“This Is Not Real Life”
Good Hall is filled with chatter as students at Stone Ridge School file in and sit at long tables. The girls wear blue-and-green plaid skirts and sweatshirts with names like University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. Some have their hair tied in ribbons. Many wear brown Doc Marten shoes.
Ebony Jacobs sits with a friend, her hair pressed smooth and straight. She wears black glasses, a cardigan, and black ballet shoes. Her cherubic brown face is one of the few in a sea of white ones. In a senior class of 83 girls, Ebony is one of eight African-Americans. She believes she's one of two on scholarship.
Stone Ridge assemblies are "open mike," meaning anyone can get up and announce anything. After prayer, one girl announces that there's a summer leadership program in which students can take part; it costs $600. Another says that anyone going to Florida for the lacrosse trip needs to pay that day. Ebony counts herself out of pricey extracurriculars–her mother just lost her job again.
She's surprised when a girl announces that someone stole her credit card.
"Whoever you are, you went to Smoothie King," the girl says. "You bought a CD. You tried to spend $212 at Victoria's Secret, but my card was declined."
The auditorium erupts in laughter, loud enough so only one African-American student sitting a few tables away from Ebony can hear when a white girl says: "It was probably a black girl."
Rs an eighth-gradea, Ebony knew that getting into Stone Ridge would change her life. She had spent two years at Rockville's Parkland Middle School, where half of the students were eligible for reduced or free lunch. As a freshman, she was supposed to go to Wheaton High. But her mother, Cora, thought her daughter was sailing through classes without really learning.
"She'd get an A just because she turned in her homework," Cora says.
Ebony and her mother were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Aspen Hill when Ebony decided to apply to Stone Ridge. They had no reason to think they could pay the tuition–currently $18,355–so she applied for scholarships.
Capital Partners for Education, the Black Student Fund, and the Archdiocese of Washington awarded her money. Her mother worked with Stone Ridge on a financial-aid package.
In the beginning, Ebony and her mother assumed that the hardest part of the transition to private school would be coming up with money to pay for uniforms or books. Over time, Ebony realized how different she was from her new classmates.
Private schools like Bethesda's Stone Ridge and DC's St. Albans began admitting minority students in the 1950s–a decade after DC's Georgetown Day School was founded in 1945 with the intent to integrate black and white students.
Tour any private school today and you'll hear administrators championing diversity. African-Americans make up 12 percent of students at the 85 schools in the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington; nationally, they're at about 6 percent. Four percent of area private-school kids are Hispanic.
What keeps many minorities out of private schools isn't race–it's money. Some of the area's scholarship programs are very competitive. Capital Partners for Education–a group that gives $4,000 scholarships to high-school students–received 123 applications for 35 slots.
The organization helps pay for the educations of kids on welfare and those whose parents work as maids in neighborhoods where their children's classmates live. Scholarships help diversify student bodies across the region, mixing the wealthy with some of the working poor.
"Minority students are juggling two environments," says Khari Brown, executive director of Capital Partners for Education. "Their phone is disconnected or their home is without heat. Then they go to school and kids are driving up in luxury cars."
When Ebony started high school in fall of 2001, she couldn't believe how clean Stone Ridge was. Every student had a laptop computer. Ebony didn't need a hall pass to leave class. The bathrooms were spotless.
"Public-school bathrooms are like slums," Ebony says.
She says talking to the other girls was "mind-blowing–I might as well have been from Mars." She decided she should just be herself.
Ebony had been a star in her public school. At Stone Ridge, her grades fell. "I never had to deal with getting an F before," she says.
Khari Brown says many of the scholarship kids enter school a grade below where they should be in reading and math. Brown teaches study skills in the summers and on weekends to help students catch up.
"They have a real dip in the beginning," he says. "Then we watch them rebound."
At Stone Ridge, Ebony's papers came back covered in red marker. Her teachers all said something similar: Her thought process was there, but her grammar was atrocious.
Ebony didn't know what a clause was or how to use a colon. Her math skills were behind, too. Her mother says Ebony was never taught basic arithmetic in public school. She told her daughter's Stone Ridge math teacher, "You're teaching over her head."
Ebony was embarrassed to ask for extra help: "I didn't want people to find me out. I thought they'd look down on me."
"You can do it," Cora told Ebony. "We just need to find the right person to teach you." Cora found money to hire a tutor, who gave her a break on the cost.
