I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get away from where I live.
I grew up moving between Archer Heights and Garfield Ridge, two neighborhoods on the southwest side of Chicago. If someone from Chicago asks me where I’m from, I tell them near midway airport, and if someone not from Chicago hears the words “south” and “Chicago in the same sentence they lose their shit. Both areas are predominantly working-class, and both, if you consult wikipedia (or me), contain a shitload of Polish people. After hearing about selective “gifted schools” from a friend, my mom took me to take a test and see if I could get in and attend.
In the first grade, I tested into one of these schoolsa gifted school, located about forty-five minutes away from my house. In the mornings, my mom would walk me to the yellow school bus, usually stopping to apologize to the driver for being late (again). My mornings were spent speedily finishing my breakfast between grey pleather seats; or finishing homework assignments I had forgotten to tell my mom about the night before, balancing a textbook on my knees to make a makeshift bus-friendly desk. After school, I would inevitably end up staying for piano or for chemistry club or for waiting around for a once-again delayed bus. I probably spent more time at school than at home, which my mom affirmed was “good for me”. After all, there were no “good schools” in my neighborhood.
My aunts and uncles were bewildered that my mom let me go so far, “what’s the point?” they asked, “why try so hard?”. After all, my mom’s credentials hadn’t been accepted in the U.S. as is. My cousins called me pretentious, a know-it-all, someone they perceived as who thought that was better than them for trying. And eventually, after being called a “high achiever” in class, after seeing my test scores and my grades, after being told by my teachers that I was “going places”, I’ll admit that I did think so.
I made friends in Beverly, in Hyde Park, in Bridgeport. Kids who, for the most part, had to take tests and buses to leave their homes behind. Their parents were teachers and postal workers, pharmacists and plumbers. They ranged from the Hyde Park bougjie kids whose parents lived around UChicago, to kids who lived on the edges of the city, in areas where people would roll up their windows while driving past.
At the time, my mom was still cleaning houses to make ends meet. I spent some afternoons after school finishing my homework at some rich lady’s table. Sometimes, when the ladies were nice, I’d get a snack or a little present too. Study hard, they said, you don’t want to end up like your mother.
In high school, I attended yet another selective public school, this time spending an hour and a half each way getting to and from school. This school, Walter Payton, was located on the wealthy near north side of Chicago, surrounded by the Old Town, Gold Coast (the name is self-explanatory), and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. Most kids at Payton commuted for at least 30 minutes a day, and some lived even further than I did. We went to school amid busy restaurants, amid gleaming tall buildings, amid the River North finance bros and the Gold Coast trophy wives on their way to SoulCycle.
Payton kids had parents who were lawyers and doctors, small-business owners and some slightly-larger business owners. We had more than a few of those kids who “didn’t really know” what their parents did for a living, and even more who called themselves “comfortable” or “well off”, or whatever other synonym rich people call themselves. In a notable scandal, we had Governor Bruce Rauner try to bribe the school to let his daughter attend. In the interest of not flexing too hard on myself, I’ll let Crain’s Chicago Business Report do that for me:
“It’s so good that nearly a third of its entering freshman came from private elementary schools. So good that 98 percent of its graduates go on to college. So good that nearly 7,000 kids recently applied for just 200 admission slots.”
You get the picture, it was competitive.
I spent my mornings on the bus and on the train and in the coffee shop where each of the baristas charged with alleviating my fatigue knew me by name. I got to school early and left late in between diving or singing or rehearsal for the play. I made flashcards to study on the bus, and spent more time than ever trying to prove to myself that I belonged here, that I could succeed here, that they hadn’t let me in by mistake.
At some point, my mom told me that I was only coming home to sleep. It hurt me to admit that she was right.
I spent less time with my brother and sister, and more time at the library. I took the train on the weekends to hang out with my friends an hour away. I was neither of the “Payton material”, nor was I an untainted product of my own environment.
When the time came to select a university, the choice seemed clear: get as far as humanly possible. I entered Sciences Po with no idea what to expect, and ended up feeling completely lost. What most felt foreign to me wasn’t the language or the culture, it wasn’t replacing hugs with la bise, or going to the boulangerie in the morning instead of Starbucks. It was the fact that here, no matter the hours spent in the library, no matter the cries of “fucking know it all” from my cousins echoing through the back of my head, no matter the homework assignments done on the bus or on the train or in some rich lady’s house, there were people with more. More opportunities, more European countries every weekend, more internships at the fancy company their father works for. And no matter how hard I tried to be this way, I will never be like them. And no matter how hard I may have tried to escape my own origins, I will never be able to change where I come from.
Meritocracy tries to tell us that if we “make it out”, we are better than the others we left behind, that we are different, that to be successful, we must forget where we come from. That if we are lucky enough to get into a “good school” we go without looking back, and that we keep going until we are as far as we can get. In striving for myself, I missed helping those around me. I lost touch with my friends on the block, I lost touch with the local grocery store and the Polish ladies who work there, I lost touch with myself and with who am and where I come from.
And now, following a myriad of confusion, I try to find myself again.
I am from the Southwest side of Chicago, living between Garfield Ridge and Archer Heights. I went to public schools and got lucky that I was good at taking tests. I am not better than what I come from, I am not some rare example of pulling myself up by the bootstraps that I could use in some political speech years down the line. I am part of my community, and I will use the knowledge I was lucky enough to receive over the years to enrich that community and to help those who were not as lucky. I will rebuild the connection that was unfortunately weakened by the pressure to “make it out” and “be the best”, and I am striving everyday to do so.
And yes, maybe a bit of a know-it-all too.