Just over a week ago, we held a little graduation party for my son Alex and his cousin Lucy. Not wanting to be left out, we also included Molly, but it still did not feel right to me. Sure, she was technically moving up from her current school to the next level, but making it out of the fifth grade and into the sixth just doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment to me. Don’t get me wrong, Molly is smart. Very smart. She has been in the advanced program since second grade, and I expect her to continue getting good grades in the Honors Program at her new middle school. But there is the whole problem. In my brain, sixth grade is still grammar school.
Back in the day, I attended Lincoln School for my grade school education. I started there in the third grade when my family moved to Wheaton. Prior to that I attended Washington School in Villa Park which used to reside in the shadow of the old Ovaltine factory. Both the factory and the school are long gone, but the memories of my first grade teacher Mrs. Eaton are forever branded on my young psyche. Even way back in 1971, Mrs. Eaton was a throwback to a long gone era. She was in fact the meanest teacher to ever set foot in any teaching institution. And she was crazy too. Years after we had moved, Mrs. Eaton had to be removed from her classroom. The story as I heard it was that she just snapped and started finger painting all the children in her classroom. Oh, the good old days.
But back in those days, an elementary school was in fact grades one to six, with either a morning or afternoon kindergarten program to help the very young student adjust to the next twelve years by getting their feet wet on just half a day of structured learning. Back then, full day kindergarten was unheard of, and the idea of pre-school was still in its infancy as most moms stayed home to take care of the young children. So when I was suddenly presented with the idea that Molly was “graduating” the whole idea just seemed, well, strange.
Even her school didn’t call it a graduation. They had an advancement breakfast that was basically donuts, juice, and coffee in the cafeteria where every fifth grader got multiple awards. And the principal allowed parents to stop and take pictures of each kid receiving their awards. Amazingly, 119 of the almost 150 fifth graders received an award for getting better than a 3.5 grade point average over their years at the school. Really amazing given that half of them couldn’t figure out how to get up to the podium once their names were called. The whole thing took almost three hours, much longer than the actual graduation ceremony at Alex’s school. That is his Middle School. See, we don’t call then Jr. High Schools anymore.
I attended Edison Jr. High, and although the building is still in the same spot, it is indeed now Edison Middle School and serves sixth through eighth grades as opposed to just seventh and eighth grades as it did back in the late seventies. I am not really sure when this whole Middle school thing began, but it seems to be a by-product of overcrowding at the elementary school level. Although I do find it strange that most private schools still consider elementary school to consist of grades one to eight. And I have been told that many private schools have created kindergarten and pre-school programs that keep kids in the same school for up to 10 years. Certainly these schools don’t celebrate a graduation at any level except for 8th, so why should we who have to deal with the public school overcrowding have to celebrate more often just because our system in unable to keep the kids confined to one building for the entire eight years.
All that being said, we had a little graduation party just over a week ago. And the kids made out much better than I would have expected. Being a good dad, I instantly told both Alex and Molly that we were going to open bank accounts with all this new-found money. Insert groans here. I allowed each of them keep a set amount, and last night we opened new bank accounts with the rest. This was most difficult for Alex, because his friend Chris was buying a guitar and amp with the money he got from his graduation party. I asked if Chris knew how to play the guitar and the answer was of course no. I don’t want this to come out wrong, but I have my doubts that Chris will ever learn how to play the guitar, and I would really like Alex to learn how to save money before he gets in too much trouble as an adult. I explained to him the importance of looking to the future and not spending all your money now, just the same way my father tried to instill the same ideas in me. And this led us down a road I wasn’t ready for.
After explaining to Alex all about savings accounts and CDs (Certificates of Deposits not Compact Discs) and how when he has more money saved we may want to talk to his Uncle Dave and set up a money market account to get a better return on his money, he suddenly turned to me and said quite innocently, “If you know so much about saving money, why are you so poor?” I didn’t know what to say at first, so I explained that I had actually done quite well with investments in the past, but that the economy had effected me quite poorly, and that it would still take a few years for me to get back to where I was. But that just like him, I was working on paying down my debt and hoped to be able start saving more very soon.
The truth is a little bit more difficult to explain, and it is not what he needed to hear in that moment. Because the truth is that no matter how hard we try to plan for the future, things happen. Getting a divorce puts a strain on the finances, especially when both parties cannot come to an agreement. I was actually quite good at setting money aside for the future, and I kept debt to a minimum. It seems like such a long time ago, but I do remember a time when my dad didn’t have to call me to tell me that this collector or that bill had somehow reached him because we happen to have the same name. He helped bail me out of some very tight spots, and he has always managed to not be judgmental about it. I don’t know how I will ever be able to pay him back for that. And I am not just talking about the money. I have been working for almost a year and a half on fixing the mistakes made to my mortgage after the divorce, and I am just now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My credit is basically ruined and I sometimes fear that I may be pulling Maureen down with me.
I want my kids to learn the value of money, and what it can and can’t do. Our economy took a dump because too many people lived in the here and now, and didn’t think about what all that spending was going to do to their future. It is a difficult lesson to teach when our society has become all about the newest cell phone or video games or I-pod technology, but the price of this lesson is too expensive not to teach. I know there are no guaranties, but I don’t want my kids to learn this lesson the hard way. I can only hope they can avoid the mistakes I made.
I didn’t tell Alex and Molly this, but each payday I plan to put $5 in Molly’s account and $10 in Alex’s. I know it’s not much, but it is a start. Then in four years when Alex has his next graduation party, we can look back and see what he has saved and make real plans for how to use the money for his future. And if he still has his doubts about the whole “A penny saved is a penny earned” thing, I will have just one question for him.
What is that guitar Chris bought worth now?