I worked at a feminist bookstore for several years. It was teensy, and meticulously organized. On separate, carefully labeled shelves, you’d find the books on women’s history, feminist theory, and feminist literary criticism. Here were books by and about black women — fiction and nonfiction. Here was lesbian fiction, and here was lesbian nonfiction. Here were books for women who were pregnant. Here were books for women who very specifically didn’t want to get pregnant.
This meticulous classifying of titles was important, because the whole point of being in a feminist bookstore was that you were tired of the mainstream point-of-view, tired of being the weirdo, and wanted to escape for a while to a literary landscape where, for instance, you could be Latina and a main character, rather than a wacky best friend. You could be a woman and not a love interest. You could be a woman and have a love interest who was also a woman. Just find the right shelf, and find yourself. (An actual shelf. Made of wood. This was way before the Internet.)
One thing we did not have was a special shelf for rich people. No bookstores ever seem to have that.
This strikes me as odd, because wealth is a huge dividing factor. We all talk about that when it comes to The Rich and The Poor — but that’s because nobody ever admits to belonging to either of those classes.
The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with being rich unless you’re a jerk about it. But there’s something wrong with being rich and not admitting it. And there’s something very wrong with being rich and not admitting it because you haven’t noticed that you’re rich.
An example: A few years ago, my son and I desperately wanted to visit some friends of ours who live in Washington state. We live in California. Driving would be expensive, because aside from the gas involved it’s just far enough that we’d have to overnight somewhere. So far as I could see, we were talking about at least a few hundred dollars, and I just plain didn’t have it.
I don’t mean I couldn’t afford it. I never say that any more. That phrase has to be ripped out of our language until people stop misusing it. Back when I used it, I meant that I didn’t have the money for such-and-such. Then I learned that people say they “can’t afford” something when they really mean they don’t feel like spending the money. Which is bogus. If that’s not where you feel like putting your cash, fine, but don’t imply you don’t have the cash in the first place.
I just plain didn’t have the cash for this trip. We’re broke. My husband has been laid off twice in the past decade. After the second time, he was lucky enough to find very secure work with people he likes — at two-thirds the pay of his previous job. Thank goodness we’re the on-site managers of the apartment building we live in, so our rent stays pretty low. Still, I’m always doing what I can to cut expenses. I bake our bread. I buy tea leaves in bulk — much cheaper than coffee or even tea bags. I go to the library like some people go to the mall, and enjoy the luxury of one card I can max out without guilt. The closest I come to going out to eat is saving up for and splurging on convenience food. (I really lived it up the other day and bought a box of macaroni and cheese — a selfish indulgence, since I’m the only one in the house who likes it. I got three lunches out of that dollar.) I hang some of our clothes to dry, which makes our little apartment even more crowded on laundry days. When I get my hair cut, I barter with a friend (my baked goods for her skill with the scissors) or go to Supercuts. I touch up my own gray. I exercise to free online videos at home or go for a run or a walk. I’m a little alarmed that the two pairs of jeans I alternate between are developing holes that will soon be past the point of decency.
Getting back to the hoped-for trip to Washington. The friends we wanted to visit suggested I look into taking the train. I mentioned this to a relative of mine, and he laughed and shook his head.
“I would never take a train,” he said. “You should just fly up.”
Because not having money in America is still associated with being a slacker no matter how crap the economy gets, it’s always lots and lots of fun to have to explain that, for instance, flying somewhere just plain isn’t an option. Through gritted teeth, I pointed out that quite literally the only way I could “just fly” anywhere short of sprouting wings would be to apply for a credit card, hope I qualified for it, and then hope that it had a high enough limit for me to put to round-trip plane tickets on it. Then of course I’d be left with a nice big debt for our already staggering finances to deal with — but at least I’d have gone to Washington.
What really bothered me about this conversation was the stunned look on the man’s face when I said this. He and his wife both have very good jobs. They shop at the really expensive trendy grocery stores. When a new gadget comes out, this couple has it that day. They have a multi-bedroom house in a wealthy neighborhood in a well-to-do town. They have several cars, terrific clothes, and travel all the time.
Do I sound defensive? Abrasive? Bitter?
Damned right I am. But not for the reasons you think. Which are as follows.
Have you heard of Amy Chua? Sure you have. Author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I read after waiting behind more than 30 people in the holds list to get my hands on our public library’s copy.
Have you read her book? If so, what do you think about when you think about her?
You think about the parenting issues her book brings up, of course. Is Chua too strict? Too strict but makes some interesting points? Too strict and should be arrested for child abuse? Too strict and her kids need to go into therapy to undo the Stockholm Syndrome their mom has inflicted on them?
Here’s what I think about when I think about Amy Chua:
This is a woman who talks all about the differences between “Western” parents and “Chinese” ones. She talks about the fact that in this context, “Western” doesn’t have to mean white and “Chinese” doesn’t have to mean Chinese. Chua talks about this as if it’s purely a matter of priorities.
She doesn’t once mention the fact that she’s not talking about just-plain parenting. She’s talking about rich-people parenting.
My mother-in-law, who has significantly more money than my family does, pays for my son’s music lessons. He has one piano and one violin lesson a week. His violin teacher is putting me under a lot of pressure to enroll him in an orchestra group; but we can’t afford it, and my m-i-l is already giving as much as she can.
