“Education” (Chittenden Memorial Window at Yale), 1890, by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios.
Dedicatory preface: This post is dedicated to the anonymous steel worker from Worcester, Massachusetts, who helped me get to New York City in September 1998. You brought me to the bus station in Worcester and made sure I had cigarettes (I’ve since quit smoking—don’t worry!), snacks, and maybe $20 cash. You did not harm me. You could have taken advantage of me, and you did not. I asked you how I would pay you back and you told me: “Just dedicate your first movie to me.” Spoiler alert: I did not become what I thought I would become back when you asked that I dedicate my first movie to you. I am not a filmmaker. My journey, of which you were an integral part, is chronicled in the post that follows. You carried me on one leg of it, and eventually—after many twists and turns—I emerged a college professor. I dedicate this story—the story of my education—to you, Sir. Thank you.
I am here today because a total stranger paid for my education, to the tune of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. That’s what I estimate it cost my patron—an individual unrelated to me by blood or marriage—to fund me through a B.A., an M.A., and all but the last two years of my Ph.D. Because of this financial support, I managed to complete an education with only around $10,000 in student loan debt—30% less than the national average in 2012. More importantly, I managed to actually complete my education.
But see, I’m one of the lucky ones.
I come from a lower middle class background and finished high school in the 90s—before prestigious Ivies like Harvard began offering free rides to students from families with annual incomes under $60,000.
College should have been out of reach for me, and were it not for my patron I would not even have finished the Bachelor’s, challenging as it was to do manual labor (waiting tables, cleaning houses) full-time while attending college full-time and maintaining a GPA high enough to retain the modest financial aid for which I had been deemed eligible. In fact, I think my fate would have been quite similar to that of the working-class students interviewed by Jen Silva for her study Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (2013, Oxford UP). Most likely I would have floundered for years at low-skilled jobs offering poverty wages, barely able to make ends meet and completely unable to afford an education. Or perhaps I would have taken on a massive amount of student loan and credit card debt, only to find that I was unable to keep up with the monthly payments. (As it is, it is taking me years to pay off the relatively small amount of debt I have accrued.)
When I think about what could have been, the alternate universe of my life looks pretty bleak. And it’s unfortunately not at all difficult for me to imagine this parallel universe because many of my friends—peers from similar lower middle class or working-class backgrounds—are living it as we speak. (There but for the grace of my patron go I…)
I’m not more intelligent than these friends. Nor am I more “deserving” than they. Nor harder working—no. What I am is unfathomably, improbably, unbelievably lucky, and this is what I remind myself of daily.
“Taft Public Library and Mendon Town Hall, MA,” by John Phelan.
As far back as I can remember, the only thing I wanted was an education. I craved books like most kids crave toys or video games and would beg my parents incessantly for more, more, more. I’d spend hours every day reading and writing, and by junior high was easily devoting up to 9 hours per night studying in our basement. At parties and family functions I was reluctant to socialize, preferring instead to shut myself away in the silence of coatrooms and read.
My maternal grandmother, a secretary at Brandeis, always spoke in glowing terms about faculty and grad students at her institution, and though she died when I was only 13, her profound respect for the professoriat made a lasting impression. I wanted so very much to be like the professionals she admired.
My family’s background was and remains solidly lower middle class: my relatives are for the most part honest people who work hard—albeit at low-paying, unskilled jobs. We wait tables, sling retail, work in fast food chains. Some family members hold white collar office jobs or are employed in health care as nurses. To the best of my knowledge, nobody’s household income comes close to hitting the six-figure mark—including those comprised of at least two adults working full-time.
The town I grew up in is mostly lower middle class as well. A small, rural community that has doubled in population from approximately 3,000 to 6,000 since my childhood, Mendon boasts one of the nation’s last remaining drive-in movie theaters. It’s one of those towns that nobody (including Massachusetts natives) has ever heard of and that requires speakers to geographically situate it relative to larger surrounding towns in order to communicate where, exactly, it is located: “You know: near Milford, Uxbridge, Hopedale….”
Like most children from Mendon, I attended H.P. Clough elementary, Miscoe Hill Middle School, and Nipmuc Regional High School. Because our town was so small, students were grouped together beginning in the 5th grade with children from the neighboring and slightly larger town of Upton.
Many of us did odd jobs under the table in our spare time. I cleaned houses for cash in elementary school and started babysitting a local 2-year-old when I was 12. When I turned 14, my mother marched me into Nipmuc to have my work permit authorized and then dropped me off at a coffee shop called The Donut Hole—my first “real” job. Within a few months I was opening and closing the store and performing the duties of a manager. I was 15. I never questioned any of these arrangements. That I had to work—and work hard—was something my parents had always impressed upon me, and the environment in which I was raised left me with the idea that all children must, like me, work.
