Most of the people I have met at Emerson College arrive at our small, private school with a wealthy background. I think of their economic advantages as a positive opportunity for change through education, since many of my peers identify as progressive in their advocacy. However, entering Emerson, I often feel obstructed by my lower-class upbringing.
I spent all of my life in Connecticut, which is known to be an affluent, white state. I lived in the poor pocket of Danbury—often called a “ghetto” city by our neighboring towns. Students would go on exchange trips with our high school to challenge their stereotypes of what “skittle schools” are like, since Danbury High School had every (skin) color of the rainbow.
When I share hometown experiences here, I find it hard to talk with the normalcy of easy childhoods when I reflect on where I grew up. No one in my college classes seems to think of kids joining gangs and overdosing in the emergency room on the weekends as just being part of freshman year biology class. My norm is what so many of my peers have never had to think about.
While my family couldn’t afford what the richer side of town could, I learned a lot about the real world and how to survive the ache of it. Out of the 651 students in my graduating class––we began with 900 students freshman year––I was one of 100 to pursue college. Even fewer left the state for their higher education.
Back in middle school, I looked up the name of my hometown on Urban Dictionary, a website for crowdsourced definitions of anything. I found that we were called “the most immigrant infested city” in Connecticut.
The neighboring towns called the students at my high school of 4,000 “ratchet” because our parents had to worry about putting food on our plates. I learned to avoid the shady Ridge neighborhood, but I still knew to walk with caution for fear of gunshots and drug deals.
As a creator, I find it fundamentally pertinent to understand what creates my own identity if I am to produce something inspired by it. I am incredibly grateful to be at Emerson and to have escaped what my high school peers called a wasteland. I ran into an old friend from middle school at the local diner over Thanksgiving break, and he asked where I had been since he hadn’t seen me around in a while. When he found out I was going to college he said, “Wow, you’re living the dream.”
However, discussing poverty at Emerson makes me realize so many of the people surrounding me now only know my experiences from the mouths of millionaire moviemakers. Here, I represent either the poor people’s perspective or the broken character that needs to be fixed.
I think, as a community at Emerson, we often thrive on reflecting on our privilege, but I think we often miss the classist foundation embedded in this educational institution. Our tuition is so far from affordable that too many of the attendees are complicit with the classist taboo of shaming the poor for speaking up. My experiences are direct impacts of how flawed our structure is. This systematic violence occurs, yet no one at Emerson is really around to talk about it.
Well, I’ve arrived. I am talking loud for the first time after being silenced for too long. When I speak up about my past, I am relieving myself of the burden of other people’s privilege. It is exhausting to be told by people who have no experience of survival that I am broken. I have made it here with all of my experiences, and I am finally embracing them.