9.25.2014

escaping privilege

My sister was a freshman in high school when she was assigned the task of writing an autobiography. The teacher required students to list several select details about their lives including where they were born and where they were currently living. My sister and my mother got into a heated argument over this. Doors were slammed. Tears were shed (on behalf of both parties). My sister pleaded with me to use my neighborhood as her own and my mother went into her finest "I didn't work this hard for you to be ashamed of everything I gave you and did for you" speech that I know I've had memorized since I was a preteen. On one hand, it was silly. She was avoiding using "West Boca" as her birthplace because Boca Raton is synonymous with snobbery and she wanted to avoid using the city in which she lived because it, too, basically stood for the almighty dollar sign. "And is that something to be ashamed of? Is this why I worked so hard and put myself through college?" I understand my mother's argument. It was silly. You came home to the house you came home to and you went to the school you went to and you were born in the hospital you were born at.

But I understood my sister's argument, too. I made the same argument a million times over when I was that age.

When I was fourteen and a student at a "prestigious" private school (quotes because I'm still insisting it was an overpriced sham), I told the boy I had a crush on -- a boy who lived in a dilapidated apartment complex the next town over who I met outside of the movie theater one Friday night -- that I was on welfare. I didn't know much about welfare, other than it was mentioned in an Everclear song and I thought it sounded so appealing. I'm a little ashamed to admit that, as an adult, all of it, but I had wanted to hide the truth. When he likened his father to a deadbeat addict, I told him mine was an alcoholic. It was a story I made up based on the fact I saw my dad drink a beer once, but I thought it made me better. I thought it made me different. I thought it did a fine job at covering up the awful, scary truth that I lived in a beautiful, expensive home with my really put together family who loved me and doted on me and worked hard to do so. At the time, the city in which I lived in sounded like poison to my ears and while the pretend me wasn't the real me, I always felt that the real me wasn't really me, either.

To be honest, it's a struggle I still battle with. After college, my husband and I bought a home in the city just a few feet over from the one in which I grew up. I can walk from my current house to the house I grew up in, which I do when the weather is nice and Ethan and I want to take a trip on foot to visit his grandparents. I've quickly adopted our city as my hometown. I take pride in it. I'm a little obsessed with it. I care about who our commissioners are and what is going on in our parks and if there is graffiti under slides or library books that need replacing. More than that, I still harbor bitterness towards the city in which I grew up. Ethan will attend the same high school I did and he will attend the middle school that my parents sent me to private school to get away from. I would rather saw my arms off with a butter knife than send him to private school and it's not so much out of stubbornness as it is legitimate care for his education. I believe in our public schools and our city and the fact that even the crossing guards make Ethan feel like a million bucks in the mornings and life feels a little bit like Pleasantville everyday.

Perhaps one of my favorite parts about my city is that there is a range in income. There is a chance Ethan will go to school with someone who is, in fact, truly on welfare and someone whose parents are CEO's of a million dollar company. There is a chance he will go to school with someone who shares a bedroom in an apartment complex with five other siblings and someone who has their very own movie theater inside their home. He will go to school with someone who wears hand-me-downs and someone who always has the current designer trends. He will go to school with someone whose parents are doctors, whose parents own their own small business, whose parents are unemployed and barely scraping by. He will understand that the reason someone is taking the bus is because it's their only method of transportation, the reason why someone is shopping at the dollar store is because it's all they can afford and that these are not reasons to make fun of someone (I won't go into where I got those samples from). I don't want Ethan to be at a school that recently enrolled it's first black student. This is South Florida and it's 2014. A huge chunk of the appeal of sending Ethan to the schools we want to send him to is that they aren't 99.9% white. I mean, I know I can't save Ethan from undoubtedly experiencing the "fun" in being the butt of a "you mean you don't own designer shoes?" joke because this is still South Florida and it's all around us -- but if he can sort of even that out a little, well, I'm okay with that.

Of course, just because you have money doesn't mean you're raising a child who puts gum in the hair of other kids based on the assumption that they're poor. It doesn't mean you put postage stamps on their notebooks in school and tell them to go buy food with their stamps. (This happened.) I had a wonderful childhood. I didn't want for much or worry about anything important. I received a car on my 18th birthday (and I'm still driving that damn thing to this day). I also never owned designer shoes or taunted a classmate. I get it. I do. And there shouldn't be any shame in any of it -- not having anything, having excess -- any of it. I have guilt with being the first person to laugh at the online jabs and mockeries of the city in which I was raised and thus feeling as if I've trivialized the wonderful childhood that I had. As if by laughing at the jokes, I'm somehow again a teenager listening to my mother recite the list of hardships she experienced to bring us to where we were. And, worse, I feel like I'm fourteen again and lying about where I live and the family I come from but this time I get caught. This time someone finds the preparatory school uniform hanging up in my closet and exposes me as the fraud I am.

I never want Ethan to be ashamed of what he has. I never want him to feel like he has to create an alternate identity. I am grateful for my upbringing, for all my parents still continue to do for my family, for the life I led and the life I'm able to give Ethan. I don't want to peg the woman at the park with the designer clothing as the enemy because I'm not fourteen and she isn't the girl that taunted me to the point where I ate lunch in the bathroom alone. I also don't want to be the reason that she makes up some fraudulent welfare story because she thinks I won't talk to her otherwise, trading in her designer leggings for a pair of Target yoga pants for the sake of a playdate. I mean, if I'm going to be all open minded about raising a child who sees people at face value and not for what isn't in their bank accounts, it should work the other way, too.

I'm still learning. And hoping to not completely screw my child up in the process.

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