Author: Stephen Gallup

Neighborhood: Carmel Valley

Age: 61

Occupation: Technical writer

I don’t claim to be a competent speaker of anything other than English, but when I hear Mandarin spoken, I’m often able to discern at least the topic of conversation. Thus, when I’m strolling past a group of Chinese moms at the playground in our neighborhood park here in Carmel Valley, the overheard phrase “1.2 million” is enough for me to know they’re discussing the market value of homes.

A million bucks for a tract house, a personal residence — even now, after the meltdown! I’ve resided here for seven years and still shake my head at such prices. Previously I lived in an older, much less affluent part of San Diego and had been there more than two decades. My neighbors were mostly college students, small-business owners, and a few corporate factotums such as myself.

Here, the neighbors tend to be physicians, dentists, scientists, and elite engineers from India and China. The median family income in this neighborhood is enough to give me an inferiority complex, if I were disposed to having such a thing. (Sometimes I am.)

Our house is at the lower end of the spectrum in this enclave, and we’re only renting. So to those who criticize Carmel Valley for being homogenous, I offer our household as an exception.

On the other hand, we came for the same reason that drew the other families who have kids: the schools. Seven years ago my wife and I had a little girl who would soon start kindergarten. For years, thanks in part to my sister, who was a teacher, I’d been hearing horror stories about the San Diego Unified School District. From what I could gather, the superintendent had an oppressive management style that was wrecking morale and a misguided focus on test scores at the expense of real education. We wanted no part of that.

Our daughter’s teachers here have ranged from being very good to superb. Her elementary years have been a great success. This is not to say that a good education isn’t available elsewhere or that there’s any escape from bad politics at the school-board level. I doubt whether the quality of the teachers varies much from one place to another. But there seems to be some kind of calculus at work when an area gets a reputation for having “good schools.” Maybe it attracts the kind of parents who use workbooks to keep their children ahead of what is being taught in class and that in turn reinforces the factors that originally lured them in.

Time will tell whether these kids derive a lasting advantage from this setup and if the advantage justifies the sacrifice involved. My guess is that the results will be mixed.

I think most kids growing up here enjoy a sense of security and stability. That’s important. I had it when I grew up, in another era. A lot of kids miss out on it, and across the country I think more are missing out now than when I was little.

Probably, sustaining that elusive feeling for as long as possible is more critical than the education part. That feeling, and the matrix these kids move in — the environmental soup, the kinds of relationships they’re forming — these are the things more likely to justify the cost of living here.

A little background: My daughter’s birth occurred as my first child, a disabled son, was midway through his teenage years. A hard-fought campaign aimed at improving his options in life had pretty much run its course by then, and I was summing up what I’d learned from that in a memoir.

One obvious lesson was that we can take nothing for granted. The events surrounding my son’s early years led me to see security as not only elusive but fragile, and maybe even false — as false as Disneyland. Strip away the surface, and life has the potential of becoming pretty scary. I’d developed the habit of trying everything possible to rebuild that lost surface. False or not, it’s a lot more pleasant and constructive than the alternative.

That habit must have led us here. Even if quality of life in general feels like it’s trending downward, people still hope their kids can do better than they’ve done. That’s my hope.

So, yes: renting this place, after so many years as a homeowner elsewhere, feels like an awkward arrangement. But the daughter is thriving. The wife is happy (being a native speaker of Chinese, she has lots of friends nearby). And when I feel out of step among our highly accomplished neighbors, well, I can recall my published book.

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Tallsharon Feb. 18, 2012 @ 4:43 p.m.

Congrats on the win. Funny, I have this picture of you in my head, standing awkwardly at the dog park with your son, watching the perfect children with the perfect dogs pooping on command- and your little beautiful daughter running around with the well groomed well rounded others, growing up in a less familiar world, and you are right there, understanding what is important, and making the choice to suffer a little discomfort for the good of the cause. Probably with a silly grin on your face.


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