12.16.2009

Class is in Session


Modern-day Americans can be forgiven for chuckling amusingly or righteously tsk-tsking at past practices such as sacrificing children in the fire or upholding rigid class differences. We are a far more progressive and open society, we pride ourselves in saying, and know better than to think that we can appease the gods by offering up our kids or that we should regiment ourselves from others higher or lower than us.

And yet. As a parent of a soon-to-be kindergartener, I cannot help but have such seemingly archaic impulses bubble up in my heart. I may not lay my children on the altar of some strange god, but I am tempted to sacrifice them in a different, more modern way, either subjecting them to a battery of activities that define them and us as high-achieving or weakening them through the neglect of one who is too tired and too cheap to secure the right activities that they may flourish. Perhaps I am being overly dramatic, but to both pile on to kids who are just kids, or to withhold resources that can help them be all they can be, seems the same as sacrificing them, even if the outcome comes more slowly.

Class pressures are even more insidious. In the suburbs, we can segregate and define ourselves by where we live, since zoning and other regulations narrowly define who does and does not live in a particularly neighborhood. Here in a city as socio-economically diverse as Philadelphia, we have to work a little harder to distinguish ourselves, because saying you're from West Philadelphia could mean your house is worth $800,000 or twenty times less. Instead, we tend to define ourselves but what school we send our kids to, those with means choosing name-brand private schools with the rest being stuck with the lousy neighborhood school.

In this regard, we have dodged a bullet, since our neighborhood K-8 school where our kids will go is highly esteemed. But it's not hard to imagine the angst of wondering about motivations behind sending kids to one school versus another, since many I know are in the midst of such choices. Not to necessarily condemn parents for sending their kids to good schools, obviously. It's because the decision has so many noble aspects behind it - wanting the best for our kids, wanting to spare nothing in educating them, wanting them to have a conducive learning environment - that the less noble aspects - making our kids or success or upper class status an idol, trying to keep our kids and our reputations from intersecting with "those people" (whoever "those people" happen to be in your part of the world) - creep in and leave us wondering why it is we are stressing so much about our decisions.

Or perhaps it is just me that is guilty of caring too much about how I appear to the outside world, that I would sacrifice my kids on the altar of high achievement, use them as pawns in my effort to strategically position myself with one group or away from another, or care more about my own ambitions and interests than to use my finite physical and psychic resources to help them fulfill their ambitions and discover and interests. If you are like me in this regard, then we can take solace that we are not alone; but we also must contend with the fact that practices that once amused or repelled us are not far from the very practices we are tempted to partake in, or have already partook in.

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