Sometimes Ebony felt as though she didn't speak the same language her classmates did. She pretended to know what teachers were saying even when she didn't have a clue. When one teacher assigned a bibliography in "MLA form"–referring to the Modern Language Association's style for scholarly writing–Ebony went online to figure out what she meant.
Ebony didn't know that Stone Ridge was going to be predominantly white. At the open house, there seemed to be an equal number of white, African-American, and Hispanic families touring the school. She didn't think most everyone was going to be rich: "I didn't know what it was like to meet kids from Potomac. I'd never even heard of Potomac."
All of her new classmates seemed nice. Ebony became friends with a girl named Amy–not her real name–who invited Ebony to her birthday party. A week before the party, Amy turned to Ebony in Spanish class and said: "I don't like when people call me rich."
"Are you?" Ebony asked.
"I'm well off," the girl said, "but I don't like it when people say my house is big."
As Ebony's mother drove their Toyota up the drive to Amy's home, Ebony realized Amy had been trying to prepare her.
The house seemed as grand as the White House. Ebony couldn't stop looking up at the high ceilings. She said, "You have a lovely home."
Ebony had another friend over to her apartment in Aspen Hill. The girl didn't come back. Cora thought Ebony's classmates might think Aspen Hill was unsafe. She decided to look for apartments in neighborhoods where Stone Ridge girls lived: "I wanted Ebony to have a nice place for her friends to come and visit."
Cora found a reduced-rent apartment at King Farm, a planned community in Rockville. She bought Ebony a futon to put next to her bed so her friends would have somewhere to sleep.
None of Ebony's classmates ever spent the night. She didn't invite them.
Students such as Ebony value their private-school education and where it will get them, but challenges they face within their schools can make them feel disconnected.
A report by the Success of African-American Students in Independent Schools project says these kids "must grapple with implicit and explicit messages that the community they represent is not as valued in school as is the majority community."
Many minority students find that white people seem surprised at their intelligence. They tire of trying to explain the black experience. Seventy percent of kids surveyed believed it was hard for people like them to be accepted; 62 percent thought they didn't belong in their school.
A few transfer. Many more stick it out, believing that staying in a private school will get them into a better college.
"The paradox," writes Boston-area school psychologist Michael Thompson in Independent School Magazine, "is that while the kids become important to the community as symbols–'We're diverse!'–they often feel personally neglected and devalued."
Ebony became most conflicted during her sophomore year. The sniper shootings of October 2002 dominated conversations. Police were looking for a white sharpshooter. Ebony says her classmates were shocked when the snipers turned out to be black.
"We should have known," Amy said.
Ebony didn't know what to say to that.
As minority students progress through private school, their concept of racial identity often is called into question. The more time they spend around a majority culture, the more they wonder how much of themselves they need to change–or overlook–to fit in.
Some feel the need to change how they speak. With old friends in the neighborhood, they talk in urban slang: "You was there?" At school, they speak standard English. At home, Ebony sometimes speaks in a Caribbean accent–her mother is from Tobago.
Ebony had heard her friend Amy say "borderline racist things" in the past, but she'd chosen to ignore them. Amy's family had been good to Ebony–they'd made her feel she belonged at Stone Ridge–but Amy's sniper remark seemed unfair.
Cora Jacobs had Ebony when she was 42. She was already a single mother raising a son.
A chance meeting with a white woman scuba-diving in Tobago had transformed Cora's life when she was 21. She and the woman struck up a conversation and became pen pals. When the woman got a job teaching at Georgetown University, she asked Cora if she wanted help coming to America.
Cora worked for 20 years in administration at Georgetown before she met Ebony's father. Nine days after Ebony was born, the parents went their separate ways. Ebony hasn't seen her father since she was eight.
Cora moved her children around every few years. When Ebony was ten, her mother lost her job. Cora wasn't sure how she'd make the rent. The family moved into Crossway, a transitional community for low-income women in Kensington. Cora took word-processing classes, and Ebony read to children living there. They didn't have a car.
On Thanksgiving, Crossway handed out baskets filled with turkey and trimmings. On Christmas, the children got piles of presents. One year, Ebony got an art set with watercolors, oil paints, crayons, and markers.
