If I don’t send my children to college, am I destroying their future? Or safeguarding a legacy?
CHARLIE (speaking to his father): But what if I don’t want to make shoes?
MR. PRICE: You’re a right funny kid, you are!
Saoirse is nestled beside me in the cramped theater. Bob and Ula are two seats down. Without telling the girls what the story is about (other than assuring them a quality performance in light of the fact that Cyndi Lauper wrote the music), we’ve brought them to see a traveling production of Kinky Boots. in Schenectady.
Saoirse is beside herself with excitement. Not only is she getting to see a Broadway show close to home; but her best friend Lani is due in from California the next day. Lani’s visit will be the highlight of her summer.
Their time together this year is short. They are both going to sleep -away camps. Lani has been enrolled in a computer programming camp in Berkley. Saoirse is going to a wilderness camp 30 minutes away from our farm, where every child is required to bring a knife with a four inch blade.
A little sad that Lani couldn’t join Saoirse at wilderness camp this year, I asked her mom if she was developing an interest in computer programming. “She has to go,” she explained to me quietly. As a result of having spent the bulk of her elementary school years here in Schoharie County before they moved out to Silicon Valley, Lani needs to learn computer programming to keep up with her peers.
Lani’s mom Kelly is one of my closest friends. She and her husband Dan and I all went to the same school here in Schoharie County. We were neighboring comrades in natural parenting when our children were younger. When Dan, a computer engineer, was offered a position with a high profile company in Silicone Valley, it broke my heart to see them go.
As we sit in the theater and watch the story of Kinky Boots unfold, Saoirse and Ula are mesmerized by the cross dressers as they strut and dance across the stage. But I’m wrapped up in the story of Charlie, the young man who inherited his family’s shoe factory. He is offered a lucrative job with his girlfriend in London, where they can become upwardly mobile. But upon the death of his father, he chooses to return home to the family factory, where he struggles to find a way to bring the family business out of the red and keep the employees on the payroll. At this moment in my life, as we work on our farm transition, Charlie’s struggles resonate deeply with me. To some characters in the story, Charlie’s family factory is a burden. In the eyes of Charlie’s father, the family business was a legacy.
A week after the show, Mom, Dad, Bob and I are sitting around the kitchen table with a farm business consultant, working out the logistics of merging our assets and making Sap Bush Hollow Farm an LLC. The subject of royalties from my books comes up. “I urge you to keep those separate,” the consultant counsels me. “I find that royalties are a nice way to fund college savings plans for kids.”
I laugh at him. “College savings plans? How about using those royalties to put food on the table for myself in my old age?”
He makes no reply. I feel like I’ve brought to light the unmentionable. Bob and I are not saving for our kids’ college education. In fact, while we share with them a love of learning, we are not even preparing them for the idea of going to college. Unlike Lani’s parents, we don’t really concern ourselves with whether or not Saoirse and Ula are keeping up, or whether they are “behind” or “ahead.” The very idea, to us, suggests competition with their peers. In our minds, competition for a limited number of jobs makes it a lot harder to build satisfying community. We don’t worry about competition. We worry instead about helping Saoirse and Ula to work to their potential, about helping them conceive ways they can earn the money they need while pursuing a lifestyle they enjoy.
This is not to say that we discourage college. But we are ambivalent about it. If they want to go and can find a way to pay for it, great. But we are leery that insisting that they go to college at all costs can set them up for financial problems later in life.
In our school district, where 40% of high school graduates don’t go to college, our views are not out of the norm. But Kelly and Dan, home from California, take us to task for this stance. And Kelly, in particular, is the last person with whom I can debate this subject. I simply can’t win.
We all grew up knowing lots of people who never went to college. Sanford and Ruth, my surrogate grandparents and farming neighbors up the road, dropped out of school at the ages of 12 and 16 respectively. By conventional figures, their income of a few thousand dollars per year made them poor. Yet Sanford was never without a book or a newspaper when he wasn’t working, the house was never in disrepair, Ruth carefully accounted for every penny, and there was always homegrown and home-cooked food on the table.
