Here is what I imagined the day I had a full trip to a private boarding school: I would excel in every class, go to a top class university (also on scholarship), and eventually become a very important person who could meet all my family’s needs. We were living in public housing at the time, and the offer letter arrived as if from a different world—a $38,000 gold ticket, worth so far more than the average household income in the North Carolina town my family calls home. After twelve years and hundreds of thousands of dollars awarded, many things I wish I had when I was thirteen have been achieved.
My story may sound familiar. Perhaps you are an admissions counselor or teacher, and this is the epilogue you hope to read from the young people you are nurturing towards a brighter future. You probably remember passing an inspirational billboard like the one you saw in elementary school: “From Homeless to Harvard. Ambition. Skip It.” Or maybe my story is similar to yours, and you already know what every scholarship student learns: Free rides are far from free.
The odds stacked against children born to low-income families in the United States are well documented. In this rich, self-proclaimed land of opportunity, the chance of a poor child becoming a wealthy adult is very slim. In a landmark study by Harvard economist Raj Shetty, only 2 percent of black boys made that leap. Those caught in intergenerational cycles of poverty struggle with deteriorating mental and physical health as well as poor social and economic opportunities.
But what about the handful of people who find themselves climbing shaky stairs toward the middle and upper middle classes? Their experiences seem more difficult to measure. For some young people, that upward journey began only a few weeks ago, with the start of a new school year. They go to private schools, competitive public prep schools, and after-school programs that prepare them for a college education—one of the few things that can sometimes be strong enough to overcome the inherited effects of segregation.
These kids are the lucky ones, and they are asked to be grateful, adaptable, and excellent. Most of them. But if they are like me at their age, they are also completely unprepared for the fact that there is no gold card that will lead them to better socio-economic outcomes than their birth predicted. Instead, they will face a series of tests and contracts, each with its own demands and inequalities.
For me, making it requires learning a whole new set of social rules about what a desirable life looks like, from the cities you should live in, to the books you should read, to the age at which you should start a family. These rules and the institutions I taught them were seldom intended to accommodate—let alone celebrate—blackness, weirdness, or any way of being in the world not so closely aligned with the mainstream. I gave up time with my family and connections with the communities that raised me. I struggled for so long to find a sense of self that was not filtered through the eyes of the white, well-to-do people who were the residents, allies, guardians, financiers, and mentors of my adolescence.
I have also been asked to take a non-stop test of people who have the means to decide if I deserve to walk through the open door next door. Scholarships paid for my books, school sports equipment, summer programs, and college applications — the bare minimum to keep up with my wealthy peers. Almost every award required a grueling selection process as up to hundreds of kids like me tried to strike a balance between looking needy enough and being admirably accommodating. We were what Harvard sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack calls the “privileged poor,” low-income students moving from elite training grounds to elite universities, and we became experts at telling our “stories.”
But the story I was living was one I had never seen reflected beyond the hit billboard copy. Perhaps because our stories are uncommon, or perhaps because their intricacies reveal the shortcomings of education as a great fair, scholarship children receive little warning of the personal losses and structural obstacles that will continue to stand between them and the stability they so desperately want.
In recent years, some scholarship students have taken to us telling each other, breathlessly and in painful detail, about the other side of the story. Last year, black students – some on financial aid, some not – took to Instagram to call out elite high schools for rampant racism. On college campuses, first-generation and low-income student groups offer community support. Researchers are also beginning to uncover the inequalities and risks inherent in the same places that aim to push young people into a better future, such as students who are hungry because they can’t afford meal plans.
Perhaps higher-paying jobs and access to fringe social circles will be enough to offset the losses. In my own life, I don’t know what opportunities I would like. But what I do know is that telling unfinished stories and getting complacent about the cost of upward mobility in the United States makes us turn away from society. We take individual victories as evidence against structural barriers and excuse the fundamentally unfair system that requires scholarships in the first place. We also leave kids to navigate the hidden, messy truth with our easy stories of the American Dream.
Dacia Moore is the Globe magazine staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed.