The Joneses

I don’t think I really noticed the difference between our family and our neighbors until I started associating with other parents from our neighborhood. At her preschool here, it was kind of all over the place; very diverse, lots of ethnicities and backgrounds. At the elementary school, I see a family driving a Lexus SUV on snowy days and their Tesla on the others. A boy in her classroom told me that his gift for the first night of Hanukkah was an iPad mini and he gets a different app for it the other seven nights. This a kindergartener. He’s five. A mom who came to help out with the kids’ holiday party was having a conversation with the teacher about how much her husband complained that all she wanted for Christmas was to hire a decorator to put up window coverings. It wasn’t the cost–which, from what I gathered, was going to be more than three months of our rent on the apartment we can barely afford–it was that she didn’t want something he could wrap up in a box for her to open. The teacher laughed, commiserated, and said she’s having her new husband pay to whitewash their floors as her gift. The rocks on their fingers flashed and sparkled as their hands waved in the air.

My kid has been invited to half a dozen birthday parties since school started at the beginning of September. She has gone ice skating, to an indoor bounce-house arena, and was dropped off for some sort of athletic party involving gymnastics teachers and rock climbing with experts. We’ve declined three of those six parties because we just can’t afford to keep bringing gifts for the kids. I’ve poked around a bit because, of course, she wants to have a similar party for herself next year. The cheapest I could find started at $350 for 1.5 hours for ten kids and did not include food. There are 26 kids in her classroom and we have been told that if you invite one, you should invite all of them.

Her school has raised something like $70,000-$100,000 through various activities, pledges, walks, sales, and movie nights since September. We haven’t participated in anything yet but I’ve already been made to feel guilty for not “being there for [my] daughter.” A lot of the moms don’t work. And if they do, they run their own businesses and work from home, so they’ll take off a morning or afternoon to chaperone of the kids’ five field trips in the past three months, or volunteer to be a room parent, or help out with their parties. The school-day activities have cost us somewhere around $250 for the field trips, a Halloween party, a holiday party, a Christmas gift for her teacher, presents for the other kids’ parties, and the tools required to complete different activities that are supposed to be just for fun. We had to fill out a form demonstrating our (lack of) income in order to not be charged an additional $100 fee just to register for school.

I did my first bit of volunteering this week. I went for an hour on Wednesday to help the kids build gingerbread houses, then went back Friday to help with the games for their holiday party. This was when I got to hear about the ladies’ Christmas lists. I was suddenly extremely conscious of my paint-splattered jeans (the only pair I have that fit at the moment), my fraying sweater, my splotchy skin, the two inches of dead ends on my hair. These women, all my age or older, looked like they have regular trips to spas and salons. I bet a couple of them have already started getting Botox and the others looked waxed, plucked, coiffed, colored, and micro-dermabrasion-ed to perfection on a frequent basis.

Everyone was polite and nice to me. If they were aware of our income disparity, they were certainly too polite to acknowledge it by treating me any differently than they would, say, the person making their coffee. In fact, I felt kind of like I was in a different environment with my more high-end customers from the coffee shop. It was awkward but not painful.

And it’s not like I think these people have picture-perfect lives. One of them, for all her expensive clothes and car, has a child who will probably end up a sociopath. The child is nasty, mean spirited, and spent all her holiday-market money on one toy for herself, despite being sent with instructions to buy for her siblings and parents. She screams at the other kids that she won’t be their friend one day, then screams if they avoid her. Her dad had to apologize in advance to Charlie, saying that she apparently stole something from one of the other kids and he didn’t know if it was our kid or not.

It wouldn’t matter where she goes to school. We’d have some sort of problem or another anywhere. But I hate that I can’t do for her the things she wants or keep up even with minor extracurricular activities due to cost.

To top it all off, she is being sent to work with a specialist for twenty minutes each day, three days a week, in order to “gain focus, skills, and confidence.” She apparently works too slow in class. At our parent-teacher conference, Mrs S said that other children are done with assignments and she’s barely a third of the way through. Her teacher seems to think she isn’t where she should be with letter/sound recognition and math. Math? MATH? Of course, they aren’t doing ACTUAL math in class, so the teacher has no idea Bea can sit down and fill out two pages of addition and subtraction work on her own. And, yes, she does need to learn to focus if she’s going to stay in that class room, plus she lacks confidence in her answers and won’t really volunteer in class. But shit. She’s five. Back in my day, I was like the only kid who could read in kindergarten. We were not being given all these tests and assessments to see where we were, academically.

There’s a reason this is the best school in the city and there’s a reason the kids who go here get accepted to the best high schools and colleges. I just don’t know if my kid is prepared to start all of this stuff so early. She’s loving and kind and artistic, plus she seems to have picked up arithmetic really quickly. But if, a couple years down the road, she’s still considered “behind,” we will start looking at other options.