The only characteristic that distinguished me from my peers was my hunger for education. I was not the brightest student in my school—and in fact I am quite sub-par when it comes to math—but I probably did have the most intense work ethic. In 4th grade I would lug a giant red dictionary on the school bus and read word definitions, in alphabetical order, during free periods. Around this same time my mother returned to college at Framingham State in an effort to complete her B.A. I remember pilfering her Psychology 101 textbook, with its forest-green cover, and schlepping that to H.P. Clough as well. My mother didn’t finish the degree, but she kept that textbook, and when I close my eyes I can still visualize many of its pages.
When your parents aren’t doctors, lawyers, CEOs, or oil magnates, they tend to tell you that “education is important,” but other than that they’re fairly hands-off. Mendon, Mass.—unlike, say, Milton—is not some hotbed of scholastic and professional competition. Part of this is class-related, and part of it was the result of growing up in the 80s and 90s, before the onset of American culture’s feverish obsession with standardized testing and “prestige” . What this means is that children weren’t pushed or coached and it was generally expected that each child would achieve according to his or her “own potential” and drive. As kids, we were allowed to be mediocre—even fail. I have mixed feelings about the culture in which I was raised. Because I was a bright and exceedingly stubborn child, the lack of deep parental involvement motivated (forced?) me to figure out how to navigate the system independently. It worked out in the end primarily because I am unreasonably strong-willed. Most children are not quite as headstrong; I watched a lot of people brighter than me give up when faced, over and over, with a lack of scaffolding to help guide them through the educational labyrinth.
Silva eloquently captures the kind of culture to which I am referring in the following passage of Coming Up Short:
The responsibility for deciphering the rules of the game […] fell squarely on Alyssa [one of Silva’s research subjects] and her family—none of whom had the knowledge to fill out the FAFSA. (88)
Silva’s point, and mine, is that when your parents don’t understand how to negotiate the college prep and admissions system, they cannot transmit those skills (which they lack) to you—their child(ren). Children of working class and lower middle class parents are therefore left struggling to navigate the maze by themselves, often cobbling together knowledge gleaned from high school guidance counselors and wealthier, savvier peers. In order to be successful in this context, a student must be both reasonably intelligent and unreasonably motivated. Most adolescents—indeed, most human beings—are not the latter.
“Phillips Exeter Academy Panorama,” by E. Chickering & Co.
I’ve never claimed to be a reasonable person; I’m often contrary, willful, rashly audacious. I’ll never be described as someone “everyone loved.” I am just not that person. These character faults, though not laudable per se, were what enabled me to succeed. My parents and local culture may not have pushed education, but I most certainly pulled for it—kicking, screaming, and (when necessary) dragging everyone else along with me in my ferocious pursuit. At age 13 and without parental assistance, I applied for and was accepted into Phillips Exeter Academy’s summer program. Somehow I managed to persuade my parents to shell out the tuition—a cost which, in retrospect, we probably could not afford. 
Summer 1994 thus marked the beginning of my true education in class. I’m sure it must be the same for the wealthy kids: when you’re surrounded by wealth, you assume everyone is more or less in the same socioeconomic bracket as you. Or perhaps wealthy children are inculcated with a more nuanced understanding of class divisions than working and lower middle class children. I have no idea.
My life has been spent on the periphery of the wealthy—watching, listening, studying, and sometimes serving them, but never really being included as part of their social sphere. I suspect I’ve had more opportunities to rub elbows with the wealthy than most other members of my socioeconomic class, simply because I’ve always been able to get into their schools.
Yes, I said “their schools.”
I expected Exeter to be a place full of kids like me. I expected to be surrounded by geeks and dorks—kids enthralled by and enthusiastic about learning. I’m sure I enjoyed my summer at Exeter, if the four handwritten “Instructor’s Reports” are any indication. According to the official paperwork, I completed “Honors work” in “Worlds of Fantasy” and “Journalism” but merely “Satisfactory work” in “First Year Algebra.”  The journalism instructor, in particular, seemed pleased with my performance.
