“Grades are important, but there’s more to life than A’s.”
My voice peaked a little higher than allowed by proper cocktail hour decorum. My husband and our two friends, both Indians, recent immigrants from South Africa, looked at me with curiosity. I had just gotten home from a weekend pitching my memoir to agents and editors at a very exciting writers conference, and I had repeated this argument my whole marriage – to a brick wall.
I was hangry and needed someone to hand me a Snickers bar or adult beverage or I was going to turn into Joe Pesci.
“I mean, didn’t you hear about those 25 kids who committed suicide in India over incorrect test score reporting?”
“Yes, it’s very sad. And that pressure is too high for kids. But you have to hold the bar high for kids to succeed. Education is everything. Period.”
I filled my favorite wine glass with Chardonnay and gulped two mouthfuls. He had repeated this argument our whole marriage – to a brick wall.
He and I exchanged our stale assertions with one another and included our friends in the debate. I was the only one on my side.
There are many facets of Indian culture that I now embrace after many years – deep family ties being one of them – but not this view of children’s grades. Not the concept of pressuring kids to excel to please their parents, to make life decisions to please their parents. I passionately believe in guiding kids to be the best they can be, to set expectations, but to allow them to fail – and learn to autonomously pick themselves up again and move forward with wisdom they earned on their own.
I was the primary caregiver while our older four kids grew up because my husband worked long hours. Each with different personalities, our kids walked their own paths, and I hope with the knowledge that I accepted them even when they made stupid decisions that set them back. My husband and I had difficulty forming a united front on this issue.
My philosophy is that a person cannot succeed in life without a foundation of emotional well-being. Acceptance to medical school at age sixteen is not a measure of success in my eyes. It’s fantastic. It’s a remarkable achievement. But, I adamantly dislike the Indian tendency to measure life success on one’s profession.
It’s not my culture. It’s not my place to judge parents raising kids to make life choices to please them. But I don’t like it and don’t want to listen to it. I wonder if they judge how my kids turned out. One has a finance degree and is working his way up his local company’s ladder, one is a New York luxury hotel manager doing the same, one is a theater student in New York, and one is a pre-law history major at a state university. Not one doctor or engineer in the lot.
Once, over dinner at my in-laws’, my mother-in-law almost apologized for me to a mom of a pharmacy student dining with us. She explained that they were not in the medical field, because I let them follow their interests in school. The other mom looked at me blank-faced. The concept did not compute for her. Bless her heart.
Later, back at our cocktail hour, we came to a deeper understanding. My husband and our friends grew up in Apartheid South Africa with few opportunities available to them. Higher education was the only ticket to success for them as non-whites. It was the only safety net they had. They lived in oppression, isolation in a South Asian community, surrounded by violence.
They didn’t have the luxury of giving kids a choice. Education could mean the difference between life or death. Survival trumps good feelings.
I grew up white, middle class, and safe in suburban America. My parents valued education and expected me to do well in school, but we all knew I had options. I could go to college and get a degree and a good job. I also could have worked instead after high school and done fine. Either way, I was always safe.
Our kids had that gift, too.
It wasn’t until the debate over cocktails that I completely understood that difference between us. We agreed to disagree, because our respective values run deep within us. And that’s ok. I still don’t like it, but I understand it.
I’m so happy they and their kids now enjoy the stability in their lives I took for granted. I hope their kids will finish growing up here and be able to shirk the legacy of oppression embedded in their families. The values over grades they raise their future kids with is not my business. But it is awesome that they now have a choice.