When Ebony was 12, they found an apartment in Silver Spring and moved out of Crossway. Ebony was picked on almost as soon as she started at Parkland Middle School. Boys called her fat. One said, "You're the ugliest girl I've ever seen." Although she kept her grades up and felt close to her teachers, Ebony's face developed a twitch.
She had a few friends, but Cora decided they were trouble. She often told Ebony, "The company you keep has a lot to do with your outcome."
Cora wanted her daughter in an environment where everyone seemed to be on a path to success. She'd seen ads on the bus for a private-school fair at the DC Convention Center. She decided to take Ebony.
"Why would you want her to go to an all-white school?" friends asked.
"It's not about that," Cora said. "She's looking for a good education."
Many low-income African-American and Hispanic parents feel intimidated stepping inside their children's private schools.
"I didn't realize the school wasn't for poor people," one parent says. "I stopped going to events–we're not on their level."
Most minority parents can't afford the auctions and fundraising galas. Khari Brown says he stopped holding some meetings at DC's Georgetown Visitation School, where his offices are based, because he overheard complaints from parents. They didn't like driving past all the beautiful homes in Georgetown. Now he holds most meetings downtown at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.
With their days spent in such a wealthy environment, some minority kids feel as if they're living in an alternate universe. Their parents can't warn them about what to expect–they aren't always aware of the challenges their children experience daily.
Few of the parents with whom Brown works are college graduates, so sometimes they can't help their children with advanced coursework. Ebony's mother believes that her lack of education made Ebony's years at Stone Ridge a challenge.
"These girls have their dads, who are PhDs, read over their papers before they turn them in," Cora says. "I don't have those skills."
Sometimes parents sense their children changing–and slipping away. A junior at Georgetown Day School says his relationship with his mother has become tense. His vocabulary and speech have become more advanced than his mother's, and he's started to talk differently.
His mother never comes to the school. A single mother with a new baby, she has bigger worries. Their car was repossessed a year ago, and they went on welfare.
She complains that her son questions her more. When she asks him to do something, he wants to know why. She'll say, "Do you think you're smarter than me?"
His older sister, who goes to a public high school, calls him "bougie," a derogatory term for the privileged. His mother has said more than once, "You've become a different person since you started going to that white school."
Even though she was in honors English in her junior year at Stone Ridge, Ebony's teacher, Joelle Lamboley, had to tutor her. Ebony zipped through books and contributed to class discussions, but her grammar skills still were weak.
The class had read The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Lamboley assigned Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, a novel about a poor African-American teenager's coming of age. She wanted to discuss the experiences of an invisible minority and give her students insight into the poor.
"They couldn't relate," says Lamboley, who is white. Her students had trouble focusing on themes in the book. They thought a poor African-American girl would be given breaks in life–which is how the discussion jumped to affirmative action.
"It's not fair," one white girl said. "I'm not going to get into Duke because a black girl is going to take my place."
The teacher let the discussion play out. She figured, "Let's talk about these issues we never talk about."
Then she attempted to steer the conversation back to the book. Day after day, her students couldn't focus. To talk about race, they had to talk about affirmative action. One of them said, "I think the white male is oppressed."
The discussion grew heated, and it often came back to Ebony, the only African-American in the class. She would try to explain what it was like to be her. The girls didn't seem to hear. She felt they were implying that she'd been accepted to Stone Ridge only because she was black.
Lamboley wondered if she'd done the right thing teaching The Bluest Eye. She had gone to DC's private Maret School and remembered thinking little about what it was like for the black students–just as her current students were having trouble considering Ebony.
After hearing some of the things her students were saying, Lamboley vented to a colleague. She reported to the principal anything that could be construed as offensive and called the multicultural-affairs coordinator for advice on defusing classrooms.
She'd ask Ebony after class: "How are you feeling?"
Ebony couldn't pretend she was okay. She stopped speaking in class. She felt as though she finally saw what she hadn't before: Her classmates didn't get what it was like to be her and never would.
Lamboley, who has taught in the inner cities of Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut, says: "What's hard is when you see the minds close."
Although ebony put on a happy face and joked with teachers and classmates, she stopped seeing girls from Stone Ridge outside school. Listening to her classmates talk about The Bluest Eye made her feel like an outsider.
She'd come home to her mother in tears: "I can't do this. I hate this school. I don't want to go back."
She began to second-guess her teachers. When she applied to an Advanced Placement US-history class, she assumed she was rejected because she had gotten a B in her junior year. Later, she found out that some of the kids who had also earned B's were accepted. She wondered if their parents donated money to the school.
