As a child, Madison Walden (10) was not allowed to leave her home — not because of strict parenting or harsh weather conditions but because drug dealers constantly lurked outside her apartment door.
“It was just me, my sister and my mom in a two-bedroom apartment in Mira Mesa,” Walden said. “If it wasn’t drug dealers, it was prostitutes or hookers, and our next door neighbors were doing cocaine and heroin.”
But even with hookers and hard drugs just a few feet away from where she lived, Walden still managed to have a normal childhood. She and her sister spent the majority of their time hanging out with other kids in their building, watching movies and playing with their stuffed animals. They went swimming together and came home to their mom’s homemade meals.
“It just felt like home,” Walden said. “I loved it, and I was with my mom, but if I visited the same apartment today, I would probably be harassed.”
When she was 6 years old, Walden, her sister and her mom moved to Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Walden and her sister quickly adjusted to their environment and developed an attachment to their new elementary school.
“[Living in Cardiff] was so much fun,” Walden said. “There were really good people there, and I made really good friends that I still talk to this day.”
Unfortunately for Walden, the bliss was temporary; it lasted until Halloween of second grade, when her mom announced that they would be moving to San Bernardino. Reluctant to leave their friends and school, the sisters moved in with their step-grandparents, and were only able to see their mom once in a while.
Despite everything that has happened, Walden considers herself socioeconomically privileged to a certain extent.
“I have food, I have shelter, I have clothes to wear, and I’m happy,” Walden said. “I’m just glad to be here and lucky to be alive.”
Although he comes from a background very different from Walden’s, Myles Hamilton (12) also acknowledges that he is privileged. But Hamilton did not fully understand his socioeconomic status until sixth grade, when his parents got divorced. Before the divorce, Hamilton lived in Rancho Santa Fe, which ranks number 14 on Business Insider’s 2015 list of the most expensive zip codes in the United States. The average home price there is $2 million.
“We had to downsize homes in both areas, which was a huge eye opener because I went from this $5 million home to a house in Encinitas with my dad,” Hamilton said. “That change in my life made a huge difference in the way that I see the opportunities that I’m given as opposed to people that might not have the same privilege.”
Hamilton recognized that his overall lifestyle — having two debit cards and being able to design a line of sunglasses — was not the norm for everyone.
“I also have family in Iowa, and their lives are so different from mine,” Hamilton said. “Everything that they see is all about farming, and that’s all there is in the world. I started to compare and contrast how I live to how other people live. I saw different things [after the divorce] and it was just an eye-opening experience.”
Like Hamilton, Adam Jackson’s* (12) life circumstances were a little different than the average teenager’s. But, instead of pulling credit cards out of his wallet, Jackson was picking up coins off the ground.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’d always say to myself, ‘I know [picking up coins] can help!’ when I didn’t really understand the situation,” Jackson said. “[Picking up coins] is just so engraved in me. It’s hard breaking out of the habit now; I get disapproving stares from doing it anywhere in Carmel Valley.”
After Jackson’s dad was laid off in 2008, casual dinner table conversations about school and college were immediately supplanted by arguments about welfare and food stamps.
“My brother and mom were for food stamps, but my dad was against it,” Jackson said. “He had a sense of pride about it.”
CalFresh, the California implementation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides financial assistance for food purchases by households with a total monthly income less than or equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2010, when Jackson was in sixth grade, the federal poverty threshold for families with two children was a yearly income of $23,111, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Jackson and his family did not end up applying for food stamps, but did apply to receive free or reduced lunch from SDUHSD when he started high school. Eligibility for free or reduced lunch is determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Income Eligibility Guidelines. For a family of four like Jackson’s, a yearly income of $44,863 or less would qualify students for free lunch.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over half the students in the country qualify for free or reduced lunch. At TPHS, only six percent of students qualify, according to data collected by U.S. News during the 2013-2014 school year.
“One of my friends works in City Heights, where you have [low-income housing], and people talk about the school lunch form like it’s no big deal,” Jackson said. “But here, you keep it kind of secret. What I’m afraid of in sharing it is people’s judgment, because if they’re not educated about the topic, they’re going to come up with all these biased or stereotypical thoughts.”
Receiving free lunch was by no means the solution to all of Jackson’s problems. In seventh grade, Jackson’s dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He also is currently being treated for bone cancer.
