At some point between third and fourth grade, my mother asked me if I wanted to go to private school. “I don’t think I’d like it,” I told her, “because I’d have to wear a uniform.” She immediately dropped the subject, never mentioning the idea again.
This was an unusually hands-off move for my mom, whose parenting style I’d describe as a mix of “helicopter parent” and “anxious immigrant.” I expected her to put up a fight, to tell me that the school—Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida—was a great opportunity. And it was! I had been offered a generous scholarship by a school where most students did not need generous scholarships because they were very rich. Those very rich students often went on to Harvard or Yale or other impressive universities, which were already on my parents’ minds at the time, because after all, isn’t that why they left Colombia and migrated to the US?
But none of this mattered, because my mother didn’t really want me going to Berkeley Prep in the first place. “It’s not that I thought you couldn’t handle it academically,” she recently told me. “But I didn’t want you to grow up feeling bad for yourself.” She didn’t want me to be the “scholarship kid” at a school where the annual tuition was more or less equivalent to my parents’ joint pretax income.
Things had been different back in Colombia. My mom worked as a bank executive; my dad in sales. I was on track to enroll at a private German school—less expensive than the English schools, more prestigious than the Spanish schools—where I absolutely would have had to wear a uniform. But we left when I was four. In our first years in Florida, my mom made a living cleaning other people’s houses and taking care of other people’s children. My dad worked the line at a rat-infested pizza place, packed boxes at the Pepsi bottling plant, and delivered mail for a courier service. They actually only heard about Berkeley Prep because my mom was the dean’s sister’s cleaning lady. And they decided I wouldn’t go to Berkeley Prep because my mom was the dean’s sister’s cleaning lady.
In 11th grade I signed up to take the SAT at a prep school in Tampa that, I imagine, was similar to Berkeley Prep. Walking in, I encountered a bizarre scene: The hallways were lined with shelves and cubbies, where students had left MacBooks and Nikes scattered about, even though a bunch of complete strangers—public school strangers who could steal their things—were descending upon their campus that weekend to take a standardized test. On the drive home, my dad reminded me that he and my mom had considered sending me to a school like this, the kind with lots of extracurriculars and enrichment activities. “But we didn’t think it was the right idea.” They worried that being the scholarship kid at a school like that would give me some kind of lifelong inferiority complex. “And besides, we thought, ‘We’re in America; you can get a quality education for free.’”
"What I didn’t consider at the time is that immigrant parents will try their absolute hardest to do everything right, even in a country where they aren’t certain what, exactly, the right thing is or how to do it."
But none of the public schools I went to were particularly great, thanks to subpar funding and an ongoing teacher shortage in Florida. In sixth grade, my geography teacher, who was obsessed with Japanese culture despite not being Japanese, included a three-month “immersion segment” on the country in her lesson plan, which mostly consisted of us watching Japanese television. The following year, every kid in my grade had to take a mandatory six-week agriculture class, where we were graded on important life skills like chicken wrangling and how quickly we could shovel cow shit from a field. (I got a B.) In tenth grade, my biology teacher thought it was important to teach us “intelligent design” right after we covered evolution, because he wanted us to “hear both sides.” Another science teacher had a bumper sticker on her car that read evolution is science fiction. In 11th grade, my AP US History teacher didn’t bat an eye when a group of students dressed up in full blackface for a video project on Reconstruction. (They got an A.)
My dumb 16-year-old brain decided this was all my parents’ fault. I began mythologizing Berkeley Prep as a place where no one ever had to scoop cow shit or got away with doing blackface. Had I gone to Berkeley, I could have gone to Harvard or Columbia, I reasoned. (I would not have gotten into Harvard or Columbia.) I blamed my parents for depriving me of this opportunity, conveniently forgetting I was the one who told them I didn’t want to go in the first place. Berkeley became my white whale, a reference I only half-understood, because none of my English teachers ever had us read Moby-Dick. (They would have at Berkeley, I thought.)
What I didn’t consider at the time is that immigrant parents will try their absolute hardest to do everything right, even in a country where they aren’t certain what, exactly, the right thing is or how to do it. My parents left their cushy lives in Colombia because they thought it was the best thing for me, even though they had no idea what was waiting for them here. They rented a house in a good school district and signed me up for SAT prep classes in ninth grade because it was “never too early to start getting ready” for the future.
Deciding not to send me to Berkeley Prep wasn’t easy for them. The academics were better, the teachers more experienced, the class sizes smaller, and the extracurriculars better funded than at any school I ever attended. But my parents decided that putting me in such a privileged environment—enrolling me in a school where, no matter what my grades were, I would be different from the other students—was too risky. What if my scholarship made me some kind of pariah? Worse still, what if I lost my scholarship and then had to return to a regular school after having gotten a taste of the good life?
It’s a strange paradox. I was given the opportunity to go to Berkeley because of my family’s financial situation, but their financial situation was the exact reason they decided I’d be better off somewhere else, if not academically then at least psychologically.
I recently called my mom and told her I was writing about all this. “You were so angry with us when you found out you could have gone there,” she said, laughing. “But see, you turned out just fine!”
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