It’s 5 a.m. The phone alarm blares, vibrating every little crevice of the car my family is forced to call home. It’s still pitch black outside, but the clock is ticking. We have exactly two hours to find another place to park our car and sneak in a shower at a public swimming center before I have to hop on the bus in time to make it to my first-period class.
“Home” was never supposed to be this way. In fact, when my family first moved across the state to Los Angeles, we lived comfortably in a cozy house. But that only lasted a few months before both of my parents unexpectedly lost their jobs. Before I could fully process what was happening, we were evicted and forced to scour the internet for cheap Airbnb rentals and temporary housing. Our family van became “home” after we exhausted our housing options and emergency funds.
When I step off the bus and through the gates of my school, I feel like I’ve entered another world. Students are draped with designer clothes and bags I’ve only seen in magazines. Parents arrive in cars that are worth more than entire houses in the neighborhood where my family lived before we took up residence in our vehicle. My private high school’s tuition price is nearly double my parents’ yearly salaries combined. The extravaganza of wealth on casual display is stunning.
When my family decided to move, I had no idea I would be attending a private high school. At the lower-income public school I used to attend, we even mocked students at the nearby private school for being pretentious. But I felt disappointed after visiting the LA Unified high school I was supposed to attend, and since I was in a new city hundreds of miles from home, I felt I had nothing to lose by seeking out other opportunities. As I was researching public magnet and charter schools, I was surprised to find that many private schools in the area offered generous financial aid. I applied, and was shocked when I was granted a full scholarship to the private high school I attend today.
It’s nice to be at school and play pretend, but my fantasy of being a Beverly Hills socialite is always cut short when the bell rings at the end of the school day. My Cinderella fairy tale is over and it’s time to go “home” ― to a dented van overcrowded with family members and reeking of unfamiliar stenches in a dark corner of a parking lot.
Privilege only runs so deep. As I get closer to my friends, the more I’m able to acknowledge the different set of obstacles they face.
It took some time, but I eventually overcame being shocked by the wealth of my peers. I’m not fazed when I see celebrity parents, nor am I surprised when I hear my friends’ stories of front-row concert experiences. I accept that I’m walking in a real-life set of “Gossip Girl.”
And now, three years after I first started attending one of the most expensive private high schools in LA on a generous full scholarship, I’m not living in a van. My family can barely afford to pay rent on our apartment every month, but I’m still very grateful to call it home. I’m no longer homeless, and I’m no longer as shocked by the immense wealth of my peers ― but I’m still a scholarship student, and I’m reminded of how “different” I am every day.
It happens at lunch when my friends order $20 salads without a second thought. It happens before class when they debate about which $12 juice bottle or which weekly SoulCycle trainer they enjoy the most. It happens when I visit my friends and realize that their guest houses are larger and more luxurious than anywhere I’ve ever lived. It happens when they drop hundreds of dollars to buy pre-distressed T-shirts and jeans to flaunt an ironically “homeless-chic” look.
It’s especially difficult when I’m reminded of being “different” every time I look in a mirror. Although my financial status is private, my identity as a woman of color will never be afforded that privilege.
My former high school was incredibly diverse, with immigrant families and students from all across the globe. In contrast, at my private high school, I’ve walked into classrooms countless times and been the only person of color.
So it’s unsurprising when conversations about diversity, immigrant experiences and racial privileges often feel forced and uncomfortable at my private high school. As college acceptances trickle in for this year’s senior class, I’m not surprised when I hear some of my white peers complain about affirmative action.
At my public school, Ivy League and elite private college acceptances were unheard of, and students worked incredibly hard to repay the sacrifices their immigrant parents had made for their education. At my private high school, Ivy League and elite private college acceptances are the norm, and supported by generous donations and triple family legacies.
But more importantly, my classmates have a safety net to fall back on after they make mistakes. My school has security guards, but unlike the guards at my public school who led witch hunts for drugs and ransacked students’ backpacks, these security guards turn a blind eye to students who ditch class and hide out behind lockers to smoke.
When one student was caught with enough cocaine and Xanax to land him in prison, all it took was a very large check from his parents to buy his freedom from expulsion and wipe out this incident from his permanent record.
But privilege only runs so deep. As I get closer to my friends, the more I’m able to acknowledge the different set of obstacles they face. Many of my friends have had to mature faster than any high school student ever should.
Messy divorces, absent parents and apathetic nannies meant many of my friends grew up independently, without the comforting support of a constant family structure. Even universal teenage struggles with body image are amplified. As their mothers obsess over the latest diet fads, many of my friends become obsessed as well, so much so that they fall into a cycle of fasting for several days and smoking cigarettes to curb their appetites and achieve unachievable Hollywood beauty standards.
But despite how alienated I sometimes feel walking the halls of the richest LA private school as a formerly homeless student, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities my full scholarship offers me.
All my classes are taught by teachers with doctorates who are passionate about teaching and encourage private academic opportunities. I feel excited to walk into a classroom where this is the case, rather than into an underfunded, overcrowded classroom with an exhausted teacher. In science class, I’m able to play around with expensive lab technology worth thousands of dollars that I never even knew existed before.
Wealth and power are inherited, and my classmates will most likely grow up to be CEOs, lawyers and politicians who make decisions that affect everyone in America. It’s important these decisions are made with empathy, which is a two-way street.
And despite our differences, I’ve made the most wonderful, caring and supportive friends at my private high school.
Because although our family incomes may be vastly different, my friends and I share a lot of similarities. There are a lot of times when I can’t afford to go out with them ― such as to a fancy restaurant for dinner or on a weekend getaway to their vacation houses ― but we still share plenty of special moments.
Whether it be crushing on the same pop stars and high school boys or complaining about difficult classes, my friends and I share common teenage problems and interests. These similarities are what keep us laughing in the middle of the night during sleepovers, dancing like lunatics during parties and, most importantly, supporting each other through tough situations.
Although I’ve never been extremely vocal about my financial aid situation, I’ve always been open and honest with my peers about my financial struggles. My close friends already know my story, and even if they may never fully understand my situation, they’ve been incredibly supportive ― for which I’m very grateful.
Through publishing my story, I’m not asking for the rest of my peers to understand or support me. Instead, I hope to give a voice to other students attending private high school on financial aid, and give a glimpse at the unique struggles we face.
At the end of the day, wealth and power are inherited, and my classmates will most likely grow up to be CEOs, lawyers and politicians who make decisions that affect everyone in America. It’s important these decisions are made with empathy, which is a two-way street.
Just as I’ve learned so much about the lives and obstacles of my wealthy peers, my friends have learned more about race and income inequality as they have interacted with me and other diverse individuals.
Attending the richest LA private high school as a formerly homeless student has made me more open-minded ― and as more minority and financial need students are accepted to my school, it will hopefully make my classmates more open-minded as well.
Because no matter how different individuals are, we create human connections nonetheless, and those connections are based on empathy to build a future for ourselves that is more understanding, fair and loving.