Ebony was ashamed that she was on scholarship until Cora told her she paid part of the tuition. One year it was $3,000, the other years $1,000.
"It made me feel like less of a charity case," Ebony says.
That year, Ebony decided to apply for a theater fellowship sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library. She and another student asked Stone Ridge's drama teacher for a recommendation. The teacher emphasized to Ebony how hard the course was and how much extra time it would take.
Ebony felt discouraged, especially after reading the recommendation–the teacher wrote that Ebony had missed deadlines. She still got the fellowship.
She and her mother celebrated with dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. Cora reminded Ebony that she had been given many opportunities at Stone Ridge and had many allies there.
Ebony knew it was true. She had found mentors in the school's college counselor and the librarian. Sometimes she felt as though she learned more in one month than she would have in a year at a different school. And she couldn't help but wonder: Would she have been awarded the theater fellowship if she hadn't gone to Stone Ridge?
Her education had helped her grow into a confident young woman. Her face no longer twitched. Talks with her mother always made her realize that attending such an elite school had, in a sense, made her a student of privilege. It didn't matter if scholarships and financial aid paid the bills.
Once while walking through the school she saw pictures of children delivering turkey baskets to the needy. The recipients were at Crossway Community, where she and her mother had once lived.
It was Stone Ridge parents who had given her presents on Christmas and turkeys on Thanksgiving. They had helped her when she'd needed help most.
When students like ebony are unhappy at school, they don't always speak up. Barbara Patterson, president of the Black Student Fund, which awards financial aid to private-school students, says she doesn't want her students ever to feel they don't have a right to make waves.
"You don't have to be grateful to be there," she tells them. "You are a consumer. The school needs you, too." •
Patterson has been helping integrate Washington's private schools since 1981. She works with 42 school heads. "Some still see me as the Wicked Witch of the West," she says.
Not only does Patterson's group fund scholarships for children from kindergarten through 12th grade, but it has increased the number of African-American faculty from less than 1 percent to 8 percent. It also trains teachers in cross-cultural communication.
Wherever the Black Student Fund's students are enrolled, the group makes sure the content covered is diverse–and that there are pictures of black people on the walls, not just of whites. Patterson keeps the identities of all of the children the organization funds secret: "We don't want to label them. We want them to feel equal."
Patterson says many of the area's private schools, including Stone Ridge, have made great strides in the past 20 years.
In 1998, the Black Student Fund gave Stone Ridge headmistress Sister Anne Dyer an award for her efforts to create a comfortable learning environment for minority students. Dyer has always been willing to confront any racism. A few years ago, a parent threatened to stop contributing his usual $50,000 if she didn't reduce the number of "them," referring to black students. Dyer didn't take another penny from that parent.
Stone Ridge psychologist Dr. Bonnie Ryan-Blaney sits at a desk rubbing her temples. She's listening to a young woman describe a moment two years before when a white student called her a nigger.
"I kept it in," the girl says, "but we're still in the same classes. What am I supposed to do?"
This is a meeting of Stone Ridge's Black Student Alliance, which Ebony joined every Wednesday at 3:30. On the wall of the Spanish-language classroom is a sombrero and the five covenants of the Sacred Heart, the school's educational philosophy. Ryan-Blaney has repeated number three more than once today: "A social awareness which impels to action."
A dozen African-American girls sit in a circle describing incidents they've encountered: a classmate joking about her father's telling a person of color, "I used to own you." Stories of white girls who ask African-American classmates, "Can you teach me to be ghetto?"
A few in the room complain that it's assumed that just because they're black they must be on scholarship. One girl says that no matter who's talking in class, her teacher yells at her to be quiet: "It's come to the point that when a teacher gets angry, I wonder–is it because I did something bad or is this because I am black?"
Stone Ridge's Black Student Alliance sometimes meets with the black-student groups at Landon School and Georgetown Prep, boys' schools in Bethesda.
"The Prep guys say the racism is much more blatant there," Ebony whispers to a friend. "Things aren't overheard–they're said directly."
Racism has been in the front of Ebony's mind for several weeks, ever since she was awarded a scholarship to Iowa's Grinnell College, a predominantly white school, from the Posse Foundation. The program, which had more than 600 applicants this year, sends 20 Washington minority students to Grinnell and Pennsylvania's Bucknell University with the hopes that they'll support one another in their studies. Ebony wants to be a lawyer.
