We live on a curving street, and share the back yard area where the lots converge with our next-door neighbors (NDNs) to the north as well as our “back-yard neighbors” (BYNs) to the west. Over the past 4 years, we have gotten to know the BYNs pretty well. The NDNs got their daughter through her first year of college, shouted “hooray,” and decamped for Colorado. (Didn’t take it personally; he’s a fly-fisherman.)
To resume the narrative, the BYNs have two children, a younger girl in middle school and a boy who is now a sophomore in high school. As you might expect in a “suburb” of Ann Arbor (“suburb” meaning a rural haven from the incredibly high tax rates that providing municipal services for the University of Michigan imposes on the town of A2), the schools are filled with bright kids from well-educated families.
Sam, the older boy, made the high school varsity swim team. He also plays bass violin in the orchestra, and does well academically. Yesterday, my wife Katherine joined Sam’s mom to watch a home swim meet. Katherine not only has her own family experience as a reference point, she also has an academic perspective with her master’s degree in psychology/sociology. When she came home, she commented, “I can’t believe the schedules the high school kids keep, and the pressure they’re under.”
As usual, I muttered something about “thinking about it a little more.” After doing just that, here’s what I think. The BYNs are the same age as our kids. Their children are the same age as our grandchildren.
I don’t think it’s the kids who are under the pressure, really. After all, they are kids, and they seem to be having a lot of fun. Sure, they’re busy. But, the parents are providing transportation and food and the financial resources to support all this activity.
I think it’s the parents who are under pressure. They are the ones who are now old enough, mid-40s to early 50s, to see how the world really is and it is not pretty. We have a society that has become divided into “haves” and “have nots” and the middle is vanishing. Income distribution looks more and more like a double-humped Bactrian camel than a bell curve. (OK, bi-phasic distribution if you want. I like the camel better.) This is not news. Today’s parents know that getting into the high-end hump requires a college education, and that requires the sports and cultural activities that the kids are doing, as well as grades and standardized test scores. All that is frightening enough, but most parents are willing to at least discuss it.
Here’s the part they don’t want to talk about. If you start sliding toward the camel’s rear end, you will never get back. Mobility in this world is essentially unidirectional. We are all now old enough to know the uncle who never finished college, started drinking and drugging, and died in his late 30s. Or maybe he didn’t die, but could never hold a job; now his kids have dropped out of high school, and they have kids.
Today’s parents talk to their high school students about the importance of education, and how much the parents want the students to have the opportunity to learn. They don’t talk about life on the back hump. But they have seen what happens to family members and friends who ended up there. They know the game and they know the stakes. That’s pressure.
Sam’s team won the meet.