Today, I was washing the dishes when my mom’s phone rang—I yelled her name, and she came to pick it up. It was Mrs. P, our old neighbor. Aw, they haven’t talked for like a year—they’re catching up! I thought. My mom always takes calls through speaker phone, so as I returned to scrubbing a particularly stubborn spot on our wok, I heard the words “two honors programs at UT.” Uh oh. I should have known better. This wasn’t just any how-are-you-doing call. This was a Kid Call.
A Kid Call is characterized by a very, very brief greeting (in this case, less than 10 seconds)—perhaps a long, drawn out “Heyyyyy”—followed by a question about your kid—in this case, “Where did Isabella get into college?” Two honors programs at UT. I don’t really know what they are, haha. I haven’t really been keeping track of what she’s doing. “But where did she apply early action?” Harvard! She didn’t get in, haha. (It continues.) “Ohh. Where else is she applying?” “Who from Westlake got into Harvard?” “What about Stanford?” “Wow, Westlake’s gotten so much worse, they used to have so many more Harvard admits and Stanford admits.” (N.B. This dialogue is translated from Chinese.)
I remember now. The last time Mrs. P called was in February 2017. She had seen my name on the list of the 2017 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards winners and called my mom to ask how I did it—perhaps my parents had hired a writing coach, in which case could they please tell her the name and phone number of the coach? Or perhaps I took after-school lessons, which perhaps might suit her son as well? This was also a Kid Call.
Sometimes, Kid Calls focus on the caller’s kid. Mrs. P called my dad last year to tell him all about how her son had been admitted to an elite, full-scholarship private high school in Boston. He really wanted to go to Harvard. He really wanted to study Computer Science.
The Kid Call is only the most glaring iteration of a gossipy, obsessive, talking-behind-backs culture that exists in some circles.But by no means am I saying that talking about something like college admissions automatically denotes obsessive gossip and immorality. There’s checking in on someone because you care about them. And then there’s checking in on someone for your own gain, or for your kid’s gain and so by extension for your own gain. It’s all about the intention.
[34 minutes after 6pm on 12/12/17, one of my closest friends texted me and said, “Isabella, what’s the verdict?” I called them and they stayed on the line with me for thirty minutes, assuring me that they’d stay for as long as I needed, comforting me, caring for me, talking through it with me.
49 minutes after 6pm on 12/12/17, an acquaintance from school texted me for the first time since 1/24/17. “Did you get into Harvard?”]
My mom came up tonight to ask me why I’d been listening to her conversation. I told her why I was upset at Mrs. P, how my anger at Mrs. P represents my anger at a culture that drives students to treat college as a sort of prize—the name the measurement of value—and practically or literally kill themselves in the process of trying to earn that prize. I told her I thought it was so, so sad that some people can’t find better things to do with their time than micromanage their kid’s life by constantly monitoring other kids for comparison. I told my mom (rather idealistically, but still) that if I were in her shoes, if I were to answer my phone and realize it was a Kid Call, I would hang up. And then I would call the person again and apologize, but ask them respectfully never to call me for the sole purpose of monitoring my kids’ achievements ever again.
It’s been an incredible month, a month where I’ve learned more about myself than in the past year. Where I’ve been able to take what I’ve always known in my head—that I’m going to do things no matter what college I go to, that I have that tenacity and work ethic, that college isn’t at all about name or prestige but it’s about opportunity, that I’m so incredibly truly genuinely sparkling-ly excited for it—and internalize that in my heart and my gut. Overhearing a Kid Call today was an ugly reminder of that this culture still exists. That my parents are still receiving Kid Calls, at regular rates. That people talk, gossip, place value on concepts I feel are undeserving. I was struck with an almost unbearably strong feeling that I need to leave this place, to go to college already. But before I do, I need to keep developing my ability to do what I can to advocate against the Kid Call culture while staving off loathing of the people who are eagerly a part of it. For someone like me who feels so strongly about her causes, it’s a difficult balancing act—for anything I believe in. It’s an absolutely necessary one.
Isabella – 1/9/18,