While I was sitting down to farm feasts with Ruth and Sanford, Kelly was growing up a few miles away in a trailer park where “doing well” meant that a family could afford the skirting around their single wide. The desperate crimes often committed by the poor were the daily norm in her world.
For me, with professional parents, college was a birthright. Mom and Dad paid for me to live at home and go to the local school for two years, then for two years at a state school. My graduate degrees were paid for through assistantships. For Kelly, college was a hard-won dream, her only hope to escape poverty. If it weren’t for our high school teachers spending their own money to buy her supplies, having the New York Times delivered to her trailer steps, or pushing her to apply for scholarships, she’d likely still be living in the same county and the same conditions. And despite our proximity, we probably never would have met, because our parallel worlds would never intersect. The poverty I knew was more akin to simplicity. It was rich in resources. Kelly’s poverty was genuine crushing hardship.
And now, each of us has beautiful, intelligent children. I shudder at the idea that one week of Lani’s precious summer should be wasted inside walls staring at computer screens. Kelly shudders that I would not insist that my children go away to college someday to broaden their minds.
We have a history of sticking our noses into each other’s business. We have a history of disagreeing. This is partly why I love her so dearly. Our friendship never wants for excitement. And I am forever wiser for each debate that ensues between us.
And on the college issue, we find no resolution. Part of me wants to agree with her. I want to accede that I will begin preparing Saoirse and Ula for the idea that they must go to college. But if the predictive calculations are correct, one year of in-state public tuition for Saoirse will be nearly twice what our annual income was last year. Maybe Saoirse and Ula will take courses online. Maybe they could get scholarships. Maybe they could be accepted into one of the schools that allows students to work in exchange for their eduction. But maybe it won’t happen. Competition for those resources is fierce.
And here is where I come back to Charlie’s story in Kinky Boots. I am not unlike Charlie. I have stepped into a legacy. And while I do not have money to secure Saoirse’s and Ula’s college tuition, I do have a family business that I can offer them. Kelly is right. College can offer breadth in one’s education. But a family business, united across the generations, embedded in community and rich in clear streams, blue skies and fertile soils, offers depth. In a small family business, we become keenly aware how every single action affects the soils beneath us, the water around us, and the people beside us. Such learning experiences may not be expansive, yet they are no less profound.
But there is more than depth of learning. Bob’s and my ambivalence about college is tied to an instinct for cultural preservation. Kelly and I grew up knowing the same villages, the same roads, the same school teachers, but vastly different cultures. Hers was one she longed to escape. Mine is one that I long to preserve. And if we insist on college education at any cost, then Saoirse and Ula could incur debts so extreme that our way of life may simply be impossible for them. I watched this happen as I grew up through the farm crisis. Schoharie county parents were so eager to send their children off to a better future, they mortgaged or sold the family farms to pay for college and, in my view, gutted our community heritage and created a brain drain.
The grim truth is that, as it stands right now, we are raising two children who will be equipped to thrive in a place that is losing population every year. Dan joins Kelly in her arguments, explaining to me that this country’s economy is no longer based on agrarianism, the historical foundation of Schoharie County’s economy. It is based on intellectual capital. I argue that even intellects need to eat. And I marvel how, in spite of this, the farmer is worth significantly less in our economy than the computer engineer. It is no small wonder our vocation is disappearing.
As parents who want to ensure our children thrive in the future, are we forcing Saoirse and Ula to become an endangered species with the threat of extinction? Or are we preserving our culture?
I have turned these ideas over and over in my head since Lani’s family has been home visiting. I cannot reconcile them. But I do know this: As parents, we have to make choices. And we make those choices based on our experiences. And it is very possible that in just a few short years, either or both of our families will be proven completely wrong in our decisions. Nevertheless, for this summer, Lani will learn computer programming. Saoirse will learn to wield a knife. And they will continue to love each other as much as I continue to love Lani’s mother.
*Kelly, Dan and Lani are pseudonyms to ensure their privacy.