The interesting thing about Exeter is that my memories of the school have exactly zero to do with any of the courses I took. Reading the evaluations of my performance is like perusing reports on some other person; I have no firsthand memory of anything discussed. I believe the journalism instructor when he indicates that I “wrote six articles on a variety of subjects, and four of them made page one [of The Exonian, the student newspaper].” He further describes some of the articles, including the topics with which they dealt. Yes, I am positive I did write them, but no—I have no recollection whatsoever of the experience.  This is unusual for me, but there is a reason for it. My only real memories of that summer are of the painful realizations that a.) socioeconomic class existed and b.) I was situated towards the bottom rung of the ladder.
The key player in my teenage imagination at Exeter was a young man named Fabian Basabe. Fabian has appeared semi-regularly in the press over the past decade, often bearing the dubious title of “the male Paris Hilton” and waxing lyrical about how he “doesn’t work” because it’s “not interesting.” Given that we don’t exactly run in the same social circles, I never had the opportunity to interact with Basabe during his New York “It boy” phase of the early 2000s, which began when he was “dismissed” from Pepperdine University for “submitting a paper he’d purchased on the Internet,” and ultimately reached its peak with a one-episode stint alongside Kourtney Kardashian on the failed E! reality show “Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive.” The press routinely describes Fabian as “a sweetheart,” and I have to admit that my memories of him as a person are not negative. Even in his teens he was charming and friendly—although he did not associate extensively with students outside his socioeconomic class while “studying” at Phillips Exeter. I would observe, transfixed, as Basabe paraded around campus with his entourage of fellow rich kids. We all liked Fabian—“Faby-Baby” as some of the girls called him—but we kept our distance, like commoners in the presence of royals.
Sometime during the summer, Basabe and his colleagues were all flying to some sort of luxury destination (the Hamptons, or something) to party for the weekend, and I called my parents to ask if they could send me some money so I could go. All of the kids had gotten together and worked out the total cost of the weekend, as well as the individual cost of attendance for each person’s transportation, food, and so forth. This information had been transmitted throughout campus via word of mouth. In theory, the party weekend was “public,” but in practice it was reserved only for those with enough parental cash to enjoy the festivities.
My phone call to my parents was not bratty or demanding—I swear. It was a call born of genuine ignorance and naïveté. It truly did not occur to me that we would be unable to afford this weekend. All of the other kids were going, so naturally I assumed that I, too, would go. My parents had to explain to me that we could not afford it. I asked: “How come all the other kids can afford it?,” and I distinctly remember my mother having to spell it out for me, slowly and carefully: “The kids at that school are extremely wealthy, Valéria. We are not like them. We can’t afford this.” It was the first time I had been in an environment comprised largely of people above my own socioeconomic class, and the knowledge came as a shock.
Another cataclysm involved my wealthier peers’ consistent abuse of drugs and alcohol while at Exeter. The weekend parties they held on and around campus were sustained by freely flowing alcohol, copious amounts of weed, and probably harder drugs to which I was mercifully not exposed. The eldest participants in the summer program were around 18—meaning that, none of us were old enough to legally drink. Yet these kids seemed so casually familiar with drugs and alcohol. They weren’t even “experimenting”; they appeared well-versed in the recreational usage of a wide variety of substances. Parties, social events, opulent displays of wealth, and substance abuse seemed to be their primary areas of focus while at Exeter.
These kids were not like me. They had not muscled their entrance into this school, intellectually or otherwise. They were not in awe of the beauty of the campus or our exposure to new forms of literature. Their parents had arranged for them to attend. Some resented it, while others dutifully complied with the arrangement. But they were not like me. The realization was both confusing and devastating.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are 14 years old. Imagine that Fabian Basabe and his ilk are responsible for inaugurating your education in class. Imagine coming to the understanding, over 5 weeks, that there is an entire stratum of society that both effortlessly possesses and seems totally indifferent to the one thing you so cherish—the very thing for which, even at your tender age, you have already sweated, begged, pleaded, and battled to obtain access. Imagine emerging from those 5 weeks knowing in your gut that you were to face many, many more years of struggle, just to get a taste of what Fabian Basabe had already been handed dozens of times for free. Imagine realizing that merit meant nothing, or almost nothing, and money everything, or almost everything.
The author in Fall 1998, commuting to or from NYC as described in Part V of this post.
Fast-forward several years. While Fabian Basabe was getting expelled from multiple boarding schools in Florida, I was still fighting for my education. I had applied for and been accepted into Phillips Exeter. Not the summer program. The regular program—the real deal. It meant so much to me that, nearly 20 years later, I still have the acceptance letter (as well as the envelope in which it arrived) preserved in almost pristine condition:
I was awarded a “half scholarship,” meaning that my parents were expected to pay 50% of the cost of tuition for Phillips Exeter. Currently annual tuition for Phillips Exeter hovers just under $50,000 and students whose parents earn $75,000 or less receive a free education. At the time I was applying, tuition was probably about half what it is now, but admissions was far from need-blind. The percentage my family was expected to pay was too much: “If we pay for Exeter, we won’t be able to afford to pay for college,” explained my parents. I had been accepted on merit but barred from attending because I was not born rich.