Being able to imagine a future outside Stone Ridge gave her and a classmate the courage to tell Dr. Ryan-Blaney how they felt the minorities were being treated. The psychologist decided to require seniors to meet at lunch every two weeks to talk about cultural issues such as white privilege. Ebony was disappointed when many of her classmates didn't show up.
After the black student alliance meeting, Ebony meets her mother at Bennigan's and tells her what her black classmates said. She vents about her teachers, who call her a "star" and then tear her papers apart. She feels as though no one at Stone Ridge believes in her.
"Ebony, Ebony," Cora says, cutting her off. "You proved them wrong. You need to stop carrying this in your heart. Let go of all the negative."
"You think I'm negative?"
"Look at you," her mother says. "You're on top of the mountain." Ebony was recently named a Cheney Scholar, an award given by Capital Partners for Education to four students who exemplify leadership and achievement. She'll meet Vice President Dick Cheney, the award's namesake, that spring.
Cora is Ebony's biggest supporter. She has saved dozens of Ebony's history papers, English essays, and math worksheets. When Ebony couldn't afford the materials for a school project, Cora was the one who explained why her daughter's project was late. She called a meeting of Ebony's teachers when she felt they weren't paying her daughter enough attention. When Ebony told her she'd won the scholarship, her mother said: "I knew you would."
Ebony tells her mother that a student in the Black Student Alliance meeting was called a nigger.
Cora shrugs. "You're in an environment where you're going to hear all sorts of things," she says. "Someone called you a nigger, so say something back and move on. That's life. Don't make these things issues."
"That's not supposed to affect me?"
"Ebony, it's going to happen," Cora says. "Look at the environment they're in."
"It's not an excuse," says Ebony.
Stone Ridge teachers often tell Cora how popular Ebony is at school.
"I hear it again and again from teachers," Cora says. But inside she's like, " 'No one likes me.' "
Students and teachers alike often wonder why all the black kids sit together at lunch.
At many area private high schools, the African-American students travel in groups. A black student who graduated from Kensington's Academy of the Holy Cross says: "When we'd go to math, we'd sit in a row. If we went to a play, there was a line of us walking in together."
Sometimes it's assumed that because a minority child enters a largely white school, he or she should integrate into the majority. Others argue there's a natural separation. Even Latino students–who are on scholarship in smaller numbers–join the black-student groups. They find comfort in being different together.
Schools sometimes enable divisions. Gonzaga's students–15 percent are African-American–go to separate dances. The student government sponsors mixers, attended mostly by white kids. Onyx, the black-student association, holds "blackouts," dances for the African-American kids.
Gonzaga headmaster Michael Pakenham says this isn't segregation: "It's an opportunity for the different groups to do what they want to do, play their own music."
Pakenham says the school is trying to bring the two together. Yearly "town-hall meetings," moderated by students, talk about issues of diversity. Onyx sponsors a schoolwide assembly for Black History Month. Race sometimes comes up in an ethics class taken by juniors; seniors take a class on social justice.
Says Pakenham: "Students tend to congregate with kids with like interests and backgrounds. We try to move them beyond that."
One night, Ebony and her mother stop at California Pizza Kitchen near DC's Dupont Circle. Ebony has been interning for the week downtown.
"I've been downsized again," Cora says. "I've known for two weeks."
Ebony's face drops. "Why didn't you tell me, Mama?"
"Oh, Ebony," Cora says, turning away and looking out the window. "I didn't want you to worry."
Ebony understands her mother's situation. She knows they live in a reduced-rent apartment and that there isn't much money for extras. She knows that their situation is different from her classmates'. "That's not real life," she'll tell herself.
As a junior, Ebony questioned her family's lifestyle. She wanted to know why she couldn't afford the TI-83 calculators and laptop computers her classmates had. Everyone had an iPod. Ebony had the same dress shoes she'd had since freshman year; her friends wore new shoes all the time.
"You never have any money," Ebony complained to Cora, who was trying her best despite her work problems. At school, money is everywhere–in the North Face backpacks and Doc Marten shoes. At home, money went only to necessities.
