Thursday, July 15, 2010

Education Shortfall

Somehow in the idle conversation that comes when you’re lounging on the sand between chapters of a good beach read, my friend Tina and I, both with newly minted college graduates, got to talking about important life skills courses they should be teaching teenagers in our school systems. 

Financial literacy, of course—using (or not) credit cards, debit cards. Balancing a checkbook or online bank statement.  Knowing that even when the online banking shows you have money in your account, there might not really be because of a charge that hasn’t been debited yet (both our kids had racked up charges on that one, the only difference being that Tina had called the bank on her son’s behalf, and I exercised a rare instance of tough love rather than racing to Sammy’s aide, and made him deal with it himself—and there’s that voice in my head going “Bad Mommy”).

Real estate, for sure.  They need to know how to rent an apartment, how to carefully read a lease, liability issues.  Renter’s insurance.  How to lose a security deposit…

Health insurance (and when they figure it out in today’s changing environment they can tell us how it works, I hope).

Cars—the true cost of owning one, how to maintain one, how to buy one, how to take good care of your parents’ till you get your own…



Laundry.  I had the advantage here because when I bought my current townhouse and built a bathroom in the basement and gave my son his own pad, I also gave him a laundry-room-adjacent bedroom.   Between my bad knees and my general loathing of doing laundry till absolutely necessary, he quickly picked up the skills to do his own.  It was his first true householder-arts self-sufficiency, actually.  It took me some years to realize that as he became more and more of a clothes horse through his teenage years, he was running “loads” of laundry sometimes consisting of just one or two items, so he could wear his favorite clothes over and over.  (So why had I bought him a closet full of clothing?)  Tina, on the other hand, got a call from her son shortly after he started college asking for instructions on using the machines at school. 

How to sew a button.

Later that night at the beach, when Sammy called from home, he said he was hot and asked how did he turn the A/C up, it just wasn’t responding.  I told Tina we had to add another class, this one in how to work the thermostat.  I made fun of him from afar, then ate my words later upon my return, when I found my house at about 96 degrees—turned out an electrical storm had in fact blown a fuse on the thermostat and that’s why he couldn’t make it work.

Basic home maintenance and repair would be good skills to add to this curriculum, too.  Since in this day and age kids’ “apprenticeships” are more likely to be in environmental studies or international security than in carpentry or plumbing, these critical skills have gone by the wayside.

How to iron a shirt. Sammy's a pro at this but sure didn't get it from me. I watched my mom do it when I was a kid, from a basket of clothes or linens that needed it.   Looking back I pity her; that damn basket was always full!  Very briefly I had a brief foray into domesticity while I stayed home when Sammy was a baby.  (When we were living in Texas. I add this because I don’t think this would ever have happened if I was living in DC then.)  My then-husband asked me to iron his shirts to save us some money.  This was a staggering concept to me, because my mother had enthusiastically at some point joined the no-iron synthetic fabric revolution and brought me along with her.  Why on earth would you buy shirts that needed ironing?  That’s what permanent press was for! Still, I tried to be a good sport.  That lasted about a minute and a half before the annoyance and resentment on my part led me to tell him they had places for this, called dry cleaners. 

Also, guests at the few occasions where we eat at my dining room table had better not care if their tablecloth is crisply laid or not.  (My mother’s a culprit in this regard—while she doesn’t believe in ironing clothes anymore, table linens are another thing, and she can’t get over how my housekeeping standards have fallen, from her generation’s or her mother’s.)

I was so happy and relieved when the natural wrinkled look came into fashion! I’m sure it’s gone in and out of fashion several times since, but I love it and have stuck to it ever since.  I can’t believe my friend Beth and her love of wearing only linen clothing.  She travels with an iron—I couldn’t be more aghast if she travelled with a machete!

Sammy has to put up with a mother who long ago junked her ironing board as taking up space in the basement better put to use by cobwebs.  It’s amazing I even kept an iron, but at least he can use the top of the washer and dryer as an ironing surface when he wants to spiff up.  I should have a sign up in my house, “Life’s Too Short to Iron.”

This life skills curriculum we need to develop should, of course, be gender-neutral.  The guys need to sew their own buttons; the gals need to check their oil.  (Tina puts me to shame in this department, by the way—apparently despite taking Home Ec she also got a good dose of auto maintenance and home repair along the way.)

A common thread of some of these skills, especially on the financial side, is understanding what you’re getting into so you are then responsible for the consequences of your actions.  (Big lesson that’s still a challenge when you’re an adult, truth be told, particularly when big business still makes the rules.) And yes, it’s true that many practical householder/life skills should also be taught at home, not just in school. 

Meanwhile, Sammy, like millions of kids in his generation, gets many of these skills on-the-job.   That last week or so of college, while I was weepily contemplating the enormity of his impending graduation, he and his 10 housemates were more practically engaged, repairing broken fixtures and patching and painting walls in their off-campus rental—so they could get their security deposit back.  Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention—not always Mom and Dad.  

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