IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm a Person of Color from a Low-Income Family and I'm Attending a Rich, White Prep School

Each day, I felt like an interloper at an exclusive party, and all the guests were waiting for me to leave.
Publish date:
February 5, 2016
private schools, race, school, class differences

I never considered myself much of a rebel until now. My dark skin and kinky hair make me somewhat of an insurgent at my lily-white Midwestern prep school. Even more than that, it's my off-brand clothing, my scholarships, my single mother and our lower-class status. I feel confronted by this contradiction, not only between myself and those around me, but also internally, as though the pull of each force will tear me apart.

My family's financial situation has always been precarious ever since my father died some 14 years ago. With nothing but a high-school education to her name, my mother was broke and burdened with two young children. She found work at a thrift store and enrolled herself in college, leaving at dawn and returning only in pitch blackness. In the morning, her eyes were crusted over with sleep, and at night, they were bloodshot.

Mom took on a bit of a mythical status. I barely saw her, and when I did, there was an aura of stress about her. Looking back, I certainly can't blame her, as we were steadily approaching dire straits. At the time, however, my sister and I became cautious around our mother, afraid one misstep might push her over the edge. After all, we had already lost dad, and we couldn't lose her, too.

We lived in a small, low-income townhouse, surrounded by plenty of children. Some were first-generation immigrants, their parents presenting me and my sister with exotic sweets or trinkets. Others were latch-key kids like us, their parents absent due to work, alcohol or their relationships.

There was a sense of community, built upon the fact that even if we didn't have much, we still had each other.

That all changed when I befriended a girl at my elementary school. Wealthy, white and with two parents present, she was my exact opposite. At first, this didn't bother me, but as I visited her house — or rather, mansion — I couldn't help feeling a sense of shame. Knowing that people could live like this, knowing that I sometimes went hungry, knowing that I was condemned to live a certain way through no fault of my own fed into insatiable bitterness.

Whenever Mom brought in bags from the food bank, I had to leave the room. Their appearance only served as concrete reminders that this was my reality. During a particularly tough year, I remember my only birthday presents being a used edition of Tuck Everlasting and a stuffed toy that looked like it came from a Happy Meal. To make matters worse, Mom had yelled at me after I lost and found a dollar, screaming that she couldn't even put bread on the table.

This continual burden led me to pledge that I'd escape this situation. Never again would I worry about where food would come from or if the lights would stay on. I knew that an education was the only way to escape our fate, and I remember straining to stay awake and study during freshman year. Failure meant more than an F. It was a permanent condemnation to my destiny.

Perhaps my mom sensed this, too, because she found a prep school that she wanted me to attend. I was incredulous at first. Those schools weren't made for people like us, and I felt that it'd almost be a transgression to go to one. Still, she always found an opportunity to nestle it into conversation, and soon it became my obsession. Maybe, I thought, this could be a stepping stone. Maybe I could save our family.

The admissions process was rigorous enough, and I was doubtful that I'd even get in. However, while sitting in our car on a freezing, gray afternoon, mom received a phone call. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. Her mouth hung open in a half-smile and wrinkles formed around her watery eyes, a look of euphoric stupor on her face. I remained stoic, afraid that any flash of emotion would trigger a torrent. After all, how else could I have reacted, knowing that I had just bent the steely arc of fate?

Even before I stepped foot into the Winchester School, I felt a tightening in my chest. It was as though the slick, new cars encircling the imposing Gothic facade of the building were signaling a warning. My presence seemed to disturb the atmosphere, the school sensing that I was an intruder.

The halls were lined with boys clad in boat shoes and girls with pearls dotting their ears. They spoke of summer vacations in far-off lands and sailing clubs. If I didn't feel out-of-place enough, most of my classes were with freshmen because I was unprepared to face the rigors of a prep-school environment.

Each day, I felt like an interloper at an exclusive party, and all the guests were waiting for me to leave. Soon, however, I discovered that they all assumed that I came from a two-parent home and was financially stable, that I'd never faced hunger in my life.

I became withdrawn, afraid that one mistake would reveal my true class status. During a class discussion, I remember my body burning while kids who bragged about having lawyers as parents said people should just pull up their bootstraps. This silent humiliation raged throughout my entire being, yet I felt too afraid to say anything.

My shame would often manifest itself as resentment towards my mom. I was angry at her for not making more money and heaving this burden upon my shoulders. I was supposed to do well because she didn't. Why couldn't she be a professor, or a lawyer, or a neurosurgeon? Why did I have to be crushed under textbooks and the expectation to rise out of a situation I didn't create? One night after school, I lost it, screaming at her about my stress and the sinking feeling I felt every single day until my throat burned.

The only relief I felt came from a program outside of school that brought low-income teens together. It was the only moment I didn't have to hide, constantly walking on eggshells so that my narrative would continue unbroken. Over time, I began to let down my guard, my distress melting into acceptance.

As I approach the end of my high school career, I've come to rest on the gap separating me from my past and future. While I no longer feel ashamed of my background, I'm still not completely comfortable around my classmates. Maybe I'll never be, the feeling of breaking a law of the social order always remaining.

Recently, my mom said that I'd get out of poverty and leave the family behind. Although she was joking, I couldn't help but sense a bluntness under her words. I'll probably end up better off than her, which is all that she, and perhaps all parents want: their children to accomplish want they didn't. Still, I'm afraid to let go, to continue on without remembering where I came from.