I’m a kid from a blue-collar, working-class background, doing my master’s degree at an Ivy League school. I’m incredibly grateful to be here, and I fully understand that this is an opportunity most people of my upbringing never get to have. Not everyone here is from a rich background - there are other working-class kids, getting by on loans, scholarships and part-time jobs. But for the most part, the people around me grew up very differently than I did, and although I love my friends, there are things about my life and my college experience that they’re just never going to get. Things like:
Money can buy good grades. Mywealthier friends aren’t slipping the TAs a wink and a $100 bill on their way out of the midterm, but being wealthier does make it easier to earn better grades. I have to work a part-time job in order to afford my rent, while my rich friends are abstaining from work so they can focus on school. That’s 20 hours per week that they can spend on school, while I’m at my job. Our school is in a neighborhood in Manhattan that I can’t afford to live in - I’m spending at least ten hours per week commuting, while they live steps from campus. That’s all extra time that they can spend studying, or just relaxing and getting the sleep they need to be mentally alert. Many of my friends pay to have a laundry service pick up their dirty laundry and bring it back clean and folded (which is common in NYC). I can’t afford this, so instead I spend hours lugging laundry up and down five flights of stairs, because I can’t afford to live in a building with an elevator. I cook and prepare my own meals, they eat mostly takeout. And so on, and so forth. My life is filled with hours of work, chores and annoyances that they don’t have to deal with, and all of it cuts into my time. We may be taking the same classes and doing assignments that are the same difficulty, but I’m going in with a 40-hour per week handicap that they can afford not to have.
“Follow your dreams” is a risk some of us can’t afford to take. My old roommate spent long hours agonizing over whether she wanted to major in art history or creative writing. For me, that would be like asking if I preferred a pet dragon or a unicorn. My biggest passion in life is fiction writing, but I can’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars to study it - I’m paying for my education by myself, and I had to choose a field that would let me make enough money to pay back my student loans and afford my own rent after graduating. My friends can focus on the things that really interest them, without worrying about future career prospects. A lot of them are using their college years to “find themselves” and plan to take some time off to travel the world or work on their art after graduating. Many of them have parents with connections in hard-to-access industries like fashion, publishing, television, or the art world. They can take unpaid internships and go for their shot at a one-in-a-million dream job - if it doesn’t work out, they can move on to something else, no harm done. If I put tens of thousands of dollars into being an author and it doesn’t pan out for me right away, I’m in deep shit. I’m happy for people who are able to follow their true passions, and I wish more people were able to do so without fear, but I’m tired of the pitying looks and condescending lectures I get when I tell my friends why I’m not in school for my greatest passion. I didn’t make that decision because I’m boring, or because I don’t believe in myself hard enough - I made that decision because my parents co-signed on all my student loans, and they could lose their house if I can’t find a job.
Your “funny mishap” is my “life-changing disaster”. My friends talk about the time that they accidentally got drunk and spent all their rent money at a strip club, or the time that they slept through their final and had to re-take a class. For them, these are funny stories. For me, this would be a life-defining catastrophe that could change the course of my 20s and beyond. If I blow all my rent money, I can’t call my parents to beg for more - I could get evicted, or ruin my credit score. Best-case scenario, I’d probably have to take on so many extra hours at work that I could barely finish my schoolwork. If I sleep through a final and fail a class, I will lose my scholarship and be unable to complete my degree. To my friends, I come across as uptight and overcautious, but I don’t have a choice. The same mistake carries much greater consequences for me than it does for them, and they have a hard time understanding that. I wish that I could be carefree about money, and laugh about accidentally getting drunk and spending $500 on Amazon, but I can’t. It can be hard to tell the difference between “oh shit, this really sucks” and “oh shit, I’m going to be dealing with the consequences of this for years” when you’ve never been on the latter end of the spectrum. Again, I love my friends, and I’m happy that they don’t have to have these stresses in their lives, but it’s hard when they attribute my cautiousness to a personality flaw, and not to the financial reality of my life.
Having no safety net is more stressful than you can imagine. Many of my friends insist that they aren’t really rich - rich people own private jets and private islands and party with celebrities, while their parents just own a modest condo in Manhattan and a sensible vacation home in Connecticut.
They’ve grown up around people who are much richer than they are, and they’ve come to think of themselves as middle-class, even though many of their parents easily make double or triple the federal upper boundary for the middle class. But they don’t have unlimited money. They don’t have their own 6-figure bank accounts or unrestricted use of Daddy’s black credit cards. If they run out of money, they will have to call home and ask for more, which will be awful for them - their parents will probably yell at them, and make them feel shitty, and give them a huge unwanted lecture about responsibility. It could have a huge toll on their mental health, and that really sucks. But if I run out of money, I’m just kind of screwed. My parents cannot help me, even if they desperately want to. The best they can do is let me move into the guestroom of their home, in a desperately poor rural area where the best job available is cashier at the grocery store in town, because it pays $2 above minimum wage. I wouldn’t be homeless, but I would almost definitely default on my student loans, launch my credit score straight into the sun, and waste months or years trying to get back on my feet in an area with no opportunities. If my friends screw up, they have to face their parents’ scorn and disappointment. If I screw up, I have to face my entire life coming apart at the seams. Living with that constantly hanging over your head can affect your entire life, and it really does feel like you’re trying to walk across a tightrope dozens of feet up, with no net to catch you if you fall.
Once again, I love my friends dearly, and I am grateful to have every single one of them in my life. They have made my life and my time at graduate school infinitely better with their humour, their wit, their friendship and their sympathetic ears. I am in no way blaming them for the way they grew up - they didn’t choose their lives any more than I did, and many of them appreciate how lucky they are. But there’s still a gulf between me and them, and it’s one that can be surprisingly difficult to cross. My rich friends love me, but they don’t understand me. They don’t understand that money isn’t just an aspect of my life - it shapes my entire life, for better or for worse, and I don’t have the luxury of forgetting that it exists for even a moment. My rich friends love me, and they try. But they just don’t get it.
People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them and their response is “you’re safe with me” - that’s intimacy.