They’re better dressed than I am.
That was my thought the first time I saw our clientele. And I don’t mean the parents—I mean the high-schoolers. They show up to our center for their after-soccer-makeup sessions, emergency-6 AM-before-school-cramathons, lunch-break-practice-tests, after-school-strategy classes, and weekend morning study appointments, always looking put together and irrefutably intentional. You’ve got the occasional boy in basketball shorts or girl in pajama pants, but for the most part these kids have got it on lock. Even when on the surface they appear to be dressed for comfort, a closer look will reveal them rather to have been going for a manufactured “slouchy look” they saw in a J Crew catalogue or on an Anthropologie mannequin.
This is how I’ve started to recognize the visibility of wealth: when you have enough money, you can put it everywhere—even in the places it’s almost invisible, unfeelable.
I’ll illustrate by example: I noticed one of our fifteen-year-old students holding a Kate Spade pencil case recently. I looked it up online; its going rate was about 40 dollars. Another student’s parents have sachets of tea shipped to their home from France, because she likes the taste of French tea better. Another student once told me that he bought an entire decorative terrarium with his allowance, because he saw it in a shop window and thought it looked cool.
I have a friend whose mantra is “money is a tool, money is a tool.” Prone to anxiety, she finds it hard not to conceive of money as a commodity in and of itself. Spending feels frivolous, even on necessities like food and electricity, because that means she has less money which, when you’ve got very little of it, feels like the greatest measurement of safety, or value. “Money is a tool,” she reminds herself, trying to keep in sight the fact that money has no value in and of itself.
Now, imagine having infinite money.
The opposite starts to be true. Some of the clients we work with—not all, but some—have a relationship to money that’s so casual it feels like sometimes they don’t even recognize that it has any value at all. They treat money not as something they have to exchange for goods and services, but a request slip to receive the things they want. They have so much wealth that purchases are not weighed as gain/loss trades, but pure gain; the wanting of something and then having it, no sacrifice necessary. Most of their expenditures are such tiny drops in such huge oceans that it’s not even worth paying attention to that money as it’s going.
Now, pretty much no tutoring is cheap, but ours is particularly expensive. That’s not a fact that anyone in our company shies away from—once you start operating at a high enough price it’s pointless to pretend you’re selling anything for cheap. And the vast majority of our clientele finds our services to be worth the money. We get the results, and we do it better than anyone else. When people come to us, they know how much we cost, and it’s very rare that clients come away disappointed.
But there’s what feels to me like a disorienting house-of-mirrors effect here. Our wealthier clients have enough money that they are able not to think twice about using our services, hiring multiple tutors, signing their children up to be tutored for hours each week, for months and months on end. Some families wrack up thousands of dollars with us, some have spent tens of thousands, as though it’s a matter of course. One way to feel about it is that these students are very fortunate to come from families who can devote those kinds of resources to their education. If they’re going to outfit their sixteen-year-olds in Dolce & Gabbana then yes, thank goodness, they better be using some of that money to make sure these kids know grammar and algebra.
Another way to feel about it is that when it’s that easy for families to pony up this kind of money, and when they’re that used to simply having what they want, the whole process can get a little more casual than perhaps it ought. Students whose parents are paying thousands for tutoring will sometimes do their homework, sometimes not. They’ll skip tutoring appointments, show up late, miss months at a time for long vacations. It doesn’t occur to them that what they’re being given is an incredible gift, purchased by their parents and delivered by us. It doesn’t occur to them that what they’re being given is not something that everyone gets, is an enormous boon, is rare and powerful and a privilege. It feels instead to them like a thing they are entitled to for the wanting of it.
And when all sacrifice is removed from the equation, some students forget that work is a huge part of any situation in which one expects to learn. With some of the families we work with, it feels like they’re not paying for support or a resource or the opportunity to learn and improve—it feels like they’re buying points on an exam. And with some of those families, they explicitly tell us that’s what they’re doing. They tell us upfront how much they’re willing to pay for each hundred points on the SAT, or on the backend, how much they did.
So what, then, is the difference between paying for a high price service that supplements learning, and throwing money at the system in the hope that turns it in your favor? Is academic achievement something that should be easy to acquire? And if so, can we justify it being prohibitively expensive such that only a tiny margin of the population has access? And are these tests really, truly, at the end of the day a measurement of academic achievement?
But that’s a discussion for another day.