A study released last week by researchers at Harvard and Stanford quantified what everyone in my hometown already knew: even the most talented rural poor kids don’t go to the nation’s best colleges. The vast majority, the study found, do not even try.
this article was a nice trip down memory lane, where the value of “nice” equals “all of a sudden I’m fifteen* again, in my bedroom in our trailer, with an application to NYU in my hand that I will, eventually, fill out, but will never send.”
*I graduated from high school when I was sixteen, six months past sixteen; I graduated early because I needed so badly to get out of that tiny town and out of that tiny trailer, to get away. it was an incredibly bad decision, and I was kicked out of the college I did end up at, shortly after spring break of my freshman year. (the dean graciously allowed me to “withdraw for personal reasons” so that I wouldn’t have an expulsion on my transcripts.) although I can’t guarantee that I’d have been any more successful in college had I gone a year later, really, since I was already doing a shitload of drugs, and had already had a couple of major depressive episodes, before I ever made the decision to skip out of high school early. but the point is. the point is:
the college fair my mom took me to only had reps from schools that the guides rated “somewhat competitive;” like the author of the article, I could only afford one go at one entrance exam (the old SAT, this was 20 years ago); I couldn’t afford any prep books or classes or tutors; I could only afford the application fees for SUNY and two private schools so you better pick carefully.
so I left the NYU application on my dresser, filled out and ready to go, until the deadline passed. it was just easier that way.
you’ll take the SAT, but there will only be one chance to do so, and only that one test. you’ll show up not knowing that you were meant to study, because nobody ever talked to you about it, nobody expected you to take it, so nobody told you what kind of test it even was. (your dad signed you up for it only because it was what he’d taken before graduating from high school and he believed it was just what people did, whether or not they could afford it.) you’ll feel like the stupidest kid in the room. you probably will be. you will graduate when you’re sixteen and your dad will tell you that the only university you can attend is the hardly-known state school in your town, the one that has only one requirement for acceptance, which is a high school diploma or a GED. you will know that you have the scores to go somewhere else, but that it doesn’t matter. you won’t even have considered other colleges, really, because you know how much they cost, and what it means to take out loans, and you’ll know already what your options are.
(there will be good things about not leaving, anyway. leaving would mean leaving somebody you love behind. staying means the opportunity for a job, now that you’re sixteen and can work legally as an adult. staying means you can help pay so that somebody else will have chances you didn’t. you’ll do their homework sometimes, too. it’ll be the best thing you can do, the most important thing to you, to let them have the future they want, that wasn’t yours. you will believe this.)
you will enroll there, in the school in the town you spent so many years waiting, wanting, to get out of, while the few friends you do have leave for better schools, other lives. (you will tell yourself to be satisfied with the college you are attending, in part by reminding yourself of all of the times, for as long as you can remember, when you thought you would be dead within a week, a month, by the end of winter, and how you still don’t expect to make it through the semester, much less to graduation, and so there was never a point in wanting more anyway.) you will end up never going to classes because there is no challenge and you will not care. you will drop out when you’re seventeen. at eighteen, you’ll try again. same story.
one day, years later, your brother will convince you to spend money you don’t really have on an application fee to a non-state college. you’ll be accepted by the world’s second best university, though only for the summer. you won’t go; you won’t have the money. your brother will convince you to try again, a few months later, to borrow the money to apply somewhere else, this time at a school that’s still magnitudes better than the one you used to go to, the one you dropped out of. they’ll take you. they’ll tell you you’ll be able to afford it. you’ll leave the country you’ve always lived in, hoping. you’ll get there. it won’t be true. you’ll go hungry, the first few days. you’ll walk down a grey, grey street and the air will smell like water, like rain, and you will be so cold. you’ll end up in the international students’ center, where they’ll take pity on you and loan you money for some food.
you’ll go back home. you’ll be sick at the thought of how much money, saved and borrowed, you have already spent on this stupid fucking idea that you should have known better than to attempt, this thing that really was always out of your reach. and you will think about the places you could have gone, if you had been rich, or if you had been willing to ask your parents to give up everything they had, and to work themselves to death in addition, so that you could have an education you didn’t even entirely believe in anyway.
and then you will try not to think about those places anymore, those futures that could maybe have been yours, because there isn’t a point anymore, and really maybe there never was. you weren’t ever going to get to go there; they were never really going to be yours. from the beginning, you were never going to get to go; they were for other people, and that’s what you’d been told all along, and really, all along, that’s what you’d believed, too.