Race to the Top

Annual School Halloween Parade

Annual School Halloween Parade

Of course a more expensive house seems nicer. It is nicer! If you look at houses you cannot afford, you will never be satisfied with the house you actually can afford,” said my father, using his 30+ years in real estate to provide me with one of his best wisdom nuggets, and the only one I ever listened to, at least for a while.

In 2010 when Ben and I were preparing to buy our first (and only) house, my dad encouraged us to resist the temptation to look at houses outside of our price range. Not even a little peak. I took it to heart and no matter how curious I was as to what an extra $20,000 could change, I never looked. We ended up with a house we could afford, architecture we loved, a school that seemed good at the time, and remained blissfully unaware of what was just outside of our range.

Barely two years after we bought our “dream house” we sold it so we could move back to our home state of Massachusetts. Thankfully we got our money back from the sale, but it sits in the bank missing the many zeroes required here for a down payment. Because the cost of living is so much higher in Massachusetts than in Colorado, particularly the areas in the state in which we wanted to live, we knew we would have to rent for a number of years. We’re almost at the end of our first year doing just that.

We, or should I say I, opted for a town near Boston that had good schools and would allow for our large Golden Retriever. It turned out to be more difficult to find a rental that would take our dog than one with a decent school and we ended up going further and further away from the city to accommodate her. And I just realized something recently. My father’s advice should have applied in this case too, but I never thought about it until it was too late.

It would appear that I have allowed myself to peek under the 800 thread count covers of an entire town. A town we cannot really afford to live in, but love and now nowhere else compares. It doesn’t just seem nicer than anywhere else I can think of, it is nicer for precisely one reason that is important to me right now: school.

Do I really need or want 2 acres of land, the minimum lot size in town? Not really. Am I dying to deal with septic systems or wells for the next 20 or so years? Absolutely not, and Ben is horrified at the thought. Am I thrilled with the town’s lack of mosquito spraying and overabundance of ticks? No way. But am I happy to have a school that not only can help my daughter learn in her own unique way, but help her to be happy and confident while doing it? Hell yes.

As the third most affluent town in Massachusetts, it should have come as no surprise that we wouldn’t be able to afford to live here long term, but last August I just needed a place to call home for a while. I needed to settle into living in Massachusetts again and for the first time with kids. I didn’t think too much about the socioeconomic classification of a rental, if it fit the bill I would sign the lease. And we did, paying more each month in rent than we did on our mortgage, property taxes, insurance, and HOA in Colorado.

Now, almost 9 months later, I have fallen in love with this place and don’t want to leave. The people are great for the most part, I like the forests and the history, and writing for the local paper has been amazing, opening up a whole new creative side of me and providing me with my own money for the first time in 8 years. But it really is all about the school for me, especially now that I know I have a child with learning issues.

The local K-8 is so wonderful, so well staffed, so supportive, that I can’t bring myself to think of pulling my kids out of it. Ever. In addition to great teachers, music, art, P.E., and language, the school is the kind of place that offers to spend money to help your kid. You need assessments for learning disabilities? They will offer to pay for it without you even asking. Your kid needs Occupational Therapy, or Speech, or tutors? They will take care of it. Psychologists? They have it covered in abundance. There appears to be absolutely no service they cannot easily offer, paid for by the town’s incredibly high property taxes based on almost unaffordable homes. And it makes me both sad and angry to think there could come a day we have to leave.

I can’t help but think back to my community college days. Standing in long lines in a hallway waiting to beg someone in student aid from behind a glass window for financial assistance was humbling. Some days it was even humiliating. In the 90s I think a full course load barely cost $2,000 plus the cost of books, but I still couldn’t pay for it without loans and scholarships. Two and a half years later I was accepted to Wellesley College. The financial aid office had cozy chairs and women willing to bend over backwards to get me as much money as I could ask for. And I didn’t realize then I could have asked for even more. The cost in 1998? $36,000 per year. At the time I had never made more than $21,000.

Once enrolled, the difference between the two institutions was even more stark. The quality of professors and instruction and the amount of help to get through it all was mind boggling. At 28, the age I was when I transferred, I discovered the real difference in educational quality when money is no object. Sure, people can tell you that any school is “what you make of it,” and it’s partly true. But schools with more money and reputation make it harder for their students to fail and drop out. They don’t let you run out of money.

On top of that, they certainly try to make sure you benefit from it all when you graduate, even with 20 years of student debt to repay. With that much support, and at a more advanced age than the typical student, I could even ignore the occasional classist remark regarding students on financial aid. “My dad loved me enough to become a doctor,” wrote one misguided teenager on the online bulletin board, explaining her ability to attend college without financial assistance.

Keeping my kids enrolled in the local elementary school is not part of a master plan to nudge them into Harvard. I’m not obsessively planning their future by signing them up for all kinds of supplemental activities I think will ensure their success. I’m letting them both be kids and do their own thing, whatever that may be. But if at all possible, I want to give them a good educational start in life. I want, particularly my eldest, to get the help she needs to learn so she doesn’t suffer as a result of having a disability. I want to give them options, for at least as long as I can.

I should have listened to my dad. Now, in our mid-40s, we might have be getting ready to buy our second house in a nice neighborhood and with a school that seems good, blissfully unaware of what else is available. Instead, we are politely declining offers to look at houses we can’t afford as they come on the market and getting ready to sign our rental agreement for another year, hoping our 260 year old house doesn’t crumble into its foundation.

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