My friend Daryl* is applying to college this year.
When I’d heard the news, I couldn’t help but swell with pride — the kind of pride that starts at the bottom of your stomach and inflates you like a balloon, until you feel full and gleeful and slightly light-headed.
I actually met Daryl when I was applying to colleges myself. Throughout high school, I taught with a program called the Breakthrough Collaborative, which aims to provide after-school tutoring and weekend enrichment to gifted students from underserved schools. During my final year with the program, Daryl was assigned to the group of students I tutored once a week, every Wednesday.
After a series of conduct mishaps (for the record, there is no more awkward experience than having to dole out punishment to a student who is only three or four years younger than you), the program director placed Daryl on probation. If he didn’t improve his behavior, she said, he could no longer participate in the program.
So, I started to work with Daryl more closely than I did with the other students, and I learned more about his family situation — which was, like that of many students in the program, suboptimal. His older brother had dropped out of high school a few years earlier. His parents, neither of whom had received higher education, spent most of what they earned on therapy for his little brother who — at nine years old — had threatened to kill himself.
As the year progressed, Daryl and I grew closer. We kept in touch after I left for college, exchanging pithy Facebook messages here and there. He told me, last Wednesday, that he’d just finished a personal essay for an early decision application at a school he very much hoped to attend next fall.
With all of my heart, I hope that school sends him a big, fat envelope this December with an acceptance letter and as much glitter and confetti as he deserves. More importantly, however, I am happy that applying to and attending college can and will be a reality for him.
Recently, Mr. Cody Delistraty published an essay called “The Harvard Dilemma: The Trouble with Privilege Breeding Privilege.” He argues that privilege begets privilege and that prestigious universities groom children from affluent backgrounds for a lifetime of Friday nights at the Opera, Russian caviar, and weekend trips to St. Bart’s.
I don’t think this is categorically true. Actually, I think this is often false.
Perhaps, I’m overly optimistic. Some might suggest that I’ve got my head too far up in the ponies-and-rainbows-and-sunshine clouds to view these matters with any degree of practicality. However, I think that Mr. Delistraty fails to recognize two important issues in his essay, which most of us don’t consider in our discussions on class privilege.
First, thanks to a recent influx of class privilege apologists, we have a tendency to demonize the children of privilege as oblivious to the struggles of those with fewer resources. This is true for some, whose senses of entitlement are heftier than the bundles of Benjamins they tuck into their Prada purses. Many of us are not perfectly aware of class discrepancy nor will we ever be fully aware of it because it is not a struggle we experience firsthand.
However, with programs like the Breakthrough Collaborative, Teach for America, or AmeriCorps, we are taking steps to correct it as well as we can. The merits of these kinds of programs may be up for debate, but what matters is that we are somewhat aware and we are trying to do something about these class problems.
Second, this country has its pitfalls (examples include: most of the menu at KFC and the rise of Snuggies as a sartorial concept), but one of its redeeming qualities is that it can be the land of upward mobility.
Privilege is not just a rich man’s game and prestigious colleges will not shut out certain applicants because their last names or choices in prep school are not a la mode. Sharing a surname with the person who donated most of the funds for a particular university’s library might help. Having parents who can afford to send you to diligent SAT prep and helicopter college counselors might also help.
But, the beautiful part of living in this country is that everyone has a chance, in theory. And hopefully, we will do more to ensure that those whose dreams outweigh their means can actualize those chances.
*Name has been changed.