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Begging for Tuition

I have friends who’ve gone to great lengths to ensure a first-rate education for their kids. Mortgaging themselves silly to buy a house in a better school district. Taking a job at an esteemed private school so their kids could attend for free. Even — and I’d sooner endure AP Calculus all over again — pulling them out of 6th grade, mid-year, to homeschool.

At least I thought these were great lengths. But a mother in Redmond, Washington, has put them all to shame. Single mom Shelle Curley has taken to begging for cash at a freeway off-ramp to raise tuition money for her son to attend a prestigious dance academy.

Seventeen-year-old DJ was invited to spend his senior year at the audition-only Idyllwild Arts Academy outside of Palm Springs. The boarding school, whose graduates often go on to Juilliard, awarded him a \$45,000 scholarship. But his currently unemployed mother had to come up with an additional \$7,000 to make it happen.

“All the colleges come there to scout,” Curley says. “This is my son’s chance at a higher education.”

So she held cash raffles and car washes. She sold his bedroom furniture. She scoured CraigsList for items that were being given away, picked them up and sold them at garage sales.

One night, with her job hunt going nowhere and DJ’s admission date fast approaching, she burst into tears. Her older daughter joked that she should consider begging at the side of the road.

“I said, ‘That’s a good idea,’ ” Curley recalls. “My daughter goes, ‘I was kidding!’ And I said, ‘I’m not. I’m headed out.’ “

She inked up a sign: “Single parent. Talented son. Tuition help needed. Just a few bucks till we got it!” She rode the bus to an off-ramp where she had always seen panhandlers and, figuring it must be a lucrative spot, planted herself on the corner.

“I was shaking. I was scared,” she says. “I had to remember my kid’s face and all the hours of hard work that he put into his classes, the sore backs, the ice on his feet, the Ibuprofen. And I thought, this is a very small thing that I can do for him.”

She cleaned up the beer bottles and trash underfoot and “held my head up high.” But pride wasn’t the only hurdle. One of the corner’s regular beggars, a fellow named Toad, ordered her to leave. “He said, ‘You’re not getting on today. I’m on until 5:30 and then Annie’s on till 8:30,’ “Curley says. “I told him I have a right to be out here just like you do. So I stood on one side and he stood on the other.”

Sometimes she got rained on. Sometimes she got yelled at. “People said I was pathetic, that I was setting a bad example for my son, that he was lazy and how could he let his mother go out there and do that for him?”

DJ didn’t actually approve. “It just seemed a little crazy to me,” says the teen, who contributed to the savings by weeding for neighbors and teaching cheerleading and dance lessons to local kids. “I don’t want her standing out there. She shouldn’t have to do that. She’s had a knee replacement!”

There were entire days when she made only \$8. And there were hours when she made \$45. In 10 days, she racked up \$300, enough to rent a car and buy gas to drive her son to Idyllwild. I spoke with her on the phone the night they left, and she cried.

“I’ve had blinders on. I’ve had a mission and a goal,” she says. Once it became clear he could go, it sunk in: “My baby’s gonna be gone.”

When she returns, alone, she plans to keep looking for work while applying for scholarships, grants, and loans to make up the remaining tuition. (She also set up a website, for PayPal donations.) But she’s done begging beside Toad.

A lot of parents would make different choices in her situation. A lot of us wouldn’t reach for our wallets if we passed her in our cars. I might not. But I admire her resolve. I understand it. As a parent, I’ve felt it. And I don’t judge her. Because the truth is I’d still rather fight Shelle Curley for space on a profitable street corner than homeschool a preteen any day.

Published inColumnsParenting

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