But again, I am stubborn.
I made my parents a proposal: help me find a way to pay for Exeter, or let me go to college two years early. They refused. I argued. Bargained. Yelled. Fought. Enumerated lists of reasons why my proposal was both reasonable and worthy of consideration. They refused, then refused again, and again. But I did not budge. Over and over, I demanded my education. I would not budge.
And so it was that I entered college in Fall 1996, at the age of 16.
Supposedly I was at Framingham State College (now “Framingham State University”) as a Dual Enrollment student, but I never returned to high school, instead taking on a full-time course load and refusing to look back. 
This does not mean that my entrance into college was smooth. Because I was a minor, I was not allowed to live in the dorms. Because at the time my family was collapsing (parents divorcing, father violent and abusive, mother clinically depressed—I won’t bore you with personal details that would distract from the focus of this post), I ended up semi-homeless and homeless much of the time while attending FSC. I ran away repeatedly to Boston and slept on the street or in youth homeless shelters and drop-in centers. I slept on couches in unlocked campus buildings. Occasionally someone in Boston would pick me up off the street and take me home for a day or two, and sometimes older students at FSC—aware of my situation—would sneak me into their dorm rooms for a night or two. Most of the people who took me in were caring and did right by me. One memorable week, I stayed at the home of Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons. 
Excluding the semester I intentionally failed one of my classes (long story, and I don’t recommend that anyone follow my example)—I did well, earning mostly As and a smattering of B+s. To this day I remember an incident in a huge Biology I lecture which was team-taught by three professors: Dr. Beckwitt (unforgettable), Dr. Spence (I think?), and a third professor whose name I cannot recall. Dr. Beckwitt was one of those professors who rewards hard work and displays of brilliance but seems to have limited patience for any kind of undergraduate bullshit. I’d picked up on this from the start of the semester and wanted to impress him. So I waited, waited for an opportunity. Finally, one day, Dr. Beckwitt was lecturing on sickle cell anemia and how it was caused at the genetic level by a substitution of amino acids. Suddenly he stopped, mid-sentence, and scratched his head. “Hmm….but I can’t recall exactly what the substitution involves.” He turned to his colleagues: “Dr. Spence, Dr. X, do you remember?”
None of them did.
From the back of the lecture hall, I raised my hand. I looked exactly like the photo of myself posted above. I was a scrawny 16-year-old raver kid with oversized pants, fire-engine red hair, and seven facial piercings. I chain-smoked outside the campus buildings. No one took me seriously….until I opened my mouth. Dr. Beckwitt squinted at me, then (slightly exasperated), asked: “What?”
“Dr. Beckwitt,” I offered, “Valine is substituted for glutamic acid.” 
Dr. Beckwitt looked at me as though I’d descended from the back rows of the lecture hall and punched him square in the nose in front of over a hundred undergrads.
“Oh,” he said, “….how did you know that?”
Students in the rows in front of me turned around, squinting and craning their necks to see what was going on.
“It’s on page 387 of the textbook, Dr. Beckwitt. I memorized it. I memorized everything. If you want, I can get my book and show you the page. I know I am right.” 
“No, no—that won’t be necessary.”
He knew I was right, too. After that, I got regular tutoring gigs and was paid hourly by my fellow students in exchange for assistance with Biology, English, and Spanish. And yes, I memorized the entire Biology textbook. My exams from that semester reflect that I was quoting from memory in essay responses. It is a skill I can still deploy today if I so choose, though I use it less now that I am out of school. 
While at FSC, I met two people who were to change my life forever, for the better. One of them was a young man named Kyle Mercury, and the other was a slightly older fellow student named Deanna Angelo. Deanna was 19 and I was still 16 when we met. We’d seen each other around campus and were mutually intrigued. Both of us had fire engine red hair, tattoos, and piercings. Neither of us quite fit in. Deanna and Kyle, like me, came from working class backgrounds (although Kyle’s father was somewhat wealthy). One day Deanna asked me for a cigarette, and I gave her one. I assumed she’d take it and walk away, but instead she sat down. We began to talk. We talked for hours. We skipped all of our respective classes that day. She took me home with her. And since that day—to this day—we have been inseparable.