“My dad has [cancer] in the left side of his hip, the same side that [former TPHS student] David Gulko had it on,” Jackson said. “I told a person I was getting close to, who was also David’s friend, but they didn’t believe me. People who are just way out of your situation, people who have never been in your shoes — they just don’t want to believe it. They just reject it.”
Jackson has always looked up to his dad, who has persevered despite the hardships he has faced. Jackson’s dad, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, has published over 40 research papers and has had over 30 years of lab experience, but it was still difficult for him to find a stable job after being laid off. With his dad working jobs at motels and his mom taking care of his older brother and him, Jackson helped in any way possible, whether it was picking up coins on the street or working 10-15 hours a week on top of school.
“[Getting a job] taught me the value of the dollar,” Jackson said. “After I started working, I knew $10 equates to this much work. If you don’t know the value of the dollar, you’d just be continuously spending.”
Jackson’s family never struggled to pay bills, but affording things that some easily take for granted — like insurance, a hangout at the Del Mar Highlands or even pants — was difficult. He recalls a day in 10th grade when two girls pointed out that he wore the same black pants every day.
“[The two girls] tried to keep it on the down low, but I knew they wanted me to hear them,” Jackson said. “I just looked at them and thought, ‘If only you knew.’ And it hurt. For the entire class I slumped down in my chair, just realizing I didn’t belong.”
For Jackson, the feeling that he does not belong at TPHS not only occurs in the classroom, but also in the hallways during passing period or outside during lunch — and especially in the student parking lot.
“One time during sophomore year, in the front of the school I saw four Lamborghinis,” Jackson said. “I never even thought I would see that at TPHS. I never really go [to the student parking lot] because I see all these BMWs and Audis. It’s just difficult being surrounded by money when none of it is yours.”
Due to differences in socioeconomic background, Jackson often feels uncomfortable and unable to relate to other students at TPHS.
“I can’t always relate to people,” Jackson said. “It’s a natural human thing to hang out with people you have stuff in common with because you grew up a certain way. You have all these idiosyncrasies, but TPHS itself is a clique.”
According to University of Houston-Clear Lake psychology professor Kim Case, underprivileged students are often ostracized by more privileged students.
“[Privilege] affects how we think about each other and how we behave toward each other,” Case said. “People have negative stereotypes about people they see as poor or having less than them. Psychologically, it’s hard to be in the group that is considered inferior. [Underprivileged students] are going to be left out socially because people don’t want to mix groups.”
Walden also feels out of place at school, particularly because she grew up in a small Mira Mesa apartment and at one point even lived in a Motel 6, the complete opposite of the ocean view homes of many TPHS students.
“If I had money, I wouldn’t be [at TPHS, because I don’t want to be here],” Walden said. “A lot of students here are spoiled and everything is just given to them in their life, while others have to get a job and buy their own clothes and food. I don’t like how judgmental TPHS is. If I live in Rancho, then I’m popular — but if I live in a shack but am really nice and have a good personality, then I’m still seen as a loser.”
Hana Chitgari (12) is one of the students who grew up on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, in a house with an ocean view and in a family with a stable financial status. Unlike Walden, Chitgari, who knows she is privileged, said that socioeconomic status is not the reason for the judgment at TPHS.
“I think that people who are from different socioeconomic backgrounds can still be friends and hang out,” Chitgari said. “I do think this school is cliquey, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with money. For me, personally, I don’t choose my friends based on money, and I don’t think about that at all when I’m with them. The cliques can be caused by other forms of privilege, but it’s also high school — that’s just how kids are at this time.”
Even if the judgment does not directly stem from socioeconomic privilege, Jackson attributes his perceived alienation to his lack of disposable income. For instance, he wanted a smartphone starting in eighth grade, but could not afford one until the beginning of his junior year.
“Everyone had one, and I could feel the social pressure on how people would look at me when I would say I can only call people on my phone,” Jackson said. “Now, I feel like I can assimilate into this upper middle class a lot more even though I personally feel that I don’t belong in this environment. I was socially divided because I was economically divided.”
Because Jackson has never truly felt at home at TPHS, he feels the need to adopt a persona that is “really loud and crazy, and at times obnoxious” when at school.
