“Wait I thought you said you weren’t rich!”
I shuffled past neighborhood streets with a new friend, proclaiming the 12th grade misadventures of love, football and Whataburger. Our conversation made its way into tales about my high school’s $60 million football stadium when she began her string of allegations of affluence.
“Our stadium was a set of portable bleachers,” she said. “You told me you grew up in a middle class neighborhood.”
I scrambled to defend myself. “uhh… it was a big tax district and we were the only school for the money to be funneled into and…” I ran through the list of economic-struggle-related mumbo-jumbo to prove that anything in my life that was $60 million dollars was an anomaly.
The truth is, I wasn’t rich. I wanted to show her my financial aid statements or tell her stories about the things I paid for on my own dollar. And then I stopped.
I suspect a number of students find themselves obsessing over the extent to which they can prove to the world that they didn’t eat each childhood dinner with a silver spoon. We want to be relatable, to think we can understand struggle, to be a success story.
When college application season began, we scavenged our life stories in search of examples of hardship. We exploited our obstacles so the essay readers could write “wow” on the margins of our papers and think we made it to a 3.9 GPA against all economic odds. Now, we go to a school known for its overwhelmingly wealthy student body and must, for the sake of our need to be countercultural and credible, be seen as exceptions to the wealthy, privileged, good ol’ boy rule.
I think at the core we all have an almost paradoxical view of wealth: we want it, but we take pride in every moment when we didn’t have it. We wear our economic woes as a badge of honor, yet work long into the night so our future family never has to experience them. We spend dinner-time conversations complaining about how wealthy people only help their own, yet attend an Ivy League institution “for the connections.”
We aren’t wrong for our perceptions and actions. We are simply taking advantage of the opportunities at our disposal. If we see the possibility of future wealth as a shortcut to a better life, why not take it?
But, as I’ve recently begun to realize, college life at a selective institution isn’t just an opportunity that opens up doors — it’s a gradual process, at the end of which we are no longer underdogs in any notable way.
In the movies, the Ivy League man is depicted as the quintessence of privilege. For the most part, no one cares to explain whether he actually grew up in a low-income area or whether he graduated with a good heap of student loans. In the real world, we rarely get opportunities to explain ourselves, so at least some of the time, our alma mater does the talking instead.
When LBJ rose to the White House, he often commented on his uniqueness as a policymaker who wasn’t from the Ivy League. And in the eyes of the public, that was to his credit. To viewers, the others in the room were too polished and posh and often swept into well-worded soliloquies about the historical basis of a given policy. Johnson was normal; they were not.
But this all won’t affect just me: of the people I know who seem to have gotten everything they wanted growing up, most of them have parents who went to Cornell. The more I think about it, the more difficult it becomes to decide if I should be excited or terrified for the future. On one hand, it’s fair to assert that what students learn here often sets them up for a lucrative career. On the other hand, a lucrative career comes with a number of new challenges — namely, raising children who aren’t spoiled brats.
A year ago, I went to a conference during which the speaker referred to my cohort of students as prospective members of the upper class. Afterward, I thought about it for months. If any of my life plans work out, my identity as “just a normal guy” may have to shift a bit. And for many of us going through such a change, that’s a big deal.
“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor.” — Neil Gaiman
Paul Russell is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russelling Feathers appears every other Wednesday.