Because I was a minor, I could not work full time. I did work part-time as a dishwasher in a kitchen. I helped Deanna out as much as I could in exchange for being allowed to live in her apartment. I remember that I did the dishes (she hates washing dishes). Deanna would cook us Kraft macaroni and cheese out of cardboard boxes. Deanna taught me how to do the laundry. Deanna cared for me, raised me during a time I had been abandoned. I write this post now, in my mid-thirties, and I realize that Deanna was a 19-year-old raising a 16-year-old. And I realize now the magnitude of that, the responsibility. But we were working class kids making do with what we had, and this is the kind of thing that working class kids and poor kids do. Together with Kyle (my first boyfriend), we eventually formed a sort of trifecta.
I took the SATs twice, with no prep. My best score was a 1310 (out of a possible 1600). I applied to only one school, for entrance in Fall 1998: NYU (Tisch School of the Arts, Film & Television).
I was accepted. What I remember most about this milestone was my mother commenting that my Aunt Elvira’s friends’ daughter, who attended Milton Academy, “also applied and she didn’t even get in!”  By now I understood, to some extent, that the system was rigged. The fact that a wealthy child from a wealthy family who attended a wealthy prep school failed to get into NYU (but I got in!), was a delicious revelation. Everyone knew that acceptance to a “good school” like NYU was based on income rather than merit.
And yet, somehow, I got in.
Again, there was financial aid. Again, it covered about 50% of NYU’s annual tuition, which at the time was over $20,000 a year. I remember my mother co-signing on loans (but not being happy about it), and I remember being aware that I was not allowed to live in the dorms (I think because it would have prohibitively increased the cost of tuition) and would have to work full-time in order to support myself and pay my own rent, food expenses, etc. Despite these challenges, I remained unfazed. I was perfectly willing to work hard, and I wanted to attend NYU. Surely everything would be OK.
Once the paperwork was in order though, the real obstacles quickly became apparent.
Butch and Annie’s Plaza, Worcester, MA.
It was only a day—maybe two—before the start of classes. It was Fall 1998. I was 18 years old. I was 18 years old and, on paper, I was enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in New York, New York. Deanna and I lived in an apartment on Hooper Street in Worcester, Massachusetts—about two blocks from a small shopping area called “Butch and Annie’s Plaza.“
The details elude me, but it was a money issue. (It has always been a money issue.) I was a student at NYU. This, I knew. I had already fought ferociously for a number of years to get there. This, I knew. I did not have enough money to get to New York City, nor a way to get to New York City, and classes were about to start. This, too, I knew.
I got into NYU but I could not get myself from Point A (Worcester, MA) to Point B (Manhattan). I had turned 18 in April and it had just become legal for me to work full time, and, while I did work, I had no savings because Deanna and I were barely able to cobble together money for basic living expenses even with both of us working full time. I could not afford to get to New York because I had no money.
Undoubtedly I’d already spent days wracking my brain, agonizing, trying to figure out what to do and how to get where I needed to be and panicking over the fact that classes were about to start and I wasn’t there. And somehow I ended up sitting on the curb in front of the convenience store (now a Dunkin’ Donuts) at the edge of Butch and Annie’s Plaza, and somehow I ended up sobbing in public because I could not figure out how I was going to pull this one off. I put my head down on my knees and cried. It was not the first time, and it would not—not by a long shot—be the last time I would openly bawl in public because of a desperate situation. People came and went. The sun got lower in the sky. I have to get to New York. I have to get to New York. Fuck.
It was then that I heard him.
“Hey—why are you crying?”
I looked up and saw a man emerging from a large truck. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt stained with what looked like black grease.
“Because I’m supposed to go to NYU and my classes start in like 2 days and I have no way to get to New York.”
“Well, I can help you get to New York.”
“Look,” he said, “either you trust me or you don’t.” He opened the passenger side door of his truck.
For a fleeting moment I hesitated. I usually listened to my gut when it came to trusting people (or not), but with this guy I wasn’t sure. What if he murdered me and dumped my body in a ditch somewhere?
He touched the passenger side door again. Something in me said: go.
“Wait,” I said. “I’m coming.”
“Come on. I’ll take you to the bus station.”
“But I don’t have any money.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
On the way to the bus station we stopped at a gas station. The man put gas in his truck. “You smoke?” he asked me. I nodded. “What brand?”
“Camel Lights,” I replied.
The man went into the gas station to pay for his gas and emerged with a plastic bag. In it were a couple of packs of cigarettes—my brand—as well as some snacks and drinks.
