I Grew Up Poor, But I’m Privileged Anyway

I Grew Up Poor, But I'm Privileged Anyway

I have a pretty nice “rags to riches” origin story.

  • My parents were uneducated immigrants. Even after living in the US for over 30 years they’re still…working class.
  • One of my earliest memories is of a swarm of cockroaches crawling up my arm. Our apartment had an infestation problem, and as a lonely child, the roaches were my “friends.”
  • My high school guidance counselor saw where I lived once. The next day at school he pulled me aside and asked me if I needed help with money.

And while I’m not swimming in a pool of gold coins, I am now solidly upper-middle class. It’s a compelling story, isn’t it? Enough for many people to say, if she can move up in the world, can’t everybody?

We all know that age-old narrative: “Just go to school and work hard, and you can be successful, too.”

The importance of “hard work” is something I even like to plaster all over this blog. I’m a strong believer in making things happen for yourself.

Because look at me.

I do more work than most people to get the things that I want. How many people do you know would meticulously plan over a year in advance to snag a first-class reward ticket to New Zealand?

I’ve made a lot of really good choices along the way. Like choosing to go to a state school so I wouldn’t drown in student loan debt.

I’m damn resourceful so I can develop skills that companies pay for. Out of my entire department, I’m the only one who knows how to do this one crucial task. I learned it by taking the time to read the manual while others waited to be “shown.”

The truth is, I’ve worked really hard for everything I have. My net worth is all the money I’ve ever saved and invested myself.

But there’s a part of the story that seems to get brushed under the rug.

That I also had some help along the way.

That’s right:

You can have lots of disadvantages and still be privileged in lots of ways.

I’m not ashamed of my successes, and I’m not going to apologize for it. But those who think my successes are a result of just my hard work alone aren’t seeing the full story. And thinking that financial privilege is the only way to get headstarts in life is also short-sighted.

So how does one who seemingly has nothing parlay that into something?

Let’s start from the top.

First, I had to be born in the right place.

My parents came from a country where you could walk miles to school and study until your eyes bled, but you would still end up going nowhere in life. If you got out by choosing to be a prostitute, the villagers would nod their head in approval, “Good for her.”

Being born in a place where prostitution isn’t your only career option? CHECK.

The city I grew up in was working-class and predominantly white, safe enough so my sister and I could walk to and from school unsupervised and emerge unscathed.

My mom’s friends were like her: from the same country, with the same job, and earning about the same amount of money. They also had kids the same age as my sister and me, so we always had friends to walk home from school with. But those families all lived in the same neighborhood, where buildings had broken windows and ‘Beware of dog’ signs hung from fences.

Our family happened to live in another neighborhood. One where you could try to sell chocolates for a school fundraiser and people would politely decline instead of slamming the door in your face.

And my parents needed to give a damn about me.

Like a dad who embarrasses you by showing up at your friend’s house to look for you.

When it came to safety, my parents did not mess around. The one time my mom truly reamed us out was when she found out we had accepted a ride from one of her male friends. She told us we were never ever to do that again, taking a ride from someone who wasn’t family.

There was also river behind our friends’ neighborhood, which we weren’t allowed to swim in. So after school, as our friends frolicked in the water, my sister and I stood there with our backpacks, awkwardly watching. On one hot day, one of our friends drowned in the river. As we watched the girl’s mom weep over her dead body, my sister leaned over to me and whispered, “If that was our mom, she’d be way more hysterical.”

And I didn’t have a dad like my friend Tara. She was poor like me, but a different kind of poor. As a 10-year-old, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As I grew older, I learned that she was what many would call “white trash.” I went over to her house once, and her dad was sitting in a threadbare chair wearing nothing but underwear that was once white. It looked like he hadn’t moved much from that chair all day. Then he started yelling at her for no apparent reason. I never went over to her house again.

And while no one at home was actively cheering me on, there wasn’t anyone cutting me down, telling me I’m worthless, or that I couldn’t do things.

I started out with some natural abilities.

Nobody in the house did jack-squat about enhancing my education. There was one tattered Cat in the Hat book in the house. My parents saw my sister and I leave in the morning to walk to school together and used that as a binary checklist for sufficient educational support:

Did they go to school? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

No one was reading me stories to bed. Or enrolling me into enriching activities after school. Or monitoring my screen time. Despite the lack of educational involvement from my parents, it didn’t really matter.

