The rage of a scholarship student in an elite school

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Growing up poor and going to an elite school as a scholarship student taught me to put on disguises. And to hide my rage.

It was my first year as a scholarship student at a school that prized itself on teaching the skill of dispassionate debate. I quickly learnt that the best thing you could bring to an argument was "objectivity". We practised this objectivity in our current events class. It was never explicitly tied to identity, but it was implied.

I learnt that the best person to talk about wealth and class was an upper-middle-class person because she supposedly could look at it dispassionately.

The best person to talk about race was a white person, for the same reasons. The best person to talk about gender was a boy.

When people affected by issues spoke for themselves, they got too angry, too weepy, too irrational.

In the mid-1990s, the biggest threat to America continued to be the welfare queen. Or at least that's what the news and many politicians all said. My school was far too genteel to name the welfare queen outright, but she haunted our balanced class discussions.

My whole life, at that point, was focused on proving that I did not belong to the poor. I doubled down on outsiderness. The weirder the affectations I adopted, the better. I saved for months to buy heavy men's Oxford shoes and wore only overalls and became the most devoted They Might Be Giants fan I could possibly be - all signifiers, I hoped, that I was smart and quirky, and most of all, objective, like all my classmates.

The welfare queen was worse than disease and death, and the destruction of the ice caps. She was worse than that because she was all those things in one, perpetually pregnant with pathologies, birthing out criminals and addicts and losers, and apparently eating $50 steaks and driving gleaming Cadillacs while doing so.

I was acutely aware that, on the surface, I could potentially fit all the stereotypes of the welfare queen: I was black, the daughter of a single mother, on welfare and food stamps and living in the projects.

I would sit in class and listen to the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and policymakers - people who had never needed and would most likely never need welfare - earnestly advocate the dismantling of the welfare state, and I would shake and shake and shake with something I couldn't name.

I told myself it did not matter that my classmates and teachers described a reality that was not mine, was never mine, was so far removed from mine as to be a fiction. Their fiction was the truth because they didn't live in my reality. That's what made them objective. I wanted to be objective, too. I longed for that voice and the authority that came with it.

My objective classmates did not know, for instance, about the garden. The housing project we lived in had been built just before the war on poverty, probably intended for soldiers returning from World War II. They were suburban-style tract houses, two units to each trim building.

No one came to visit us there in the bad part of town. We had arrived not that long before, when we were a month away from homelessness, but I did not look at this as a place of shelter. The other people in these projects were nearly all white. We were one of the few black families.

The project's tract houses stood behind green lawns and weeping willow trees and generous blacktopped driveways. To an outsider, there was little distinction between where we lived and the middle-class homes across the street. But everyone in our town knew which side of the street was which, which side was where the real people lived and which side was to be avoided.

So when I answered the doorbell one spring afternoon when I was 14, I was very curious. I could see four children, smaller than me, the oldest probably no more than eight, the youngest barely four.

"Where's the lady?" the oldest one asked. She had a hoarse voice with a strong Boston accent, and her green eyes blinked up at me from behind a pair of blue plastic glasses, the lenses clouded with finger grease.

"Who?" I said.

"The lady," the girl repeated. "She works in the garden. We want to work in the garden," she said, in what to my ears sounded like "gah-den".

As soon as the ground thawed in this strange new place, my mother started planning a garden. She'd chosen a circle of lawn along the parking space, in the no man's land between the project and the street behind it, where the middle-class homes resumed. She planted cherry tomatoes and cucumbers and marigolds.

A garden was my mother's way of holding on, as tightly as she could, to any scrap of our former middle-class life. In our homes before poverty, before the divorce, we had always had a garden. When I was younger, my mother would give me my own small plot. I always chose to plant pansies.

My mother had decided to go back to school for a master's degree. She did not want us to stay in this housing project forever. But, as she told me, the housing project administrators argued that her scholarships to graduate school should count as her income and that even though she was also working, being a full-time student meant she could not live in public housing.

There were other strange rules, too. My father unexpectedly sent a desktop computer instead of back payments for child support. But the housing project forbade personal computers, because they used up too much electricity. My mother made a quick calculation - hours and gas spent driving back and forth to the university computer lab to work on papers versus the cash she could get if she sold it. She decided to keep it. The computer sat hidden under piles of bedsheets, far from any windows, in a dark corner of my mother's room, a ghost of our need.

My mother is radically honest, one of the few people I know who is incapable of lying. But it was an impossible choice: Obey the housing project's rules, don't go back to school, certain that path would mean no upward mobility and thus, no way to leave public housing. Or break the rules, work quiet and quick and hard, hoping the path she hacked in secret would allow some sort of escape.

That spring, my mother got up at five every morning to work in the garden before she drove to her full-time job and then to class. When she finally came home, in the dusk, she worked in the garden again before coming inside to make my sister and me dinner and then staying up to study and write papers.

All this time, the children of the projects had watched her weed and water and seed with interest. And now they were here to join her.

They came every afternoon, ringing the back doorbell. "Is the lady home? Is she going work in the garden? Tell us when she gets home, okay? We want to work in the garden."

I teased my mother about her fans, imitating their accents. She'd laugh a little and then she'd invite me to join them outside. But I would always say no. I stayed indoors, in the rooms we kept dark (the air-conditioning of the poor - heavy shades and high-powered fans) and listened to Bjork.

My whole life, at that point, was focused on proving that I did not belong to the poor. I doubled down on outsiderness. The weirder the affectations I adopted, the better. I saved for months to buy heavy men's Oxford shoes and wore only overalls and became the most devoted They Might Be Giants fan I could possibly be - all signifiers, I hoped, that I was smart and quirky, and most of all, objective, like all my classmates.

When I came home from school in the afternoons, I remembered what was said about us, about the projects, about our poverty. My mother asked me if I wanted a plot for my pansies in her garden and I said no. I wasn't brave, like her and those kids. I was ashamed to claim any part of this, to make it my own, to love it so hard as to seed it with flowers and patiently hope for them to bloom.

The garden lasted a few months. Then, an agent of the town's housing authority found out about it and told my mother it was against the rules.

"But no one's using the land," I remember her arguing. "The kids in the neighbourhood play there."

The response was clear: Get rid of the garden or be evicted. Here was another one of those impossible choices of poverty. This was what my classmates would never understand, as they earnestly debated welfare fraud and the grasping desperation of the undeserving poor.

My mother stopped tending the garden and the next weekend, a maintenance worker came and poured something onto the soil that made all the plants die and turned the grass brown.

In September, I was back at that prep school, still obviously a scholarship student no matter what disguises I secured. The earnest debates in the halls had moved on to other topics because, at that moment, poverty was no longer news. But I was still shaking with rage.

I didn't know what to do with it; I didn't even know yet that it was rage that made my voice quiver and come out small when I had to speak in class.

Every morning, I passed the big floral arrangements that sat on the chestnut tables outside of the sleek, walnut-lined school office. I'd sneak a hand underneath their leaves, break the heads off the heaviest blooms and ball the petals up until my fists smelled like roses.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'The rage of a scholarship student in an elite school'. Print Edition | Subscribe