In Debt

When I was in Thailand on my honeymoon, I went souvenir shopping at an antiques market in Bangkok. Since I was determined not to be the type of traveller who needs a small army to carry her bags, I was very particular about the sort of “souvenirs” I would allow myself to buy—nothing large or unwieldy, and nothing breakable. With this in mind it was easy to pass up the ornate birdcages and hand-carved teak sofas and content myself with looking at the smaller trinkets and pieces of jewelry. Until I saw the fish platter.

I don’t know if it was actually meant to serve fish, but it was big enough to serve an entire stream full of trout. I called it “the fish platter” both because of its size and because of the fact that it had a subtle fish pattern painted directly into the light green glaze: it was an incredible example of traditional Thai celadon pottery. It was also enormous, and delicate, and expensive (relatively expensive—at sixty dollars it was our entire daily budget and then some). And so I did the reasonable thing, the prudent thing, the smart thing, and I left it there in Bangkok and came back home.

Where I have thought about my fish platter, with regret, ever since.

I tell the story of the fish platter when I am trying to explain why I don’t always do the sensible thing, and why I sometimes encourage the same lack of sensibility in my children. Take, for example, the subject of student loans. While many parents (and teachers and counselors) tell their kids (and mine, too) about the evils of student loans, and about the importance of graduating not only without debt, but with a degree that can be converted into a high-paying job as quickly as possible, I have taken the opposite tack.

“Oh, so instead of getting your degree in web design at a local college you want to study turn of the century Parisian gender equality issues? With a double major in underwater archaeology? At a private liberal arts college that costs thirty grand a year? Great! I’m sure there’s a scholarship for that somewhere, and for the rest, well, there’s always student loans.”

I know that this might seem odd coming from someone who is so cheap they have steadfastly refused to buy band-aids for the last twenty years (if it’s bad enough to require a band-aid—by which I generally mean spouting arterial blood—then you should probably go to the hospital, at which point they will certainly put a band-aid on it themselves.) However, my reasoning behind encouraging my children to study whatever it is that strikes their fancy in college (and to borrow money to do it, if necessary) is actually based on my cheapness, so in a strange way it all makes sense. Here’s the thing: although it might cost you a hundred grand (or more) to follow your passion in school, the benefits of actually finding something you are passionate about is, in my opinion, priceless beyond measure. And when you think about it, isn’t finding our passion the reason why we go to school in the first place? I mean, go to school beyond learning the basics of how to read, write, and understand DNA evidence well enough to be a useful member of a jury.

I know that I am in the minority here, but I firmly believe that the primary purpose of going to college is not to be able to find a job, but rather to be able to find yourself. (We go not to find the value of x, but rather to find the value of us.) And, like finding anything that’s lost, sometimes you have to look in the strangest of places.

Places like underwater archaeology seminars. At thirty grand a year.

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