EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communications and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
Growing up, I didn’t know that I came from a lower class. Once, I even had a birthday party at a Build-a-Bear workshop! My dad worked for a theater and we were able to watch movies and got popcorn for free, while my mom stayed at home and helped translate for Spanish-speaking parents of kids who went to my school. I come from a big family; I have four siblings, two nieces, two nephews, and more cousins than I can count. My house is always full of smiles and laughter that help make the small space feel big. My home was a haven for me, but school was a different story.
I went to my zoned elementary school where the computers were old and constantly broken. There were hardly any books in our library, and the ones we did have were stained or had pages ripped out. Our playground consisted of a filthy jungle gym. Our teachers were overworked because there were more than 30 kids in a class, which also made it hard to focus on what was being taught.
After that, my parents enrolled me in a middle school in downtown Brooklyn, hoping I would receive a better education. I quickly realized that I didn’t know as much as the other kids; I didn’t know my multiplication tables, I couldn’t sound out words, and my vocabulary was far below my grade level. In order to improve my vocabulary and speech, I listened to other people’s conversations and watched gaming videos on YouTube to learn new words. I wouldn’t know the exact definition of the word, but I knew what context to use it in.
My classmates sighed loudly whenever it was my turn to read because I had a stutter. They mocked me when I couldn’t pronounce words with a “sh” sound. It made me feel self-conscious, and I still get nervous when I have to speak in a group to this day. I felt embarrassed when my teacher asked a simple multiplication problem and the rest of my class yelled the answer while I just stayed quiet, because I didn’t know it.
This school had newer books, smaller classes, and better technology. Each classroom had its own computer cart and tablets that we could use whenever we needed to do research or had an assignment online. My teachers had more patience and time to work with students one-on-one whenever they needed help. They helped me overcome my stutter by giving me practice methods to improve.
Through conversations with my parents, I began to understand that our apartment was in a low-income housing project, the food I ate was bought with food stamps, and the clothes I wore were bought on clearance. It made me feel like I was less than everyone else, but what bothered me the most is when my classmates said. “People from the projects are dirty.”
Although they lived in my neighborhood, the projects were like a separate world to them. When they found out I actually lived in the brick high-rises, their eyes widened, surprised. “You don’t talk like you’re from the projects,” they’d say. I knew that what they wanted to say was, “You don’t sound ghetto.” Once, I had invited some friends from school to come over, but their parents told them no because I lived in a “bad part of Brooklyn.”
There are some stereotypes about low-income housing that are not completely false; In my building, at least one elevator is always broken or has urine on the floor, there are rats in the staircase, and there is a shooting seemingly every other night. However, I don’t believe a person’s environment should define who they are. Living in the projects doesn’t mean you are a criminal, or dirty, or undeserving of the same quality of education.
I often bounced from friend to friend because I didn’t feel like I belonged. I felt that I was less than my friends, so being around them made me feel insecure. In addition to where I lived, I had received such a lousy early education. Even though we were now in the same classroom, I convinced myself that these other kids had more opportunities to better themselves, when in reality we were all struggling to find ways to have a better future.
Other kids had the newest pair of Jordans or the latest Apple product. Even my friends who “shared the same struggle” as me had items that my family couldn’t afford or just weren’t willing to buy because they weren’t necessities. I was materialistic, and convinced myself that these luxury items were necessary for a happy life. My friends had printers with color ink, so their poster board projects were bright and well-decorated. I didn’t have my own printer, so my posters were mostly black and white because I had to use the school’s, but the students with the more colorful posters got the better grades.
But now that I’m in high school, I have gained more confidence. I still stutter occasionally but I know that my opinion matters, I take my time when solving math problems without feeling badly, and my vocabulary and comprehension are on my grade level. And although I make spelling mistakes, I still love writing. If my grades drop, my teachers ask me how they can help, and instead of being ashamed, I tell them what I’m struggling with. I no longer feel “less than.”
For a while, I blamed my elementary school teachers for my academic struggles, but now I know that it wasn’t their fault. Schools with mostly low-income students don’t get the equitable funding compared to schools with kids coming from higher income backgrounds. According to a 2018 study by Education Trust–New York, New York City schools with the greatest share of low-income students do receive slightly more funding, but that fact is misleading on its own. According to Chalkbeat, in the neediest 25 percent of elementary and middle schools, “96 percent of students come from low-income families on average.” By contrast, at the best schools, “45 percent of students are low-income.” So despite having more than twice as many low-income students, the “highest-need schools receive just 15 percent more funding.” Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to the US Department of Education.
Because I was lucky that my parents were able to move me to a better school, I’m on track for college and I have a group of friends who support me. It’s my dream to get out of the city and live on a college campus, or even to study abroad. I’ve recently learned about organizations that help low-income high school students with the application process, and help them find scholarships and grants, and I am meeting with one in a couple of weeks.
I know that I have a good future ahead, but I can’t help but think about people who are not as lucky as me. There are still schools like my elementary school, and some may even be worse. Many students there don’t realize that their voices matter and they have a lot to contribute. They are constantly feeling like they are less than everyone, so they become discouraged from trying to improve.
Without a good education, low-income children won’t be able to get well-paying jobs, repeating an endless cycle of the poor staying poor. Until the system is fixed, maybe I can encourage kids like me. I want to become a high school ELA teacher to help kids like me learn that they are worthwhile—that their address or a test score doesn’t define them. My ELA teachers have always been there to push me to have more confidence not only in my writing, but in my everyday life. They saw me as a talented person with potential, and didn’t dismiss me as “just some kid from the projects”