My father called me a Socialist. (It could have been worse, he could have called me a Communist. Having spent the first 35 years of his life in the USSR, that’s pretty much the worst thing he can call anyone.)
It started when he heard that private consultants charge New York City families up to $30,000 to help get their kids into school (yes, even their local public school; in NYC, in some neighborhoods, that warrants—I am not kidding—an 18 month game plan). Don’t believe me? Watch this video:
He asked, “Isn’t that what you do?”
I’ve written two books, “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten” and “Getting Into NYC High-School” (the latter makes the former feel like a cakewalk), compiling all the information and forms families need to be successful in the process (and telling them everything the Department of Education won’t about how it really works, including, again I am not kidding, confidential information about how to figure out the optimal date for your 4-year-old to take an intelligence test). Sometimes parents have follow-up questions unique to their specific situation, and then I do private consultations.
So I said to my father, “Yes.”
“But you don’t charge $30,000 dollars?”
“Because I think those who don’t have a spare $30K lying around but still care about their child’s education also deserve to know how to game the system.”
“But if the market can bear a higher price….”
“I want to help people.”
That’s when he called me a Socialist.
I would like to share at this time, that my father is a ridiculously generous person. I’ve lost count of the number of families he sponsored to emigrate from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Half the Russian-speaking population of San Francisco can trace their first job in the States back to my father, either because he knew a guy, or he knew a guy who knew a guy, or because if he didn’t know a guy, he went out and made a guy’s acquaintance. He’s worked for UJA and he volunteers at SCORE, mentoring aspiring small-business owners. But those were donations he chose to make on his own. It was not, as he sees it, money left on the table for no good reason.
Except I also have my reasons. The NYC school admissions system is so brutal, Draconian, arbitrary, needlessly complicated and—let’s be honest—if not deliberately, then at least incompetently set up to disenfranchise the poor, the unconnected, and the non-English speaking, that it literally breaks my heart to see people suffer trying just to survive, much less triumph, within it. Especially when I have the means to help them.
That’s why, even if I schedule a half-hour private consultation (charging a lot less than $30K, to my father’s chagrin) and they keep talking past the paid for time, I let them.
That’s why, when I give a free Getting Into NYC Schools workshop at a community organization, and parents stay afterwards to barrel me with potential scenarios that even the organizer of the event says I should charge for, I let them.
And when someone emails me with “just one quick question” that turns into a half-dozen follow-up questions, I answer it (them).
I admit it—sometimes, I feel like I’m being used and taken advantage of; my father isn’t wrong about that (and my husband has been saying it ever since I wrote my first book, though he has yet to call me politically-charged names). But I honestly don’t know what else to do.
It’s that pesky tikkun olam bit.
My cousin-in-law suggested I charge the rich market rates, and donate my services to the poor for free, like lawyers doing pro-bono work. My father suggested a sliding scale for everyone—rich, poor, and middle class—based on income.
But, to me, charging people different rates for the same service just seems… un-American. I work equally hard for everybody, regardless of their social status. I feel I should charge them all the same for it, too.
So I’m doing the best that I can to make everyone (sometimes even including me) happy. I do podcasts for free. I charge less than $10 per book, and I charge a LOT less than $30K for a consult. In other words, not only am I selling myself, but I’m doing it cheap.
Still I worry. Am I letting people take advantage of me? Am I using tikkun olam as an excuse for what’s actually not benevolence but cowardice in not asserting myself? Am I falling into that all-too-common woman-in-business trap of under-valuing what I have to offer, of needing to be liked, of not sticking up for myself and what I deserve (when not doing pro-bono work, I understand lawyers charge for every extra minute, and not just the face-to-face time, but all the prep time, too; I don’t charge for the prep time at all). Am I falling into the sexist trap of wanting to be… nice?
Is my father right? Am I worse than a Socialist? Am I simply a fool?