Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a poignant story about minority kids attending elite private schools in New York. Their experience of being socially excluded stayed with them the entire time they were there. One African-American child balked at his white schoolmates’ inquiry if he would be going on the $1300 school trip to the Bahamas, responding:
“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family…My family has never taken a vacation.”
An Asian-American teen commented on the impact of “polite indifference” from his privileged white counterparts:
“You can do a lot of psychological damage to people by ignoring them for an extended period of time. For, like, four years.”
The article was full of agonizing anecdotes like this, based on experiences that have inspired several films, one of them “Prep School Negro.” The filmmaker, African-American Andre Robert Lee, talks about his own years at private school, which led him to distance himself from his “poor, urban past,” including his family. He also remarks on the psychic effect of his choice to sever his roots:
“I lost a major connection with my family, and I lost an understanding of what true intimacy and connection with people is.”
That is a steep price to pay for a good education. And after reading the article, I had to ask myself: is it worth it?
Being Middle-Class at an Upper-Class Private School
I went to a K-12 private school on the east coast, very much like the schools described in the article. My experience was nowhere near as extreme as that of the kids’ in the story, but the emotional takeaway was similar.
My mother taught at my school, so my tuition was free — the only way I could have gone there. Most of my peers vacationed at family homes in the Bahamas, Vail, or Nantucket. We lived in a rental house on the outskirts of the tony hamlet in which the school was situated. My family was highly-educated and possessed of a certain breeding — “to the Manor born,” as my mother used to say. But the manor had been lost a few generations back.
My parents worked in helping professions, while my friends’ parents were bankers and owned things. I never quite felt that I fit in and I remember the sting of being asked what my father did for a living during the two years he was unemployed, and being greeted with knowing snickers when I turned red and mumbled that he was a “consultant.”
The “color” at the school came from a few inner-city kids on sports scholarships. One of them, Chuck, was a soft-spoken African-American boy whose father worked as a janitor at a not-so-nice town nearby. I remember one day during art class, when the teacher busted his chops for his failure to produce work when he was a talented artist.
Later he confided in me that he was failing most of his classes. I was stunned. I worked my ass off every semester to stay on the Honor Roll, and my parents made sure I worked my ass off, so I would get into a good college. To me, getting a report card without “Headmaster’s List” stamped across the front was the most shameful thing I could imagine.
“But, why?” I asked. “You’re so smart.”
He just shrugged, an embarrassed smile on his face.
It never dawned on me that he might be failing because the net result of showing up everyday at a school where he felt like an outcast was making him depressed.
One Saturday morning, I wore up to the shrill ring of my Princess Phone. Who was calling so early on a weekend?
It was Chuck, his voice so quiet and tentative I had to ask him to repeat his question several times. By the time it was audible, I could almost feel his embarrassment seeping through the phone.
“Will you go with me?” he asked.
Long pause. We went to a snooty school in a blue-blood town. White kids could play basketball with black kids, but not date them. And to be honest? My status as a middle-class kid was hard enough; I wasn’t going to take myself down another notch by going out with a poor, minority kid.
“I’m sorry,” I said, in a precursor to perhaps the most insensitive thing I could have said next.” I just don’t think of you that way.”
Chuck didn’t come back the next year — although not because I wouldn’t go out with him. He failed every class and lost his scholarship.
At the time I thought his academic failure was going to ruin his life. But after reading the article this weekend it occurred to me that maybe leaving our school saved it.
Does Diversity Work Better at Progressive Schools?
My daughter goes to a progressive school that is perhaps the most inclusive in our city. Thirty per cent of the students are on financial aid and of those 30%, half come from families on the poverty level.
Community, social justice, acceptance of difference — these are values the school staff pumps into the ether. And while all kids appear to be created equal on the school yard, and at lunch time, off-campus is a different story. The poor Latino parents sit among themselves at class parties, looking slightly uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them at the annual fundraiser.
And I have to own my own part in this: my discomfort around my white privilege often overrides my desire to make these families feel included.
One Latino family is the exception: the parents are from Argentina, and have money. They have the kind of birthday parties typically given by white parents: kids splashing in a tiled pool; caterers bustling inside the state-of-the-art kitchen.
The one poor Latino kid who has broken through the social barrier is a girl named Jennifer (interesting that her parents gave her a white name), who has become the BFF to Daisy, the girl with the most social klout at school. Daisy had been Franny’s BFF the year before, and Franny was devastated to be jilted. In all her diatribes about how “mean” and “obnoxious” Jennifer is, however, Franny has never once slammed her because of her ethnicity.
Money Buys Privilege
The popularity of the rich Argentinian family at Franny’s school underscores the real obstacle to genuine inclusion of minorities at private schools: it’s about money, not color.
Money buys privilege. Money moves people up the social ladder, regardless of where they started out in life. But what is the psychological ramification of departing one’s social class? As the Prep School Negro filmmaker pointed out, moving up in life often comes with the price of betraying one’s family and culture.
This phenomenon was one of the things that brought down my first marriage. My in-laws were richer than God and only associated with others in their social bracket. I felt embarrassed that they were the ones buying us houses and taking us on yacht trips while my family had nothing monetary to contribute; but I also felt guilty for the increasing distance between my family-of-origin and me. I felt, in some ways, that I was betraying them.
At the few events attended by both my in-laws and my family, I felt deeply ashamed by my in-laws’ insatiable need to let my parents know they were the biggest roosters in the barn.
I’ll never forget when my former mother-in-law was 45 minutes late to my parents’ house, the first time they met. She had been shopping, and handed me a papier-mache rooster (a symbol of her own Alpha roosterhood, perhaps?) when she entered the living room. She looked around, glancing at the platter of deviled eggs typically served at Southern homes when “company” is expected.
“Oh,” she said, her voice dripping with condescension. “Are we having a party?”
I could feel the internal jaw-dropping of each of my family members. I wanted to crawl under the piano. Instead, I laughed nervously and changed the subject.
When my ex-husband and I met, I thought that he wanted to get out from under the burden of doing “all the right things.” And I wanted to have a more reasonable perspective of money, rather than feeling “good people” didn’t care about acquiring it. So it seemed that we would balance each other out, and in the beginning, I think we did.
But as time went on, my in-laws’ values, much of which focussed on paying as little taxes as possible and aggressively pursuing “important people,” overshadowed those instilled in me by my parents: empathy, democracy, and the belief that people matter more than things. My ex-husband gravitated back to what was familiar to him, and so did I.
Is it Possible to Move Up and Hold On to Where You Came From?
Acceptance into this rarefied world amounted, for me, to a Devil’s Bargain: I felt that I couldn’t truly be myself and because of this, I didn’t feel authentically connected to anyone. Perhaps if I my ex had really wanted a more meaningful life, or if I hadn’t cared so much about pleasing my in-laws, things might have been different. For my chidren’s sake, I wish that they had.
I found myself reflecting on the Times piece a lot the past couple days. A Facebook friend commented that a working-class white kid she knew had a terrible time navigating the social waters at his prep school and never really recovered psychologically. She wondered if he would have been better off at a public school with kids from his own background.
So I’m curious to hear from you, readers:
Did you go to schools with kids of a “higher” social class and if so, what was that experience like?
If you went to school with kids of a “lower” social class, did you hang out with them?
If your kids go to private school now, do they have friends from a lower economic bracket?