June 02, 2005,
My patience with self-absorbed parents has been wearing thin lately. One Sunday night around 9 P.M., for instance, the phone began ringing every 20 minutes or so for about two-and-a-half hours. There were no voice-mail messages, except for a couple that recorded only an electronic sounding beep. A wrong number? A misdialed fax? Finally at 10:30 P.M., awakened, I hit *69, hoping that if it was a wrong number I could ask whoever it was to please stop bothering me.
But it turned out the caller was a fellow journalist whose son goes to my daughter’s school. I could hear electronic beeps in the background, apparently from her home-office equipment, so obviously it had been her calling repeatedly all night the way people do when they're trying to flush you out rather than simply leave a message that might be ignored. She knew I'd recently had to start some nasty new fatigue-causing medication, so rightly suspected I was home.
“Well, because I was trying to get hold of you!” she exclaimed when I asked why she'd kept calling and calling without leaving a message. “You see, we've got an urgent problem...” Her ninth-grade son needed info for a team homework project due the next day from a classmate, whose phone number he'd neglected to get, and they didn't have a student directory. “I was hoping you might!” she explained brightly.
“I don't know if I have a student directory,” I said shortly, “but I do know that I'm not getting out of bed at 10:30 P.M. on Sunday night to look for it.” Nor did I have any intention of waking my daughter, who's the one around here keeping track of most school-related info anyway.
The woman sent an apologetic e-mail the next day, although actually it was rather short on the apology and long on the “urgent” explanation, which she apparently felt confident was a completely understandable excuse, if only I could be made to realize her terribly important situation. You see, the classmate was supposed to provide the homework info, but he hadn't, and, well... Etc.
I briefly considered responding with a definition of the word “urgent” concerning late-night phone calls: You have (life-or-death) info that is of vital importance to me. You've just discovered that a psychopathic killer is on his way to my house, for instance.
Not: I might have (non-life-or-death) info that you would like to learn. That is, anything involving your kid's homework problems, which I really don't give a damn about.
But I didn't, I suppose because I've come to realize that some people are just basically hopeless. But what is it with these aging baby boomers who still help their high-school kids out of schoolwork jams and generally continue to treat them like helpless baby birds? Does it have something to do with the parents’ belonging to the when-am-I-gonna-start-feeling-like-a-grownup generation? Do they therefore assume that their own kids should never be expected to behave like grownups?
This seems to be the tacit message of a Morgan Stanley ad I’ve noticed lately in upscale magazines. “Three car payments. Three private colleges. Three weddings,” it begins. A photograph spread over two pages shows three girls in expensive party dresses, evidently sisters, lounging on an equally expensive looking couch. It's an excellent photo, by the way; the girls are pretty but not superhumanly beautiful, like obvious models, and their expressions really do make them seem like sisters: one looks smug, another skeptical, and the third slightly annoyed.
The ad text continues: “I think I am having chest pains. How are we going to pay for all this? Invest? Invest in what? The market is more unpredictable than our daughters.” Then the tag says: “Emotional times require sound, unemotional financial advice.”
Now if these girls come from such a rich family that private colleges and new cars and expensive weddings are their birthright, then lucky them and three cheers for their generous daddy. But if the thought of how to pay for all this gives the unseen narrator chest pains, then here's some sound, unemotional financial advice: Maybe that family ought to rethink what those girls should expect. Maybe everyone would be better off if one or all of them drove used cars, went to public universities and didn't feel entitled to fairy princess weddings at the Pierre. And maybe that wouldn't be the end of the world.
Which brings me to an article I noticed recently in the Los Angeles Times about how college waiting lists favor well-off applicants. Students who need financial aid sometimes find it's used up by the time the college delves into its waiting list.
The photo for the Times piece showed a Los Angeles high-school senior named Alex Lee who has his heart set on Reed College in Oregon. The problem is that because he is only wait-listed at Reed, Alex doesn't know whether he'll be able to afford to go there; Reed has offered admission to 15 waiting-list applicants, but so far not Alex, because he needs financial aid and there might not be enough.
Gee, that sounds kind of rough, that a bright kid (Alex scored 1440 on his SATs) should be disappointed like that. Until you get almost to the end of the story, way down on the jump, where it's revealed that Alex Lee is not just any old high-school senior he’s graduating from Harvard-Westlake, one of the most exclusive (and expensive) private high-schools in the country. So we're not exactly talking here about a plucky, struggling boy who earned those high SAT scores despite the bad break of having to attend a poor or mediocre school.
But then comes the real kicker: Alex Lee has been accepted, with a financial-aid package, to Pitzer, an excellent southern California school very similar to Reed in that it’s a small, prestigious liberal arts college. He's also been accepted at USC, a fine university that hasn't made him a financial-aid offer yet, but (as the Times piece mentioned in passing) is one of the most well-endowed schools in the country and probably will.
So what, exactly, is the tragedy here? If money is a problem for this family, shouldn't the added transportation costs of attending a distant school make Reed less attractive than one close to home? Apparently not.
“I wish there was some better way to help kids have a chance to go to the school of their choice,” Alex Lee's dad, sounding rather poignant, told the Times. Well, here’s a thought: Maybe the better way would be to help kids realize that when they’ve been accepted at two first-rate colleges, which will cost far less than a third that’s only offered a place on the waitlist with no financial aid, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider what should be the school of their choice.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.