As I mentioned in my class testimonial, I attended an elite private school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Fortunately, the school has been tuition free for one hundred years, but since only Roman Catholic males were admitted, I found myself in an incredibly homogenous environment, most dramatically in the realm of social class since the school attracted students from the most robust school districts in the tri-state area. I had always known I was a have-not in most areas of the social realm. I owned a Sidekick (remember those?) until my senior year, I had a noticeable Brooklyn accent, and I did not comprehend the ubiquity of these “boat shoes” everyone was sporting. My social class was no longer something I could repress, from my short haircuts to my geographical ignorance of places like Westchester County and the Hamptons, I had to either adapt or be scrutinized for the minority specimen that I was.
For two years I fought for my right to maintain my identity. I had supportive friends who spotted me money so I could afford to hang out and maintain some semblance of a social life. I often visited my close friend who lived in a gated community in Connecticut and had to hide my pure awe of his beachside property as to not embarrass him. I taught them how to ball and they taught me soccer, we exchanged cultural phrases and vocabulary, I would spit a few bars from a Biggie or Hov joint and they would soulfully wail a verse from the Beatles or the Who. I knew that my friend group loved me for who I am, but I also felt like they became a bit overemphatic about the clashing stereotypes of my identities as both an underprivileged Brooklynite and a straight-A student. They would call me their “little minority friend” and the “Sorta Rican” because I did not fully live up to the pejorative perceptions of my family’s heritage. At this point in my life, I did not even know what the Ivy League was, let alone Brown, so I was nowhere near equipped well enough to combat these hurtful epithets except with a nervous laugh and an internal annoyance. The height of this divisive language was towards the end of my freshman year, when I entered my first relationship with a girl from back home. I was berated on a daily basis because she was black, as if that fact was in and of itself embarrassing. I was not ashamed but I was frustrated by the logic of this mockery and my inability to speak out against it for fear of stirring up controversy in a community to which I already felt alien within. So I kept quiet.
This silence brewed an awful contempt; contempt for the people who refused to see life in my shoes, where the grass was not as green. During my junior year my family moved to New Jersey and I was suddenly displaced, a person with no permanent address. My neighborhood had made me who I am, it bespoke my personality and way of life, and now at the height of my adolescence and entering the focal point of my high school career I was not entirely sure who I was. I vented my frustrations towards my best friend, a Latino student who also hailed from humble beginnings, because of the caricaturizing that they perpetrated each day, as if “playing black” were just some humorous trivial game to play since it contrasted so greatly to the privileged and sheltered lives they had been afforded. It was only until the second semester, when I hid the fact that I had entered a relationship for fear of further harassment that I started reacting to this unspoken schism. I began hanging out with angst-filled kids from my homeroom that also grew weary of the obliviousness of the many upper-class students. I made concessions, fed up with being an army of one, and stopped wearing fitted hats, started buying plaid shirts and rolling up my sleeves. I let my hair grow out and eventually my Brooklyn accent dissipated. I did not do this against my will; I merely supplanted my own tastes with the tastes of the class right above me. This is the dynamic of the society we live in; the lower class must constantly adjust to the demands of the higher classes.
I graduated and ironically received an award for celebrating the diversity of the student body. Today, I own my own pair of boat shoes, I listen to rock music from time to time, and I attend an institution where I am bound to confront the same frustrations I had in high school. Whenever I do some of these things I question whether I am a “sell-out” or “bougie” (a term that interestingly enough derives from the French word for middle class) like my brother likes to jokingly assert. But at the day’s end, these concessions should not be seen as a function of self-denial, but as an acceptance of the gradual process of social mobilization. I have had doors opened to me that most members of my community did not, and entering these new realms does not discredit my time spent in the old ones. It is a shame my high school classmates did not attempt to splinter this barrier with me, but I am proud of my open-mindedness and know that I will one day port my middle-class status with a perceptiveness and accepting demeanor that will never impart the same alienation that I experienced.