“What’s this?” I asked him.
“Well—it’s about a four hour bus ride, right? I figured you’d need these for the trip.”
He asked what I planned to do, and I told him I wanted to be a filmmaker. He bought me a one-way bus ticket to NYC and handed it to me along with the bag of snacks and smokes. He gave me around $20 cash. I didn’t even know his name. He never told me his name. I asked how I could repay him and he told me: “When you make your first movie, just dedicate it to the anonymous steel worker from Worcester who got you where you needed to go, OK?”
I got where I needed to go, and once I did there were additional challenges. Kyle and Deanna had decided to move with me to New York, but we didn’t have an apartment. For the first few months of my education at NYU, Kyle and I would stay in a cheap, roach-infested motel room in Chinatown during the week (for my classes) and then drive back to Massachusetts on the weekends to save money. I had no stable place to live, let alone to study. We were spending up to 15 hours per week commuting between Massachusetts and Manhattan.
Since I couldn’t afford my textbooks, I shoplifted the majority of them from a Barnes & Noble.
I made it to my first day of classes, having totally missed orientation and all of the other activities in which incoming freshmen typically partake at the start of their college experience.
Eventually Kyle—with the signature of his father, who agreed to act as our guarantor—managed to secure us an apartment in Brooklyn. We were all broke. Deanna and I, down to literally our last dollar, got hired as waitresses at a restaurant called Wilkinson’s Seafood on 84th and York. (It no longer exists). On our first scheduled day of training we realized we didn’t have enough money to ride the subway, so we jumped the turnstiles and got ticketed by a cop. We made it to work, though.
I spent three miserable semesters at NYU. Even with a stable place to live, the entire enterprise was a disaster. I worked full time at Wilkinson’s and maintained a full time course load at NYU (as I was required in order to retain my scholarship). I’d attend classes during the day, then head immediately to the restaurant to set up tables in the afternoon and wait on customers until around midnight. At midnight (give or take), we’d “break down” the dining room, cash out, and head home. Adding in the commute from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn, I’d usually get home by 2AM. I’d then catch 2-3 hours of sleep (Kyle would have to force me to awaken by physically propping me upright in the bed because my body was so exhausted that even multiple alarm clocks could not rouse me); get up around 5AM; and do homework for approximately 3 hours before heading to NYU for class. I did this every day and on weekends usually put in overtime at the restaurant. I worked 7 days per week. I did this for nearly two years before it finally broke me.
My situation was probably not unique, although at the time I felt like I was the only one at Tisch in these circumstances. I’ll never forget watching my colleagues in the introductory film and photography classes soar ahead of me with their projects (they didn’t have to wait tables) while I floundered and managed mediocre work at best. I was acutely aware of falling behind.
This was in 1998-2000, but students like me—that is, bright students who do not come from wealthy backgrounds—were evidently still facing the same dilemma I faced at least as of 2004, when the infamous case of the so-called “Bobst Boy” hit the national press. It would not surprise me to learn that, a decade later, there continue to be “homeless” NYU students. I admire Steve Stanzak (the “Bobst Boy”) for publicizing his experience and using that publicity to leverage himself a dorm room. Had I had internet access back in 1998, I likely would have been similarly vocal and perhaps then the outcome of my “education” at Tisch would have been different. But my situation occurred before the dotcom explosion—before anyone had PCs (let alone laptops) or regular internet access or blogs or the ability to draw national attention to one’s plight. So there I was, in pre-9/11 America: funded just barely enough to attend, but not enough to stay. Bright and driven enough to be accepted….sort of. Temporarily. With insufficient financial aid. Able to secure some student loans, but not enough to prevent me from also having to work full time. Drowning and yet thrashing mightily—violently—to remain afloat, enrolled, and in good standing.
At Wilkinson’s Seafood, on the monied Upper East Side, I was a “black tie” waitress (and eventually hostess). What this means is that I did formal waitressing in an upscale environment for wealthy customers. During my time at Wilkinson’s, my “regulars” included baseball players Keith Hernandez and Rusty Staub; one of the writers of Law & Order (never knew the guy’s name, just what he did for a living); and Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 on the TV show “Get Smart” (she is a vegetarian, or at least was when she frequented our restaurant). One memorable evening I waited on Martha Stewart, who is exactly as intimidating as one would expect.
