“Am I crazy?” is a question I get a lot.
It comes over the phone, in person, on my screen.
Mothers rasp nervously into their cell phones on the way to Tae Kwan Do. Worse they squawk it angrily, clearly anticipating a conflict they expect to win.
They ask me if they’re crazy and then innumerate their long lists of their desires, their expectations, their hopes. They do not describe what could be seen as madness, but rather intone their laundry list of dreams for their children, for themselves that they want me to help them realize, and then they want me to confirm for them, verbally, that I not only can but will take on the task. They want to know that they are only reasonable and normal for having asked me. Fathers leave voicemails like tiny audible treasure maps, the first steps coy and polite, starting with “Tell me if I’m crazy but…” The big reveal at the end is that he is not actually worried about whether or not he appears to be crazy, just whether or not I am ready to perform the service he paid for in the way he wants me to perform it.
I work at a boutique Test Prep agency, and my clients ask me all the time if I think they are crazy for wanting the best for their children. Are they crazy for wanting to open every door, make available every opportunity? Are they crazy, they want to know, for trying to level the playing field for their son or daughter? Are they crazy for giving their child every chance to fulfill his or her potential? Is it a pipe dream, they ask me, to try to show these colleges just what their child is capable of?
Of course not, I say. And I mean it.
I feel a few ways about it.
Because of our prices, and our results, colleagues at my company refer to us as the “top shelf” of our industry. I won’t argue it. It seems fitting, because like a bottle on the highest shelf, we are prized from afar, entrusted with any number of problems, and unquestioned over our abilities and methods, so long as everyone ends up satisfied. The term is also fitting because, as I tell new clients, half our job is making sure everyone feels confident and comfortable. And like top shelf liquor, there are those who feel sure they need us, and many more who see us as a luxury item.
Aside from what I know about myself—I like working with high schoolers, I like feeling helpful, I like advocating for ambition, etc—there are only a few things I feel sure about regarding the test-prep industry:
1. Every student should have access to whatever tools make their education as purposeful as possible.
2. Money spent on education, even in large sums, is money well-spent.
3. The fact of wealth, in and of itself, should not be shameful.
4. There is an education gap in our country, and standardized testing makes it worse.
5. Expensive test-prep agencies exacerbate that gap.
6. The solution to this problem is not to forbid students from wealthy families from accessing luxury educations.
7. That’s not necessarily completely true.
I field questions all day about what we can do for students, how we can help, which hopes are unreasonable, and which should be permitted to persist. I am told by my superiors to subdue unwieldy expectations, but also to never say ‘no,’ to a client. I am told that we are not in the business of numbers, but in the business of education. I tell every client her percentile and stanine, and the number of points that we, as a company, believe we can move her score. I take messages for our billing department from families who insist there’s been an error, that they do not owe us three thousand dollars from last month’s invoice.
I work with tutors who, for the first time in their lives, can put money into a savings account. I see them receiving thank-you notes from families saying we changed their sons and their daughters lives, that we really taught them something. I see students who came into my office not knowing basic grammar or algebra leave our premises with acceptance letters to Ivy League schools, and I know that it’s a result of perhaps the first one-on-one attention they’ve ever received in their education. I see kids from other parts of the city who aren’t expected to get into college, aren’t even expected to graduate high school. I know that we are doing a great good in the lives of these students, but I wonder if the system that created our business isn’t hurting an even greater number of families. I think it’s possible I hate this industry, but I know that I like my job.
So you tell me: Am I crazy?