you in the ass with a piece of wood with all the force of Albert Pujols jacking a fastball 450 feet, laughed about it, and then stuck out his hand and said, “Hey, no hard feelings?”).

I’d say I wonder whatever happened to Mr. McKee, but I’m guessing he may have met a fate similar to Elliot Spitzer.

Moments like the one I experience on a weekly basis as I wait for daughter to finish her tennis lesson, or my daughter to finish her hip-hop class, or the nearly identical conversations that took place when my 13 year-old son was that age in the lobby at the Tae Kwon Do and now on the ball fields and hockey rinks where he plays with his friends make me wonder whether I should turn myself into Montgomery County Social Services as Bethesda’s worst parent. Our children have never been to designer summer camps that “guarantee” a superior level of academic and athletic accomplishment, or labored hour after hour in “enrichment” courses designed to put them on a 46th or 53rd grade reading and math level while they’re still in elementary and middle school, or sent them abroad on luxurious vacations to “stimulate their cultural awareness,” as Burberry Mom 1 reminded Burberry Mom 2 was the “real” purpose of her daughter’s China trip, or, as one father pointed out to me several years ago, joined a country club so that his son could begin the “socialization process” with the “class of people we expect him to live and work with” as an adult.

Our kids were in 3rd grade, all of 8 years old, preparing for their yellow belt test at Tae Kwon Do, when I was on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom.

Having not grown up in an environment remotely like the one I live in now, pushing my kids beyond what they're interested (and able) to do is not something that comes naturally to me or my wife, who is much smarter than I am now and was a responsible adolescent when I was busy diagramming John Bonham's bass drum head or calculating my earned run average, which was always, no matter what kind of season I was having, much better than my algebra grade. For better or worse, my parents did not have enough time to organize, supervise, enhance (culturally or otherwise) or monitor every waking moment of my formative years. And when they did have some time to themselves, they -- gasp! -- actually believed that they should be able to do things that interested them or -- double gasp! -- nothing at all. No matter how hard we try, we simply cannot force our children to like sports they don't like, play musical instruments they don't want to play or pretend they're mini-adults when, in the grand scheme of things, they're actually much closer to the womb than the never-never land of adulthood.

Am I a bad parent for not spending every moment of every conversation I have with another adult talking about my kids, their activities or their latest accomplishments? Do I want to be that parent who, when asked by an adult how I am doing, respond by saying, "Jack's team won the championship this season!" Perhaps the response I could have given this morning had I been asked that question, "Not so great. I just had eleven blocked oil glands seared off my face by some high-powered heat gun and it hurts like hell, " wasn't all that uplifting. But at least I didn't say, "My daughter's spring recital is June 8th and my son's hockey team lost the championship yesterday in a shootout. And can I count you in for a Wyngate Spring Fair raffle ticket?"

Privilege has its advantages -- no doubt. Sometimes I wonder, though, at what cost to the joys of living, whether as an adult or a teenager. And that simply begs the question: advantages for what? More advantages, or to learn more about life, and live it more fully, by figuring things out on your own?

ADDED: A regular reader was kind enough to send me this link, "Hire Education," from this week's Washington City Paper, by a tutor to the privileged in the D.C. suburb of Potomac, where, not coincidentally, Burberry Moms 1 and 2 are mapping out their children's futures.

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