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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dollars and (Common) Sense

I’m pretty sure that whenever I’m in good shape pertaining to my job loss, it’s denial—because when things appear especially positive something sneaks up to remind me that nothing is the way it used to be.

I sat at a maple table in the high school library today with parents of other sophomores, listening to the guidance counselors sketch out the next two years so we could plan for college. Before I could begin to focus on the speaker, I had to digest the fact that sitting across from me was the mother of a curly-haired boy who played with our infant daughter in daycare, the mom behind me belongs to my mother’s group that I joined when our daughter was crawling, and off to the side sat two caring women who each transported our elementary aged girl to CCD in the afternoons because I worked full time. I flipped through a mental shoe box filled with snapshots of our daughter interacting with the offspring of these women over the years, pausing at a particularly adorable memory of her wearing black mouse ears on Halloween. Like every other parent in the room I’m sure, I wondered how we could have arrived at this place so quickly.

Seated in ladder-backed chairs surrounded by floor to ceiling bookshelves, we listened to the counselor juggle queries pertaining to SAT’s, strategic course selections and the early admission process, until one mom posed a question I never considered. Given the current economy she asked, would colleges give precedent to full paying students rather than those who may need financial assistance? Digesting her question, let’s just say my stomach flip flopped.

Before February anyway, my husband and I were on track to take care of our daughter’s tuition with no worries. That comfort came as a result of both of us working full time for her entire childhood and forgoing new cars and family vacations. We also forfeited a dream of an expanded family room as well as the plan for a master bedroom suite with walk in closets penciled on a piece of graph paper that sits folded in my husband’s cupboard.

The thing about this though, is that other than missing her like crazy when I worked, the rest doesn’t matter. We have what we need in life, which is to say, the three of us--together and healthy, a modest but quite acceptable roof over our heads, and plenty of food to eat. Pre layoff, we figured when the time came, we’d fill out financial aid requests as required by schools, and as a result of our frugality we’d be denied any assistance and fork over the dough. Her education, after all, is what the hard work was for. So after February, while it occurred to me that my reduced salary state might qualify her for some financial assistance, never once did I think it could impact her acceptance to college. A friend said to me a while ago that if your income is going to be reduced you want it to happen just before your child goes to college so you’ll qualify for aid. So the timing of my unemployment should be pretty good, right?

Before utter panic set in, an experienced mother in the room clarified that for the most part, decisions to accept students to schools are kept separate from family financial factors, but the parents in the room rumbled and muttered about national economics and the consensus of all that noise seemed to be “For now.” The guidance counselor then stated that in the case of a wait-list acceptance in May, it is possible there could be no financial aid left. Woe to those who don’t get in on the first try.

My husband and I are novices as it pertains to the college application process so I don’t know where this is leading except to a generous mouthful of hindsight on my part—one that comes with a dose of hiccups. Percolating inside me is the taste that had we known we were going to be in this circumstance anyway, perhaps we would have taken a few more family trips.

Second guessing is a bore though and knowing my husband and me, the comments in the meeting today are not about to trigger any grand purse opening. We will continue in our parsimonious ways knowing that we’ll cope with my surprise unemployment better then if our family room possessed more square footage, and we’ll get our girl through college by what ever means necessary.

But here’s something I did figure out after that meeting today. To coin a phrase darn it; life is short. So at the very least, by the end of the week I’m taking myself out to lunch.

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