I can’t bring myself to watch any show that features Suze Orman, the financial guru. Why? Orman often does a segment where people tell her about something they want to buy, and she asks questions about their finances and decides if they can afford it.
So, for example, someone may call in and say they want to take a $5,000 Hawaiian vacation. Suze will ask things like: “Do you have six months of emergency funds saved?” “How much do you have saved toward retirement?” “Are you carrying any credit card debt with high interest rates?”
If the answers don’t add up, Suze says, “Nope! No Hawaiian vacation for you.”
If I were to call in and ask Orman if I could send my 8-year-old daughter Emmy to an awesome, progressive (but expensive!) private school, she would laugh in my face after I answered her questions about our family’s financial solvency.
My husband and I make decent money. But not nearly enough to support something we just can’t manage to let go of: my youngest daughter’s private school tuition. (We also have an older daughter in her first year of college—at one of the most expensive schools in the country.)
So why not enroll Emmy in the free public school that’s within walking distance of our home?
When my husband and I purchased our home in 2009, we were both freelancers with feast-or-famine incomes and really shaky credit scores. Our real estate agent made it clear: Get a house you can afford while banks are in a lending mood—’cause this will end and no bank will approve you.
We bought a small, modest home, not far from my hometown. It’s on a quiet one-way street, and our neighbors are lovely. But one thing concerned me from day one: the local school system. I’d done my research before we made an offer on the house. Emmy was only 2 years old at the time, but I still wanted to know what the schools were like in our area. The school Emmy would be zoned to attend had very poor marks in almost every category across the board. Less than 50 percent of the students were testing at proficient in math and language arts, the absentee rate was very high and the classroom size was insane. (Thirty kids and one teacher? For kindergarten?)
At the time we purchased our home, we simply could not afford to buy in the areas with better school systems. So I just said a prayer that before Emmy was ready for kindergarten, we’d be able to sell our house and move into a neighborhood with a better school system. (Well, I said a prayer. And bought a few scratch-off lottery tickets.)
Three years later, it was time for Emmy to go to kindergarten. The housing crisis had hit, and we weren’t able to sell our home to move into a different neighborhood with better schools. I visited the local elementary school. Maybe the numbers were misleading? Maybe the environment was stimulating and the classes were vibrant and buzzing with learning?
I did a walk-through tour of the school. The answer to all of the above was no.
I enrolled Emmy at a small private school nearby that was founded in the 1960s and has a special approach to child development and learning that I fell in love with right away (although I was a little skittish when I realized that all children called adults by their first names).
The class size at Emmy’s school rarely tops 15. And there is both a full-time teacher, a full-time teacher’s assistant and a parent volunteer in the classroom every single day. Emmy is self-possessed, mature and emotionally intelligent—and while I’d like to take all the credit, I know a large part of it is the school she attends. She’s learning about classical music, sustainable living, fine arts and even yoga—in addition to rote lessons like multiplication tables.
Speaking of yoga, this past Thanksgiving, while folks were going for the last pieces of pie and telling old stories, Emmy decided that she needed to center herself, amid all the chaos in the house. She did a 20-minute session of yoga and meditation, a coping skill she was taught in school, right in the middle of the living room floor. Quirky? Yes. Do I love the school for giving her those tools? Yes, I do.
Emmy’s tuition goes up each year. Will we be able to keep her there through eighth grade? I’m willing to sacrifice a lot to make that happen—including my own retirement goals. If I have to write about rappers and actors until I’m 80 years old and never retire, so be it. Let’s hope that investing in Emmy now will ensure that she takes care of me when I need her to.
All I can do is say a prayer (and keep buying those scratch-off tickets).
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.