“I just leave all my thoughts as soon as I get dropped off at the cul-de-sac here,” Jackson said. “I just leave that in the car, and at school I act weird as hell, just to make people laugh. You never know what people go through outside of that seven-hour gap. People get beaten at home, they get raped, they think about suicide, they have depression — all that stuff that we go through, we don’t talk about at this school.”
Out of all the conversations that can be overheard at TPHS, discussions about AP testing, college applications or school events are commonplace, but unless a teacher directly addresses it, socioeconomic status is rarely a topic of conversation. According to Case, it is difficult for people to talk about their privilege because “the system is set up to where privilege is supposed to be invisible.”
“[Privileged students] are raised in an environment where they’re considered the norm by the media, the education system and the entire culture,” Case said. “It’s not like [privileged people] don’t notice that other people don’t have the things they do, but it’s convenient not to notice it and not think about it. So, it’s difficult to get people to [recognize their privilege].”
Although Jackson is open to discussing his economic circumstances to close friends, previous experiences, like the friend accusing him of lying when he told them about his father’s bone cancer, have made him wary about opening up to others. Walden had a similar experience as a child, but now believes that there is no reason that economic problems should not be openly addressed.
“When I was young, my friends didn’t understand what was happening and their parents just judged me for [my financial issues],” Walden said. “Everyone has financial issues, so they might as well get it out and stop keeping it in. I bet half the school has problems that they’re not talking about, and they’re just acting rich to be popular and fit in.”
Jackson often is uncomfortable listening to conservative arguments regarding welfare and Medicaid, a federal health insurance program for low-income people, during AP Government activities like mock Congress, in which students express their political views.
“It kind of hurts talking to conservative people,” Jackson said. “But that’s how our viewpoints are made. It’s from your situation; you can’t really argue with somebody [about] what they believe. A lot of conservative people have grown up thinking that people who are poor are just lazy.”
Both Jackson and Walden said that socioeconomic privilege fosters competition and academic pressure at TPHS. According to history teacher Jim Harrah, who will teach sociology next year, there are high expectations for students to succeed because the majority of TPHS students are socioeconomically privileged.
“Students coming into [TPHS], on average, are well ahead of the game, ahead of students from other schools where there’s no socioeconomic advantage,” Harrah said. “When your parents are more educated, you have a higher level of interaction, intellectual conversation and deeper critical thinking going on at home as opposed to students having to worry about helping out, or Mom and Dad working late — some do, of course, but I just think that’s not the norm here.”
English teacher Bobby Caughey, who previously taught at schools like Clairemont High School in San Diego, said that while the students are no different in their hopes and aspirations, there is a greater drive to succeed at TPHS.
“The notion that either it’s perfection or nothing is more evident here than at Clairemont, or even other schools that I’ve visited,” Caughey said. “Through my consulting, I’ve been to schools in Alaska, Ohio and the inner city of Cleveland, and here, there’s a different pressure that our students feel than the students at other schools feel.”
Having a financial advantage allows students to afford test preparation courses, which can, in turn, raise test scores and therefore college admission chances in comparison to students who cannot afford professional help. Students from families earning more than $200,000 a year scored an average of 1714 out of 2400 on the SAT, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year scored an average of 1326, according to a 2014 study reported by the Washington Post.
“Education is more accessible [for socioeconomically-privileged students],” Caughey said. “They can access college prep courses … That stuff is readily available. It’s pretty obvious in every way that students with greater socioeconomic privilege have more opportunities than students who are underprivileged.”
Case said that students might be oblivious to their privilege when it comes to accessing college or test preparation courses and books.
“When you have access [to extra educational resources], you don’t have perspective on what it’s like to not have access,” Case said. “Privileged students often think everybody has the same resources they do, but that’s not true.”
Jackson takes multiple AP courses and worked on his college essays for months to make up for his disadvantage. But he does not want to place a financial burden on his parents by taking expensive test preparation courses.
“[My dad] told me if I wanted SAT prep not to worry about the cost, but I did worry because I knew how expensive it was,” Jackson said. “[His reasoning] was that I was competing against people who have similar grades, SAT scores and extracurriculars, but also had the monetary advantage as well.”
While students like Hamilton have the advantage of financial resources, which may provide an advantage, Hamilton said that resources like test preparation courses or books will only be helpful if you utilize them effectively.
