When I graduated high school, back in the Paleozoic Era that was the ’80s, my parents did not throw me a party. In fact, they didn’t even take me to dinner. (I went with a friend and her family to the old 94th Aero Squadron in the far Northeast, which to us seemed like going to France itself—how fancy!) My folks did show up at the actual ceremony, though I recall even that was a game-time decision. I won a few awards, including one from the local VFW for citizenship, which I hoped was due to the fact that I had badgered the suitably apathetic girl sitting next to me in advisory all through high school to lustily recite the Pledge of Allegiance during assembly. Returning the favor, she printed the entire Pledge in my yearbook.
I can’t remember what I got for said graduation—my parents threw me a couple bucks, as did my grandmother, I’m sure—but for the most part it wasn’t a big deal. I was going to college, as my brothers had before me, and there was an unspoken acknowledgement that after you made it through those four years you got the party and all the rest of the suitable folderol.
This is not to say I resent or am even mildly against parties for high-school graduations; it’s the end of a 12-year journey, and not everyone has a college graduation looming down the road. What I am against—and I grow more against it every passing year—is the unbridled greed that is coming with them anymore.
In the last two weeks I have been sent three different graduation “announcements,” shiny photo-postcards with Annie Leibovitz-worthy portraits of soon-to-be-graduates, along with a brief bio of same and the (drum roll, please!) declaration of where they will be headed to college. All of which is nice, except for the not-so-subtle subtext: You need to send my kid a check.
These are not children I helped raise, or even know very well. All of them live thousands of miles from me, and are the children of friends I have known for years but do not get a chance to often see. While on the surface, this all seems very quaint and even charming—an old-fashioned sharing of parental pride, delivered graciously, the way Scarlett O’Hara may have left a calling card for Melanie and Ashley—the truth is it’s nothing but a boorish gift grab wrapped in a cap and gown. None of these three kids would know me if I was sitting next to them on a bus. But somehow, by din of the fact that I once worked with their mom/went to school with their dad/etc., I am supposed to pat them on the back and, more important, pad their bank accounts.
I know what you’re thinking: Cheap bastard. Not so. Ask any of my friends or my family, and they’ll tell you I am one of the most thoughtful and generous people they know. I have faults—too many to count—but aggressive thrift isn’t one of them. I have eight nephews and a niece, for whom I have tried to be a good uncle, remembering them at Christmas and through all of their many communions and confirmations and graduations. They’re my family—of course I should do that, and I have done it gladly. Ditto for the kids of my close friends, many of whom I feel I’ve had a hand in raising. But the daughter of the guy I worked with three jobs ago? The son of my second cousin, who I haven’t seen since a wedding in 2004? I don’t think so.
What I’ve discovered is that if you are childless, you are viewed by many as someone who got away with something, who sidestepped the accepted serious burden of child-rearing and everything that comes with it. And for this, you must pay. Specifically, to them. Because these parents, no matter how tangential their connection to you, they’ve worked hard, baby. You have no idea. And now it’s time for the payoff. So they turn to us, their human ATMs, with their solicitations disguised as graduation announcements and birth announcements, and invitations to parties thousands of miles away they know we can’t accept. It goes beyond kids: I can’t tell you how many destination wedding invites I have received from people I would barely call acquaintances. But the upside for them is enormous: They know I am not going to spend $2,000 to come to a wedding where I am likely to know no one, but they also know that basic etiquette will have me logging onto their registry and sending them a lovely Williams-Sonoma bowl.
Perhaps it’s just a generational thing. My mother’s idea of a graduation announcement was to call my Aunt Dolly and say, “Yeah, I think Michael’s graduation is coming up soon. So … you want to go with me to the Acme on Thursday? The pork loin is on sale.” And I think there was something to that: We, the working-class children of the children of the Depression, learned early on that to be feted meant that you hadn’t done something expected, but something extraordinary. And it reinforced the notion that your life was what you made of it, and that life also didn’t owe you anything—and neither did your Great Aunt Marge in Cleveland, for that matter.
These are difficult times to be raising children, for sure. And yes, college is frighteningly expensive. And yes, I did not raise my own children, though that was life’s decision, not mine. But none of these things means I owe you—or your kids—anything. I am not going to be bullied into giving gifts to children I don’t know, or guilted into feeling I got some sort of free ride. I didn’t. My taxes—and because I am single and childless they are a lot worse than yours, I can guarantee you that—paid for your kid’s education. You can’t say the same back. And that’s OK—I believe in civics, and in public education. What I don’t believe in is parents who scroll through their Facebook friends list looking for marks they can pressure into forking over an envelope under the guise of celebration. Stop it.
I acknowledge getting the graduation announcements, of course. On the phone with one of the soon-to-be-grads’ mothers on the other side of the country, I told her to send her daughter my warmest congratulations.
Because I sure as hell ain’t sending a check.