Many of Ebony's classmates go to a high-school dance known as the "Chevy ball" held at the Chevy Chase Club. This year, the $95 ticket was steep enough. Then she'd have to buy a formal dress and get her hair done. She couldn't go. The Très Bien Ball, a dance held this past March at the Indian Spring Country Club, introduced students to the alumnae association. It cost $145 a head for a parent, $80 per child; the school offered financial aid for tickets and free dresses for students who needed one.
"Forget it," Cora said, knowing she couldn't afford her own dress even if Ebony were given one.
One of Ebony's classmates called her up and said she wasn't sure what dress to buy for the ball, so she bought three.
"I'm supposed to understand that?" Ebony says.
The economic disparities at private schools can be even more divisive than race.
"Everyone seems to have a lot," says one parent about her daughter's private school, "so she feels like she doesn't have anything."
Low-income parents often look for ways to save money such as finding hand-me-down uniforms. Cora searches online for used books.
Being in an environment where everyone seems to have everything makes some kids feel entitled to a similar lifestyle. They want the Kate Spade purse and a trip to the Caribbean.
Many schools like to say that you can't tell one student's economic background from another's–everyone wears uniforms. Students say it's easy to pick out the girls wearing Tiffany necklaces and diamond earrings.
One morning in March, Ebony takes a seat in English class. There are quotes from Virginia Woolf on the walls as well as a pennant from Smith College–her teacher's alma mater. A bulletin board is covered with Annie Leibovitz photographs.
The class breaks into small groups to discuss the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. Ebony is teamed with an African-American student and a white girl who spent the beginning of class complaining that she had to drive her younger brother to school. They list discussion questions.
"What is more detrimental–ignorance or intelligence?" one asks.
Ebony believes she'd be a different person if she didn't go to Stone Ridge. She wouldn't have known there was such a thing as "staying up till 2 AM to finish reading, and then writing an essay." She might not have been awarded a college scholarship.
She often jokes with her mother about the time when she'll come back to Stone Ridge as an alumna: "I'm going to be skinny and successful. I'll say, 'Do you know I've been to Columbia Law School?' "
The Black Student Fund's Barbara Patterson says that all the challenges her students endure are made worthwhile when they graduate: "They believe they can compete with the wealthiest and most powerful families in their schools. They move on with great confidence in their intellectual ability."
The kids in Ebony's English class put their desks back in a circle and start discussing the themes in the play.
One says that Oedipus, who has been blinded after poking his eyes out, is haunted by his humble origins. Another says: "He's willfully blind to certain situations."
The teacher writes each idea on the blackboard. Ebony nods and takes notes.
Later, she'll think: It's terrible when those around you aren't able to see.
Toronto Alsbrooks: “My Family’s Past Is A Secret”
The summer before my sophomore year, I started training with Gonzaga's football team. My African-American teammates explained that there were mixers for the white kids: "We don't go to those." But Onyx, the black-student association, held "blackouts," dances for the black kids.
Once school started, I was surprised how segregated Gonzaga was. There were three tables in the cafeteria where the black kids ate lunch together. After school, the black students hung out in the cafeteria while the white students gathered upstairs in a study lounge.
I'd gone to Paul Junior High in DC, a charter school that was mostly black. I'd assumed I'd make both black and white friends at Gonzaga.
But now I'm a senior and still haven't hung out with any of my white classmates. None has reached out to me. I've never reached out to them. They seem to talk about different things, listen to different music, wear different clothes. I'm not sure what we'd connect on.
I keep my family's past a secret at school. I don't want anyone to know that my mother has spent time in prison or that at one time she did drugs. If someone asks where my father is, I say I've never met him. He was stabbed to death in a fight when my mother was pregnant with me.
I have a good mother. She's been sober and works as a caretaker in a group home. Midway through my sophomore year, she moved my sister and me into a rowhouse a few blocks from Georgia Avenue, a short walk from where my father was murdered.
Even though my life is better than it used to be, I'm not comfortable inviting my Gonzaga friends over. I don't want them to come up to my bedroom and rifle through my closet. They'll look to see what brands of sneakers and clothes I wear. They'll want to know what video games I have.
I don't own the stuff they do. I'm nervous that they'll tell the kids at school how little I have.
I don't relate to my old friends in the neighborhood. They're still stealing packs of gum from the corner store. They cut classes and start fights. They want to graduate from high school so they can get jobs doing "nothing in particular."
I used to talk like them. I'd say, "I got the book," or "I ain't playin'." I never knew there was anything wrong with my speech.