“You can strive regardless of your financial situation,” Hamilton said. “I’m sure there are a lot of really rich kids that take courses about improving their ACT scores, and they go and just sit there. Having resources is one thing, and utilizing them is another.”
While many TPHS students are able to afford various resources like visiting college campuses or hiring a college counselor, not all appreciate that privilege, according to Chitgari.
“A lot of kids [at TPHS] are privileged and spoiled about it,” Chitgari said. “We all take for granted the fact that we get to come to school and have good teachers that actually teach us; I don’t think people realize how lucky they are.”
Chitgari did not give much thought to her privilege until Caughey pointed out in English class that TPHS students do not have to worry about school shootings as much as other areas.With the rise of school shootings in recent years, safety has become a more relevant issue. According to the National School Safety and Security Services, “while there are no credible statistics on the exact number of schools using metal detectors, stationary metal detectors used on a daily basis are typically limited to large urban school districts with a chronic history of weapons-related offenses.” TPHS is not one of those schools.
“If a school has stable adults and seems clean and safe, that is a huge indicator of privilege,” Case said. “You don’t have to walk through metal detectors. If [students] walk into a building that is more like a prison than a school, it will affect their learning environment.”
Besides comparing different school environments, Case believes that volunteering can help privileged people become more aware of their socioeconomic status. After volunteering at events to help homeless people in downtown San Diego, Chitgari said that she recognized the “simple things that [she] is lucky to have”— like food, clothes, and a place to sleep and shower every night — are luxuries for some.
Hamilton also said it is important to be self-aware of one’s privilege; neglecting to accept it indicates a “narrow perspective about how you live.”
“If you ask your parents questions and have an understanding about where you live and how different it is from someone that lives somewhere else, you’ll be a much smarter person,” Hamilton said.
For instance, Jackson has often thought about his own circumstances and considered what might have happened if his dad had not gotten laid off. Jackon said he is appreciative of the various financial situations he has gone through.
“Ironically, I’m happy that I’ve been through this,” Jackson said. “It’s actually a learning experience. A lot of people, before they go to college, don’t have experiences that have taught them anything.”
Walden’s socioeconomic background has also had a positive impact — it has allowed her to develop closer bonds with her family.
“If I had money and was spoiled, I wouldn’t be with my family a lot,” Walden said. “[A lot of] people are always on their phones or with their friends. I love my mom and my sister; we’re always together, which makes me really lucky.”
Walden’s mother, who recently moved to Temecula, is not able to see Walden and her sister often because her grandparents disapprove of some of the decisions her mother has made. Instead, Walden and her sister have to meet their mother in secret at a park near their house.
“It’s hard not being able to see her a lot because she’s also my best friend,” Walden said.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s financial circumstances have driven his interest in rap and poetry, both of which he feels give him “a voice through which people can hear [him] out on what [he] has to say,” an experience he has never had before.
“I connect more with people who go through hardships,” Jackson said. “Rappers and poets have an outlet through which they speak about their situation in an artistic way that can connect to others facing [the same] issues or [introduce them to] people who have never experienced what the rapper or poet went through.”
Jackson, Walden, Chitgari and Hamilton are all headed in different directions. Jackson carefully weighs the cost of attending the universities that have already accepted him while applying for more scholarships. Even as a sophomore, Walden spends her time researching and applying for scholarships and works to save money to pay for college. Chitgari, already committed to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo puts pressure on herself to succeed after witnessing the success of her immigrant parents. Hamilton plans to study communications at a four-year college and in the meantime is focusing on developing his sunglasses line. Although the paths they take are steadily diverging, beyond high school and beyond the flashy student parking lot, their personal experiences and financial situations have helped put whatever privilege they may have into perspective.
Understanding the concept of privilege and recognizing the differences in socioeconomic status, even at a school that has a parking lot with several expensive cars, can easily be an experience exclusive to underprivileged students — unless there is someone who will listen to the stories they share, according to Jackson.
“The best way [to make people aware of their privilege] is to listen to stories, especially on a one-on-one basis,” Jackson said. “If I hear a story about someone I don’t know, I’m just like ‘Oh, OK,’ but if you know them personally, it hits you harder.”
*Name changed to protect identity
Privilege in Perspective
As a child, Madison Walden (10) was not allowed to leave her home — not because of strict parenting or harsh weather conditions but because drug dealers constantly lurked outside her apartment door.