Because processing information came pretty naturally to me. When I was little, people did a double-take when they saw I could read the front of a potato chip bag, and in elementary school, I was always put in the highest reading and math groups.

That’s not to say I’m a genius. Not even close. I didn’t crack 1300 on my SATs. I’ve never been the smartest person in the room. But I’m naturally smart enough. I wasn’t like that kid Jason from fifth grade who had to slink off to remedial classes when no one was looking.

I wasn’t a perfect student, but I didn’t have to be. I got an F in English one semester my junior year, because I was too lazy to do the work. But I got straight As a few times without really trying, too.

But raw intelligence isn’t everything. We all know someone who’s whip smart, but who hasn’t gone anywhere with it.

I needed the right environment to flourish.

In elementary school, the special classes took an hour a day. By the time high school rolled around, I was in mostly Honors classes, which meant I was segregated from the non-achieving kids practically my entire high school career. And when you’re spending about seven hours a day around high-achieving, well-to-do kids who are going places, guess what? The things they do start to rub off on you, too.

I was never friends with the well-to-do kids, but just by being in the same room as them, I had no choice but to observe how they did things. Through them, I learned about this thing called “asking for help.” I previously saw asking for help as a weakness. If you’re so smart, then you could do it all by yourself, right? But then I realized that those kids were doing it BECAUSE they were so smart. Smart people are always trying to improve and grow. And if I wasn’t doing it, too, then I could be left behind.

Or how about the time I heard them talking about taking college classes the summer after junior year. My ears perked up. College summer programs? What the heck were those?  So I went to the library to look them up online and I found one to apply to, too. There was only one problem: the cost. The 6-week program cost $3,500 and I was offered just $2,500 in financial aid. My mom was skeptical about kicking in the $1,000 balance, but she finally agreed. While she never made much money, she had set a habit of putting aside money from every paycheck so finding the money wasn’t a huge production.

And someone had to recognize my potential.

My junior year, my guidance counselor told me I had to go meet this woman once a week at the library. I had no idea why. Every week the woman would ask me about school, like what I was studying, and what my interests were. Later I realized that it was a program for students who showed academic promise but were from low-income families. One day, she came to our meeting with a curious stack of papers.

“These are college application waivers for you,” she explained. “You can apply to up to six colleges and not have to pay the application fee.”

I COULD APPLY TO COLLEGE FOR FREE? It felt like winning the lottery.

I had been dreading asking my mom for money for the application fees, so this was unbelievable. If it had been up to me I would have applied to just two schools because I would have felt bad about the fees.

The woman even took me to tour a school, something that my parents wouldn’t have thought to do.

I knew I had choices.

The honors classes and the special help planted a seed in my head: I was going to go to college.

I wasn’t like that kid who sat next to me in study hall and muttered, “I’m not going to college.” I wondered why he thought that. Because it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go to college. Growing up in a cheap apartment with low-income parents wasn’t going to stop me.

Because I could see a path to where I needed to go.

All those little circumstances added up.

Since the beginning I was set up to succeed in lots of ways that I didn’t choose.

All these little circumstances added up over time, stacking on top of one another like building blocks.

Sometimes I think people forget that these boosts in life aren’t just financial, like having parents pay for college, weddings and down payments. They forget about the subtle privileges.

For me, the subtle privileges have made all the difference. And it doesn’t mean that privileges have erased any hardships or bad luck. Or that I’ve never faced discrimination. And it also doesn’t mean that my success is invalidated or diminished in any way. Because I had to make good choices, too, remember?

It simply means I’ve had a little help along the way.

I could say that my successes were the result of all of my hard work. After all, that’s all it takes, right?

I could toss out an inspiring quote you’ve heard before.

But the truth is, sometimes hard work by itself just isn’t enough. I could have worked hard until I passed out, but if I wasn’t in the right environment, I just as easily could have gone nowhere.

I fully recognize that not everybody could do what I did. I’m an anomaly. Because for me, it was the perfect vortex of natural capabilities, lucking out with loving parents, being around successful kids, working hard, and making the right choices.

So the whole “just go to school and work really hard” advice? Yeah, it doesn’t fly with me.

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