The house I grew up in was not a house. It was a two bedroom condo with one bathroom, one living room, one kitchen and one dining area. The apartment complex was very safe, gated from the upper middle class streets of the area. I grew up roller blading, swimming and playing tag in these nonthreatening courtyards. It was a nice combination of independence and community. We lived two blocks away from the nice private school I attended as a little kid, three blocks from a sweet mall and movie theater and about a mile from the city’s renowned university.
All of my friends lived in large homes with big back yards full of trampolines, tree houses and swing sets. Their food was kept in its own separate room from the kitchen (which I later learned is called a pantry). The girls all had their own phone lines (pre-cell phone era), their own TVs with cable and VCRs, beds underneath beds, toys falling on toys, clothes leaning on clothes, and some even had their own bathrooms.
Needless to say, it was always suhweeeet when I would choose whatever flavor poptart I wanted in the morning after a sleepover–a poptart and a glass of Coca Cola–or when their grandmothers gave them a doll they already had (that doll would come home with me!)
At home, we had a few cabinets for food. I shared the little square bathroom with my parents, and when my little sister was born, I shared my room with her for a few years. My parents were (still are) award-winning educators and writers passionately allied with intellectualism, social justice and multicultural arts. I was very aware of entities like poverty, privilege and power as a kid. Our little family had plenty of luxuries like two cars, annual super exciting, adventurous vacations, big piles of Christmas gifts on Christmas mornings, dessert after dinner and not only new shoes for every school year, but also new sneakers or ballet shoes for every new athletic season I dove into. College was always on the map for me. There was never any doubts or concerns about my getting in and going.
In middle school, however, when I transferred to an affluent prep school, my perceptions started to change. The differences between the peers I studied with and I grew more obvious. These kids were were even richer than my elementary school friends, and we were older, more self-conscious and moody. Many times I found I could relate more to the teachers than to the classmates.
Clearly, looking back, my parents did a helluva job with my sister’s and my educations. They did whatever they could to make sure we both got elite, private and prestigious schooling. How did these non-millionaires afford to send us to a $30,000 tuition middle school and high school? Well, my dad got a job there teaching, and later on, he became the dock-master and restored the school’s marina back to health, then brought its historical sailing program back to life. I vividly remember that a lot of times it sucked for him, working there. He’s lived through both extreme poverty and wealth growing up (depending on my grandfather’s whims). How aggravated he was at the wastefulness and superficiality of the school, how racially un-diverse it was, in the most diverse city. It seems shocking how just a half a mile away from this fancy school rests a very poor community of citizens. Here, people hung out on their bicycles and stoops trying to stay cool, while my peers and I swam around in an olympic sized swimming pool with a view of the ocean.
While my brain grew with academic energy and abilities, it was also stuck in a strange zone of feeling underprivileged while knowing that in the great span of things I was obviously privileged. I didn’t wear $14 dollar nail polish or eighty dollar shoes. My pens were blue or black BiCs not hot pink or turquoise sparkly gel. A lot of my uniform shirts were handed down from abandoned lost and founds. Not necessarily because we couldn’t afford basic uniform shirts, but because that’s just how my parents are. Why be wasteful when you don’t have to be?
The benefits of this attitude meant little to me as a teen of course. I stood out. I was looked at differently. I had my friends, but even these great friends harbored much different personal lives. I got teased for driving a ’94 Ford Explorer to school, instead of a new BMW or shiny Dodge Durango. Yep, I got teased for having a four door automatic vehicle. How ridiculous right? Let me tell you that regardless of my privileges, due to the extreme social environment, I experienced a feeling of exclusion, of being pitied even. A “good” friend of mine even once said to me, “you’re like getting more ghetto everyday.” I guess my safe little apartment complex might have seemed like a public squalor to her.
Naturally, I experienced expected waves of shame and inadequacy, feelings which in the real world would seem unsubstantiated, but in this hyper world of wealth, I think they were perfectly natural. While my intellectual abilities grew stronger and more competitive every year, ironically my social self esteem wobbled on a thin wall of insecurity and survival. Why couldn’t we live in a big house with a round driveway, game rooms, hallways and a live-in maid my mom could yell at?
We didn’t even have cable! Minus my few fellow “scholarship” or exceptionally authentic friends (that i’m still friends with today), there was an unspoken place for me at school. I fit in, but really I could never fit in. Unlike most teens, I had a car, was going to college, excelled in sports and fitness, but at this school, none of that was quite good enough. Especially not our small clean apartment, which I so luckily and gratefully can call home.