“Life below stairs“ as in the Victorian era still exists, I can assure you. At the restaurant, the waitstaff had an entire universe of our own that stood parallel to—yet completely hidden from—the “front of the house” dominated by our upper-class customers. Since most of our days and evenings were similar, and since I was mind-numbingly sleep-deprived, I don’t remember many of the specifics of those two years. I recall quite a few shifts spent covering the dining room along with a young man named Marcelo, with whom I would aggressively compete for customers’ leftovers. The unspoken rule among waitstaff is that whoever buses a table once the customers have departed gets to eat any leftovers that remain on their plates. This may sound disgusting, but what you need to understand is that waitstaff spend 8 or more hours at a time on our feet, running back and forth, upstairs and downstairs, etc. without stopping. Often we are given very little time to eat, or no time at all. Add in the fact that Marcelo and I were in our teens and still growing, and therefore frequently very hungry. At Wilkinson’s the entire staff would eat together at around 5PM, before the evening’s work began, but by 10PM (after lots of running about), Marcelo and I would be famished. Other than the meal at the start of the shift, we were not allowed to eat food from the kitchen. Thus, our customers’ leftovers were the only food available to us. It was eat leftovers off their plates or wait until we got home (well after midnight) to eat again—so we fought fiercely to bus the tables and gain access to leftovers. A dessert for which we tussled with special intensity was the chocolate mousse cake with raspberry sauce. I think I “won” about half the time.
It is only in retrospect that I grasp the extent to which socioeconomic class divided me from the people on whom I waited. One evening an older man was eyeing me studiously from head to toe while he and his party awaited their table. After examining my legs, arms, torso, and so on, he looked me in the eye and asked: “Would you please open your mouth?” I thought the request odd but didn’t dare refuse; my boss was standing within an earshot and, as waitstaff, we were trained to always comply immediately and unquestioningly with anything our customers might request. I opened my mouth. The man studied it, asking me to bite down so that he could more clearly see my teeth. Finally, he turned to my boss and gleefully proclaimed: “She has great breeding!” The man had examined me physically—as one would a pedigreed horse or dog—before deciding that he wanted me to serve him and his family dinner. To him, I was little more than chattel simply because I had not been born rich.
When I reached my breaking point, I made one final attempt to remain at NYU. I knew that I couldn’t go on working the number of hours I had been working and sleeping as little as I had been sleeping. I could feel that something was going to give. Yet I wanted, with every fiber of my being, to remain in school. My education, so hard won, was slipping through my fingers. I hoped that I could receive some guidance from administration—perhaps suggestions for additional financial aid options or scholarships, something that would enable me to cut down my work hours and allow me to focus more on my studies. I made an appointment with someone who was probably a Dean or similar at Tisch, and this is what I recall about the appointment: he would not meet with me in his office, but instead insisted he had to go and only had time to speak with me in the elevator. I thanked him for the limited time and walked with him to the elevator. Briefly, I explained my situation and asked if he could provide any guidance, suggestions, or even the name of someone else affiliated with my school with whom I could speak.
As the elevator descended, he looked at me and flatly declared: “You can’t work and go to NYU film school.” 
The elevator stopped and made a characteristic “ding.” The doors opened. He turned and walked away.
An NYU administrator to whom I’d turned hoping for advice had just confirmed what I’d known deep inside all along: I was not welcome at NYU. I did not belong there. Sure, I’d gotten in—but it was clearly some sort of joke, or trick, or mistake. My classmates did not have to work; they belonged at NYU. Me? No—I did not belong.
Not working was not possible. Since the administrator had insisted I couldn’t “work and go to NYU film school,” the only course of action left to me seemed clear. I had to work. I had always had to work. There was no way for me to not work.
Two weeks later, I dropped out of NYU.
Left to right: the author defending her Ph.D. dissertation in May 2013, with (L-R) advisors Victor K. Mendes and Anna M. Klobucka offering feedback during the defense.
A few months after dropping out of NYU, I took my life savings of $2,000 and a backpack and boarded a plane to Portugal. I was fluent in Spanish but did not speak any Portuguese. I did not know anyone in Portugal. I had never been there before. What I knew was that somehow, despite my best efforts, my dream had fallen apart. What I wanted was to leave the tatters of that dream behind and start over someplace new.
I ended up living abroad for 16 months, during which time I became fluent in Portuguese. I arrived back in New York on August 2001—a month before 9/11. I was in Weehawken, NJ on the day of the attacks and watched the towers fall from across the Hudson River. For two more years I continued working odd jobs, low-class jobs, whatever jobs I could find. I waited tables, washed dishes, cleaned houses. Deanna and I continued to eat Kraft macaroni and cheese out of cardboard boxes and struggle to make ends meet. I gave up on my dream of an education because it seemed unattainable. I resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to finish the Bachelor’s degree I’d started at 16.