As soon as I started at Gonzaga, my teachers began correcting the way I talked, even if I was just talking with friends. "I have the book," one teacher said, waiting for me to repeat the phrase.
I don't correct my friends when they talk that way–around them, I'll change my speech back.
At Gonzaga, I speak the proper way.
One night during my senior year, my neighborhood friends came over because they wanted me to go to a party in Southeast DC. I had a bad feeling. We didn't know anyone around there. I told them to go without me. That night, they got in a brawl. One was kicked in the face.
When they ask why I don't come around as much, I don't tell them the truth–that my teachers are always talking about my future, which makes me think about college.
My teachers often say that every decision I make has consequences. I don't want to disappoint the people who have given me a scholarship–or my mother or grandfather, who have written me checks for books and uniforms. I don't want to disappoint myself.
A few of my classmates have put down historically black colleges. One said: "My mom isn't working her butt off to send me to a private school so I go to a college I would've got into if I went to public school." I see his point.
Recently, I realized that a couple of my classmates' friends had parents who went to schools like Hampton University and Morgan State–and they had been successful. I like the idea of being part of a majority on campus, even if it doesn't reflect the real world. So I sent in applications to Hampton, Morgan State, and Morehouse.
My neighborhood friends will be the same no matter where I go–still hanging around the streets. It makes me feel bad. I'm different now.
Stefany Salas: “Not Having Money Can Make You Feel Like An Outsider”
I was at Hecht's with my mother when I saw a row of Dooney & Bourke handbags. All my classmates at Georgetown Visitation seem to own them. I love the ones with colorful D's and B's.
My mother flipped over the price tag: more than $100. Years of working as a maid has made her very practical. She said, "Not today."
A few weeks later, she picked me up and said, "I got you the purse you've been wanting."
My heart sank. It looked like a Dooney & Bourke bag, only the letters read "DD." I said, "I can't take it to school. People don't wear fake bags–everybody will criticize me."
It was hard to look at her face when she said she'd give it to one of my cousins. I said, "I know, Mommy. I know you're working so hard."
I was two when my father came to the United States from Bolivia. He was arrested at the border and held overnight in a California prison. When he was released, he flew to Washington to see my uncle.
He got a job in the kitchen of the Childe Harold in Dupont Circle, where he still works. The restaurant helped him become a citizen. Then he sent for me and my family. I was four.
In America, my parents wanted me in a private school. My mother passed Georgetown Visitation after cleaning houses nearby. When we went to the open house, my father didn't talk much–he's self-conscious about his English. My mother pointed out that many of my soon-to-be classmates' parents were doctors and lawyers.
When I was accepted and awarded scholarship money, my parents promised, "We will do anything to keep you in this school."
No one at visitation knew I was on scholarship when I started. Anyone who came over to my house probably figured it out–we lived in a three-bedroom duplex in Silver Spring. My brother and I shared rooms with our younger siblings.
Not having a lot of money can make you feel like an outsider. I considered transferring to a more diverse school.
When my history teacher told us that many families live one paycheck away from homelessness, my classmates were in shock. I considered raising my hand and telling them I'd been homeless once. When I was in eighth grade, my family was kicked out of a rental house after the landlord decided to sell it. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Rosslyn with my aunt, uncle, and cousin.
I decided to stay at Visitation when I heard my mother in my head. She often says, "The best gift you can give me is to graduate from college."
At the beginning of the school year, my classmates and I were excited to take over "the lodge," a log cabin where seniors hang out. Two dozen girls–the wealthiest in my class–pushed the couches together in front of the fireplace, "claiming" the space for the year. Everyone else was left to sit on benches or at tables.
I often sit in the lodge and do homework before my father finishes work and picks me up. As the other girls trickle out, they leave behind crumpled paper and wrappers from their snacks. Many of them don't think twice about leaving behind a mess–they probably have housekeepers.
I help my mother clean houses over summer vacation. I'll scrub other people's tubs, mop their floors, dust their furniture.
So after my classmates gather their books and walk out to their cars, I throw away all their trash.
I told my mother that if I stay at Visitation, I want to go to a more diverse college–diverse in religion, thought, economic background, race. She wants me to go to Georgetown University. I know I'll find more of the same there–which is exactly what she loves.
My first choice is the University of Maryland. My mother made me promise I'd go to Georgetown for medical school. When I repeat my promise aloud, she puts her hand on her heart.