A few weeks ago, my daughter received an acceptance letter from a Prestigious Eastern College, along with the news that she had been awarded an annual scholarship of $26,000. Clearly, she had been SAVED. We were thrilled. We had done our job as parents. The Dean of Admission had even penned her a congratulatory note! I looked through the packet for the total cost of tuition, room and board, trying to understand what our responsibility would be should we accept, but couldn't find it.
It appeared to have self-destructed.
In the meantime, my daughter eagerly devoured literature describing the school's fabulous creative writing program. Many of its alumni are published. Distinguished professors would read and critique her work. She would be able to do an internship at a well-known publishing house. "Mom!" she exclaimed. "It's in New York! Alice Walker went there!" She rattled off a pile of celebrity alumni including Rahm Emanuel. (Okay, maybe Rahm wasn't so thrilling.)
I called the school and learned that the cost of tuition, room and board is $58,000. I would have to cough up at least $32,000 to cover her first year.
Maybe she wasn't going to be saved after all.
I began exploring ways to finance a year at this school for Cassie. I could liquidate what is left of my husband's 201K account after the stock market crash. That might get her midway through her sophomore year. But then, what would I do about my fourteen-year-old son, Ben? And how would we retire? I wasn't thinking about glorious cruises. I just want to make sure we have a house to live in.
"You should do it," urged my best friend. "A house isn't so important. Once she gets there, they're going to love her. They'll see how talented she is. They'll find a way to keep her there."
"But what if they don't?" I worried. "What if they're cold, callous people who don't care about her well-being? Then I have to send her somewhere else. What do I do then?"
I called the school to ask for ideas. I described some of Cassie's accomplishments. "She organized a team of performance poets to go into our county jail to teach inmates to express themselves through the spoken word," I told the man who answered the phone. "She just started working in the jail this week."
"I can't help you," he said bluntly. "You'll have to consider taking out a low interest parent loan."
"I have no collateral," I tried to explain. "The value of my house dropped by about 40%. Also, I'm 51 years old and need to make sure my home and debts are paid by the time I'm 65 in case I can't work. I can't take out $128,000 in loans! It would be totally irresponsible. No bank would loan me that. I have another child. He has to go to school, too!"
"We really can't help you," said the man. "Sorry."
I thought this was odd for a school that emphasizes service ethic and diversity. But last year, the same thing happened to the son of a close friend. He was accepted into Swarthmore. When his mother called the school's financial aid office, she was instructed to sell off or mortgage her family's ancestral farm.
Adam went to UNM.
In the meantime, Cassie received a second acceptance letter, this time from Coe College, an excellent but less well-known school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The letter included both the scholarship and loan amount, and the full cost of tuition. We were short of what we could afford by about $5,000.
A man named Brian called me from their financial aid office. I described some of Cassie's accomplishments including the classes she's teaching in the jail. "She just started her workshops this week," I repeated. "She had to wait till she was eighteen."
"Wow!" he exclaimed. "That's exactly what we want to see in a student! We'd really like to have Cassie come to Coe. Let me talk to our Vice President and see what we can do."
He called back a few days later with an offer to increase her merit scholarship based on her service to others.
I tried the Prestigious Eastern School one more time.
"We don't give merit scholarships," said the woman who answered the phone. "Only need-based scholarships." She lowered her voice. "It's really hard on the middle-class," she confided. "We can defer her admittance until next year but it really won't change anything. If she earns money it will be subtracted from her current award."
Suddenly, she had an idea. "Do you think there's a possibility you might lose your job? It would help you considerably."
"I'm a political appointee," I answered. "There's always a chance I could lose my job."
I stopped by the County Manager's office and half-heartedly attempted to annoy him. "I need you to fire me," I explained. "It's the only way I can finance my daughter's college education."
"Go bother a Commissioner," he replied. "I'm not firing you even though you're in violation of the dress code again. Why do you wear two different colored socks? It's probably not a fireable offense but I could dock your paycheck if you want."
I considered my options. Cassie's a prodigy. Her writing talent far exceeds her age. The people in Cedar Rapids seemed genuinely eager to help her. The only problem was the school's location in Iowa. Nobody had ever been SAVED in Iowa (with the possible exception of Barack Obama...take THAT birthers). If she was going to slip the surly bonds of Earth, she'd have to go to the school in New York where she was more likely to become known as an author.
I called my father on the off-chance he had twenty or thirty thousand dollars lying around. "She got into Prestigious Eastern School!" he exclaimed. "That's terrific!" But he didn't have twenty thousand dollars.
I first met my father my senior year in high school. I had been accepted into St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM. My mother took one look at the tuition bill and gave me his address.
My paternal grandmother offered to get me into Bryn Mawr and pay my tuition if I would live with her or join a sorority. "Your breeding is atrocious," she informed me. She took me out to a store and bought me a new wardrobe of crisply starched white clothing suitable for a Bryn Mawr sorority. I felt like a cross between Florence Nightingale and a brood mare. I rejected her offer, opting to make my own way through St. John's. I needed to know I was in school based on my own merit. And I liked their egalitarianism, their focus on academics and the laid-back, casual, ratty-jeans atmosphere of the West.
Is Cedar Rapids really the social equivalent of Purgatory? Iowa grows the world's food. I wonder if the Seven Sisters, the Ivy Leagues and other top colleges set aid levels specifically for the purpose of excluding the middle class. Perhaps they need the occasional extraordinary poor person around to convince themselves that they are also extraordinary. But the middle class is so unexceptional! We own grocery stores or teach school; farm or manage restaurants; we belong to neighborhood watch associations, the PTO, the Rotary Club, a synagogue or church. We woman bake sales. We wash cars for charity. We grow old. We forgo botox.
We are the Great Unwashed.
Thirty years ago, I opted out of being SAVED. Sometimes I look back and wonder if I made a mistake. Mostly I don't. I enjoy my life in a fixer-upper house with one husband, two kids, two dogs, three cats, scratching-post furniture, chipped dishes, and a few perpetually blighted rose bushes. I like my job running a county health and human services department. I like my neighbors. I like the mountains outside my door.
I realized, in the heart of the mundane middle, I have put out my hand and touched the face of God.