What changed for me was nothing that I did. I did not suddenly work harder, or get richer, or become more intelligent. What happened to me was a stroke of luck rarer than being hit by lightning. My patron. Long after I had given up, my patron found me and offered to fund my education.
The problem with this story is that what happened to me does not happen, and that is why I am writing this post.
There have been a number of articles lately in the New York Times about how colleges and universities have done little (or nothing) to improve poor students’ access to higher education, and/or how the culture of higher education continues to be stubbornly “upper class,” leading poorer students to struggle academically and socially in college and university environments. Around the country, many prestigious universities—including the one where I currently teach—are making a greater effort to engage in meaningful conversations about “socioeconomic diversity.” Yet the fact remains that not just poor students, but even middle class students—and I don’t mean that euphemistic use of “middle class” that abounds at elite universities, where families making $250,000+ a year are regarded as “middle class,” but rather actual middle class students, as in those from families whose income falls in line with the median household income of around $50,000 per year in 2013—are still being shut out of higher education.
My point is that I was lucky in so many ways from the get-go: I was born reasonably intelligent, received a decent public school education in Mendon, and was blessed/cursed with an irrationally stubborn streak to my personality. Despite the many hardships I have endured in my life, I was not malnourished in childhood (for example), nor did I grow up in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence or drugs. Yes, I come from a lower middle class background, but I still enjoyed enough advantages early in life that I was able to dream of an education in the first place and take steps (however unsophisticated or faltering at times) towards achieving that dream.
And yet I still would not have made it without my patron.
That part is worth repeating: I still would never have made it without my patron.
There are not enough wealthy patrons in this country—nor are the vast majority of wealthy would-be patrons generous enough to consider funding the education of an underprivileged college student—to compensate for the degree of inequality that persists deep within our educational system. Barring a few exceptions, colleges and universities in the U.S. are staffed, run, and funded by the wealthy—people who came from upper-class families, have enjoyed lives of comfort and privilege, and now seek to pass those benefits on to fellow members of their own socioeconomic class, i.e. – the new generation of wealthy and upper-middle-class college students. The American academy has always been, and unfortunately remains, far more of an aristocracy than a meritocracy. Since education is associated with better prospects of upward mobility, access to it is critical in order to reduce socioeconomic inequality, but with the costs of college education rising at an obscene pace, all but the wealthiest families are being priced out.
The question I am compelled to ask, then, is this: why should it take an actual miracle for any bright, motivated, hard-working young person from one of the wealthiest nations in the world to have access to a quality education?
Make no mistake: the luck that befell me was a miracle. A miracle—not a success story. A success story would be if every bright young person from a disadvantaged background had a patron like mine. Better yet: a success story would be for such patronage to be unnecessary.
[***FIRST DRAFT: Wednesday, September 24, 2014. 03:44H CDT***]
1 – Note Milton’s median incomes compared with Mendon’s (from the towns’ respective Wikipedia pages) via links above.
2 – Tuition for summer 2014 is around $8,000, but I recall it being less than half that amount when I attended in 1994. Of course, that was twenty years ago. At today’s price tag, my parents would not have been able to send me to the summer program at all.
3 – See? I told you I’m sub-par in math.
4 – I went so far as attempting to pull archives of my work from The Exonian, but their online database does not go back far enough, unfortunately.
5 – For some reason this cost my family nothing. I cannot remember why, although I imagine there is some sort of program in place. I know that we either did not pay tuition to FSC or paid so little as to make it a token (and affordable) amount.
6 – One of her daughters is approximately my age and brought me home. I am pretty sure there are photos of me somewhere holding signs campaigning to re-elect Mayor Simmons. I have hazy memories of doing so during the time I spent at her home.
7 - Nope, I didn’t have to look this up. It is a fact I will never forget specifically because of this classroom incident.
8 – This is not the actual page number. That, I did forget.
9 – No, I do not have a photographic memory. I devoted hours to memorizing individual textbook chapters for my science classes. It was difficult and time-consuming, but worth it when I performed well on my exams.
10 – “Aunt Elvira” is not my blood Aunt but is close enough with my mother that my brother and I were raised to address her as “Auntie.” She lives in Milton and was one of the sources of my knowledge, growing up, that Milton was “where the rich people lived.”
11 – This man is fortunate that I remember neither his name nor his position, because I am no longer a powerless, timid undergrad, and I certainly would have something to say to him now regarding that episode in the elevator.
Silva, Jennifer M. Coming Up Short: Working-class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.