Chua describes her daughter getting ready to audition for a really important music school. She has three weeks to prepare, and in those three weeks, she sometimes has two or three music lessons a day.
Apparently the reader is meant to marvel at the intensity of it all. I sat there stunned at the thought of how much cash that must take. Chua does mention that her husband raised an eyebrow when the bills started coming in, and Chua said that, fine, they wouldn’t take their winter vacation trip this year. (Not to be mistaken for their summer trip, of course.)
I’ll say it again: This isn’t parenting we’re talking about. This is rich-people parenting.
Which brings us, finally, to why this rant-essay is about homeschooling.
Because although Chua is never even one time called rich by any of the reviewers I’ve seen, I am regularly accused of rolling in dough. Because by virtue of being a homeschooler, I’m “rich.”
Example one: several months ago, someone sent me a nice note about The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List, which they excerpted and linked to on their own site. I went to take a look — and, because I’m a masochist, I read some of the comments.
A nice comment. Another nice comment. And — ooh, I should have stopped reading after two.
It was all the usual stuff: homeschoolers are wrong, wrong, evil, and wrong. We’re ruining our kids. They’re ruining our society. And we’re…really? Rich?
Excerpt from the comment in question:
“Homeschooling is DISASTROUS if done by anyone who isn’t rich enough to raise children on one income.”
Raising my sonny boy on one income is rich now?
Apparently that’s a stereotype homeschoolers can’t get away from.
Jesse Scaccia mentions it in his top ten reasons why homeschoolers are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. “Students who get homeschooled are increasingly from wealthy and well-educated families. To take these (I’m assuming) high achieving students out of our schools is a disservice to our less fortunate public school kids.” (This is from reason #8: “Homeschoolers are selfish.” Apparently, paying the same taxes as everyone else and then letting other people’s kids use them instead is as selfish as it gets.)
And here’s a comment on an article about the “Homeschool to Harvard” family: “For the 99% of us that don’t have the luxury to homeschool our kids, I guess we’ll have to stick with crappy ‘ol regular schools. Or I guess I could quit my job and live in poverty so I can homeschool my kids. That should teach them good work ethic [sic], right? Seriously, the only people who homeschool their kids are either independently wealthy or religious fanatics. Don’t judge us for being normal.” (And they call me bitter.)
Late last autumn there was a CNN story about homeschooling. A commenter posted (and there aren’t enough sics in the world to do this one justice, so bear in mind that I copied this verbatim): “If anything this is proof that the economy is doing just fine for some folks. Let’s face it, this is a luxury. I’m glad these people have that but the rest of us just could never afford it. Also I understand that people are worried about crime in schools, overcrowding, not having the facilities or the teach staff that they would like. But it bothers me that these economically well to do people instead of getting involved with their local school board and trying to work out these problems decide it’s better to abandon their neighborhood schools leaving the situation to just get worse.”
And here it comes again: a new article at Slate, with the promising title, “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why teaching children at home violates progressive values.”
Specifically, homeschooling is something snooty rich people do because they can afford to.
First off, and you know I don’t ask rhetorical questions: Are there any articles out there about how liberals shouldn’t send their kids to private schools?
Second: Dana Goldstein is writing this article in response to an article by Astra Taylor, who was homeschooled. “Taylor’s mother could afford to stay home with her kids,” Goldstein accuses. “Yet Taylor bristles against the suggestion that there was anything unique about the ability of her upper-middle class, uber-intellectual parents to effectively ‘unschool’ their children while still helping them grow into educated adults with satisfying professional lives.”
Let me get this straight: homeschooling families live on one income each, so we’re all filthy rich.
Oh. Um. Okay.
I don’t want to be as guilty as Goldstein is for assuming that it’s fine to extrapolate from one example. Maybe I really am the only broke homeschooler.
So I asked around.
Specifically, I posted about this on SHM’s Facebook page, and the responses alternated between laughter and outrage — sometimes in the same posting.
From Janet: “I’m a widow with three boys and self-employed. Go ahead, shoot that stereotype.”
“We never go out, have never hired a babysitter, travel only to places where we have family so we can crash for free in their homes (and even that stretches the budget!). Yeah, I’m totally rich.” (Tiffany)
“I had to laugh when I saw that comment. We are poorer than dirt, barely making ends meet…actually we’re not making ends meet at the moment because my husband was laid off from his job as a construction worker for seven months and we can’t catch up. However, the decision to homeschool is so important to us that we sacrifice.” (Leah)
“Currently living in a house owned by family members so we don’t have to pay rent or power or phone. Our income is less than $180 a week for me, husband and 2 kids. We have 1 car and live 10 minutes from the nearest town. We have fruit trees and a vegetable garden and there’s a fair bit of produce swapping going on in our social circles.” (Katherine)
I got a lot more responses, but you get the point.
Regardless of what else you think of homeschoolers, please keep in mind that we’re not any more likely to be rich than any other group. We just don’t mind being broke for a good cause.
I don’t know why I’m even bothering to type this. As soon as people learn that we’re not all fabulously wealthy, we’ll be told that in that case we shouldn’t be homeschooling at all, since our children will be deprived of constitutionally guaranteed luxury goods. We can’t win.