I am writing this on my new dining room table, in my new apartment in Swarthmore, PA. We live above Dunkin’ Donuts, and I told the kids absolutely no buying a donut ever. But I bought a few coffees there as a goodwill gesture for using their Internet which thank goodness filters up to our apartment.
The kids think it’s totally incompetent that we’ve been here four days and still do not have our own Internet connection. They do not recognize we also don’t have pots and pans and sheets and shampoo.
I left everything we own at the farm. I can’t cope with the idea that we are never going back. And anyway we have to maintain Wisconsin citizenship because the homeschooling laws in Pennsylvania fixate on curriculum which would probably put my kids back in kindergarten. So I bought everything new, which is really a new chance to own nothing.
I ordered the minimum amount of furniture. The farmhouse is all old furniture. The boys made me promise new furniture for our new apartment. So I have been buying vintage instead of antique because new is relative. I bought the dishes Trudy uses in Mad Men. I bought the thumbprint green glasses my mom threw at us in childhood. Who knew my mom was a connoisseur of design?
I never planned to move to Swarthmore. In October we started having to drive three times a week to Chicago, which meant 24 hours a week in the car. And 27 if you count time for eating, and the more time we spent in the car the more time we took every time we got out of the car, and hours melted into days and stays overnight at hotels.
In November my husband and I decided the driving is too much, and I had to get an apartment in Chicago, and we’d go home to the farm on the weekends. But before I could get my plan in order, I had already scheduled my son to take lessons with a teacher from Juilliard, Amy Barston. Instead of staying in NYC for the lessons, we spent the week in the only hotel in Swarthmore, where she lives. And the minute I got there I knew we should move there to take lessons with her.
Lessons with Amy were great. We knew they would be. My son has had lessons with her before. We just never considered her as a choice because I didn’t think we were ready to move so far away from the farm.
It took me three days to decide to move. The first day I knew it would be great for cello. But my older son would have to come with. And I felt hesitant to drag him along with us if it wasn’t best for him. My older son loves academics. And he loves working in-person, one-on-one with a tutor. But we couldn’t find tutors near our house. So he did some subjects online. But we hit a wall with chemistry. The tutor said problem sets are difficult to do online. And we hit a wall with the SAT tutor who said our connection on the farm is so slow that we are wasting our money on the tutoring.
In Swarthmore I found a great biology tutor and an SAT tutor in one day. Local. In person. So easy. No driving for us. We interviewed chemistry tutors for two days. My son couldn’t believe how many choices he had. He was hooked. He wants tutors back to back all day long.
We could argue the merits of this plan. But you can’t argue how much easier it is to get my kids what they need in Swarthmore than on the farm. The farm was a really great place to raise kids. But it’s a very limiting place for teenagers.
Location is limiting to everyone. I guess families try to pick a location that presents the most opportunity for the most family members. In Wisconsin we live among the Amish. (Who, ironically moved from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin because land prices in the east are so high.) The Amish families put the community before the family and the family before the individual. I guess what I am doing is putting the individual before the family and the family before the community. I’m not sure there’s a right answer. You get something different depending on the decision.
What we have is that the kids are getting what they want and I am losing my garden and my house that I adore and the relationship I built with my in-laws, who I really like. My husband is losing his wife and kids. Maybe. Or, if he decides to move with us, he’s losing his job.
Most people will say this is extreme. Moving for a cello teacher for an 11-year-old. But this sort of situation happens all the time. Families relocating for a child star or an Olympic athlete. I saw a movie about ballet students trying to make it as professionals. Their families gave up everything so the kids could train at the right place at the right time.
But the point the movie really makes is that poor kids don’t do this because training takes too many resources. And rich kids don’t do this because families are accustomed to buying accommodations from people rather than bending themselves for an institution.
Giving up so much so the kids can climb their chosen mountain — this is the purview of the middle class. It’s for people who strive. Specializing is not something the rich and privileged do — because they don’t have to. Specializing is taking a big risk, and people take big risks to get something they don’t have. Rich parents do not take risks with their kids. It’s not worth the downside to them.
So we are taking a risk. I am risking my marriage and my financial security and probably my sanity so the kids can have the childhood they want. I am advocating the virtues of self-directed learning and I’m taking it to the logical extreme, because that’s how I do everything.
I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I don’t know how I’m going to keep my garden from going to hell while I’m living in Swarthmore. But I do know that the kids like mid-century design.