The Cupcake Incident

On Friday my son turned five.  And so it was that on Thursday night I found myself elbow deep in dark chocolate cake batter and made-from-scratch coconut frosting, carefully following a recipe from the very chic Boston bakey Flour.  After asking Conor to name all of the children in his kindergarten class (twice) to be sure I would make enough cupcakes, I filled 18 spaces in my two non-stick pans and stuck them in the oven. Then I collapsed—while I love to cook, I hate baking, since it requires precise measurement and careful attention to detail, for which I have little energy left in the evenings given that such effort is required at work all day long.  Normally I would have taken a shortcut and used a mix to make life easier, but I wanted Conor’s cupcakes to be exactly as he’d asked for them—very chocolate, and very coconut.

Well, what those cupcakes really were—I learned 25 minutes later—was stuck. Glued to the pan, going absolutely nowhere. So much for “non-stick;” those suckers weren’t moving.  No, I didn’t use cupcake liners; I was trying to be “green.”   All of that Penzey's dutch-processed cocoa, organic butter and eggs, for nothing.  

I went to bed distressed.  Now what?  We needed 18 cupcakes by 930 am, and they had to be great.  Yeah, I knew they were for a bunch of 4 and 5-year-olds, but still-- they really just had to be great.  I searched West Madison online for bakeries, pondering the one with the $3 organic cupcakes (really??), the good ol'stanby Costco (not open til 10), and a new place a Facebook friend recommended.  As my eyes closed, I berated myself for obsessing this way. How could I have forgotten the cardinal rules of academic motherhood, and even attempted to bake cupcakes?  My own UW colleague, Simone Schweber, once wrote a brilliant column for the Chronicle about this-- and I had neglected the wisdom of her words, also written after attempting to make perfect cupcakes:  "I was always afraid that I wouldn't be a good mother, much less a perfect one, and indeed, it's much easier to make perfect, if ridiculous, cupcakes than to be a good mother.

The next morning, I dropped Conor off at school and set myself on a path for the grocery store.  A $5 or $10 box of cupcakes from the bakery department would be just fine for these little palates, I told myself.  I drove towards Sentry.  And then, to my astonishment, I turned left-- and instead made a beeline for Cupcakes-A-Go-Go.  It was a bit of an out-of-body experience; I got out of the car, went in and purchased 18 cupcakes, handing over my Amex and charging $54 -- all the while screaming (silently) at myself "STOP IT, this is CRAZY!" 

What in the heck had happened to me?  I knew the money was better spent elsewhere, that the kids wouldn't taste the difference, and that no one but me was demanding that I do this.  I knew that only children would be present at the celebration, no other parents, and that my kid's school (a Waldorf program) does its best to discourage conspicuous consumption. As a sociologist, I further knew that my behaviors were class-linked, and that I ought to actively resist them. I knew this, I knew that, and I simply couldn't stop.

So I brought the cupcakes back to kindergarten, and my husband and I served them. Conor smiled and enjoyed a chocolate one, and the other kids (including my 2-year-old daughter) licked their fingers happily. The eating lasted all of 10 minutes, and then it was done. $54 worth of sugar, consumed.  

What happened Friday morning is going to stay with me for a long time. Mainly because I still can't understand it.  Was I simply over-compensating for the guilt of being a working mom? I don't think so, since I really don't feel my family is anything but proud of my career.  Was I embarrassed by my baking mishap? Not really-- I know it happens. Was I competing with other moms, whom the teacher mentioned sometimes shop at another organic bakery?  Maybe a little.  But at the end of the day, for all of my intellectual abilities to classify and analyze my own actions, I can't find an explanation that resonates.  Most of all, I can't account for my intense guilt (almost disgust) over that $54. 

What I can tell you is this: I won't be found in a cupcakery again.  Just can't do it. 

college is about status not education

I have friend who I won’t name who went to a university I won’t name. He is very proud of having gone to this particular school. He insists that is son will go there. He attends their football games regularly. He brags that he is the only member of his family who was ever admitted to that school.
Whenever he says something I think is silly, I make fun of him for not knowing much because he went to this dumb school. Now in fact, I don’t think the school he went to is dumb and I don’t think he is dumb but my razzing gets to him and we are friends so it just a way that we talk to each other.
The other day he insisted that his school was ranked in the top 20 universities in the country. This being my business I assured him that it was not and he got very angry and then eventually looked it up and realized that on some lists his school didn’t appear even in the top 200. Recently he bet me that his school was in the top 10 hardest schools to get into. Of course it was no where near that hard to get into.
Why am I telling this story? I do not believe that one receives a better education in one university than one receives in another (unless one is planning a research career in which case where you go to college may matter a great deal.) It doesn’t matter where he went to school, it does matter what he has done since school. But his alma mater matters to my friend a great deal.
When I moved, as a professor, from Yale to Northwestern, I was always being asked why I would make a move like that. People perceived me as moving down in class. And, I succumbing to the status issue we all live with, will usually respond “Yale” when asked where I was a professor if I don’t have the time to list all the places I have been.
This is the point. The obsession we have with going to college in this country, with test scores, with SATs, with rank in class, and so on is not an obsession about education at all. It is an obsession about status. If you can s`y you went to Harvard every one will say ooh and wow and suddenly people will believe you are very smart. 
Having taught at places that are thought of that way I can tell you that there are smart kids and there are dumb kids at all these places. What they have in common is an ability to please their teachers and do well on tests.
It is a very sad state of affairs that people spend tremendous amounts of money on exorbitant tuitions, push their kids from kindergarten onwards to get good grades, and obsess about test scores for small children, all in the name of status. Moreover, they attach status to schools that don’t even have that status. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “its a very good school” after having been told that someone’s kid went to some school no one ever heard of.
This isn’t just an American obsession of course. Exactly the same phenomenon exists in the UK down to even which college at Oxford is better than which other college and in France with the Grandes Ecoles and in every other country I know about.
I wish I could say it is all nonsense but it isn’t. Companies make hiring decisions based on which school one attended and your friends think about you differently based on which school you attended. But it is simply not about education in any way. A lecture is still boring everywhere. The same books and internet are available anywhere, and college has never actually been all that much about education any way. Graduate school maybe. College not so much.
We really have to start thinking about all this differently.
Here are some numbers to think about. Yale and Harvard are top research universities. They are really about researchers teaching students to do research. One out every 64,000 people in the US are researchers. On the other hand, there are 1 million lawyers, 6 million teachers, and 12 million health care workers. Colleges do not teach these three, graduate schools (and technical schools) do that.
Stop worrying about what college your first grader will go to. Leave him alone. Let him have fun and learn what he wants. Most of us never attended Yale (including me) and have managed happy lives.