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When I was in high school, my little sister had a gerbil.

I never really saw the point of keeping a prey animal as a pet; her gerbil--whose name I've forgotten but was probably something lamentable like Alan--seemed to be afraid all the time. Either he was hiding, burrowed deep into his wood shavings, or frantically clawing at the sides of his cage, trying to escape. Which he occasionally did, though I don't believe he ever successfully penetrated the house's perimeter and made it outside. On more than one occasion I found Alan cowering in a corner in my room; more than once I considered introducing the critter to the suburban wilderness.

Then I would think of the cats that prowled the neighborhood and the potential for sibling heartbreak in light of Alan's disappearance, and I would scoop him up and return him to his habitat. Sorry, buddy.

I identified with Alan during my college years. I didn't really want to be there, but I lacked the tools and imagination to re-situate myself. I went to college because my parents expected me to go to college and because I was good at school. (I made good grades; I wouldn't say I was a good student.)

College was something important I couldn't afford to screw up, so I went to class. But I honestly didn't study much. I could get by reading the assignments and showing up. I was a shy kid who sat in the back of the class with a baseball cap pulled down. There were only a few professors who I'm sure knew my name. I felt like a prey animal, and I wanted desperately to get out, even if it meant providing some predator with protein. But I stayed out of fear and a perceived lack of better options. With the help of a small scholarship, I paid my way through a land grant university.

Mostly what I remember and cherish about those years is the stuff I did outside of class. I played a lot of intramural sports. I was in a band. I had a regular part-time retail job and an occasional freelance record review gig. I had my share of friends. I was busy all the time.

My family wasn't poor, but there was no way I was going to an out-of-state school. I didn't bother applying to anyplace prestigious; I didn't dream of going to Yale or Brown or Stanford. Even if someone had suggested the possibility, I would never have presumed to try to get into somewhere like that.

It worked out all right. I should have made more of some of the educational opportunities that were put in front of me, but the late Arkansas author Donald Harington once called me "an autodidact" and I'm prouder of that than any certificate I ever earned.

These days I'm friendly with a lot of people who went to big-name schools, and while I recognize that the advantages of attending a prestigious school are very real (and consist mostly of making connections with members of the elite class that run our government and a lot of industries) I'm not intimidated by anyone's piece of paper. Hell, I've fired Harvard grads in my time.

But if I had children, I would want their experience to be different than mine. I would want them to have the opportunity to go to the best school possible for them. If they were suited for an Ivy League university, if they wanted it, I would like them to have a chance to compete for placement there.

More than that, I would press every advantage I had to give them every advantage they could get.

I don't think I'd break the law. I don't think I'd spend upward of $500,000 just to get them into some favored school. But it's imaginable that I'd do just about anything short of that.

I'd make phone calls, I'd ask people to write recommendation letters. More than that, I'd try to impress upon my mythical children the idea that decisions made as young adults have lifelong consequences. That their prospects for future material success might actually depend on decisions made as teenagers.

Yeah, I'd probably screw them up real good.

But it would come from a place of love, and it would be informed by my grown-up sense of how the world works: It does matter where you go to school. It does matter how you present to strangers, especially those strangers who are weighing whether to hire you or some other bright young thing. And mostly, it matters who your parents are and what they are able to do for you in your formative years.

What we call our meritocracy is largely a myth; the whole point of being rich and powerful is to tilt the world in your favor. Despite all the American slogans, genuine equality of opportunity can never exist because of the transmission of family advantage or disadvantage. That doesn't make it right; it's not right. But we can understand why rich people--including celebrities--try to buy things, right? Especially if it's for the kids that they've screwed up real good.

I'm outraged, I guess. But I understand.

Looking back at my situation, I can understand that I was privileged to have parents who cared about me and my sisters, who stayed together, who provided us with a stable platform from which we could push off. They expected me to go to college--any college was fine, so long as it was college--and they helped me to the extent they were able. That's a lot better than most people have it.

And the kids I don't have would be even more privileged than I was in some ways. At least my expectations for them would be higher. I would try to instill in them a sense that they are just as good as anyone else, and that they shouldn't settle for less than they can attain.

At the same time, I hope I'd remember what it felt like, how confused and frightened I was at the prospect of this big adult world suddenly rushing at me. I hope I could assure them that, as big a deal as it seems, none of it is really going to do much to affect the more important stuff. It won't be determinative of their happiness.

It's all right to feel like a gerbil when you're young, because, if you're lucky, that's kind of how it is. You panic and some big benevolent hand scoops you out of some dark corner and puts you back in your place. You might think you hate your place, but it's safe. And you'll be out with the wild things soon enough.


Editorial on 03/17/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: For the kids


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