I Got Bussed into a Rich School and Saw the Unfairness of America
It was like entering another world—and it taught me all I needed to know about inequality and class privilege.
Stock photo via Getty
Last week, as the internet gleefully celebrated the viral video of Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing in college, the origins of that non-scandal were forgotten. The anonymous right-wing Twitter user who first unearthed the old video—calling her a “nitwit”—was clearly playing off a report published by disreputable right-wing rag the Gateway Pundit, which seized upon the fact that Ocasio-Cortez attended a public high school in Yorktown, New York, rather than the Bronx. That’s the latest attempt to portray her as a pampered rich girl, rather than the earnest class warrior that many view her to be. This was hardly a scoop: Her attendance at that high school had been splashed all over her Wikipedia page... and her campaign website… and had been referenced by the congresswoman herself in multiple interviews. Ocasio-Cortez has spoken at length about the ways that her school days influenced her understanding of income inequality, and of how her parents had to work their fingers to the bone to afford to move into a better school district for her sake.
This all struck a special chord with me as someone who’s seen firsthand the difference a school’s zip code can make, and whose class politics have been shaped by an early glimpse into how the other half lives.
Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, I am not from the Bronx, or any place that looks like it. I grew up in an unincorporated rural village smack dab in the middle of one of the East Coast’s largest nature preserves, a pitch-perfect representation of that fabled “white working class” enclave we all got to hear so much about during the 2016 election cycle, complete with dirt roads, pickup trucks, and geographically suspect Confederate flags. Our tiny local schoolhouse served less than 200 kids, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. Every grade was comprised of about 20 students, and I spent my early education—up until I turned 14—alongside the same kids I’d known when I was five years old. Save for my friend Ellen and her siblings, who were half Korean, every other student and all but one of the teachers were white. There was no such thing as junior high or middle school, though from what I’ve heard, I didn’t miss much there.
There are no stores in town; the closest place to buy anything is the Wawa 12 miles down the highway, which sits next to the liquor store, a couple of bars, and Billy Bob’s auto body shop. The nearest proper grocery store is about 30 miles away. We didn’t have a library, or trash pickup, or a real post office, only P.O. boxes housed in a little blue trailer. In some ways, being from such an underprivileged community was a blessing (I didn’t see a police officer in person until I moved to Philadelphia for college) as much as it was a curse (my parents still have dial-up internet, in 2019—I definitely missed out on that whole “downloading music off the internet” thing when it was still new and cool).
Our infrastructure was lacking in other ways, too. When it came time for me to go to high school, the only available option was to take an hour-long bus ride over to “the big high school” a few towns away. It was situated in a quite well-to-do suburban area, and housed about 2,000 students—which was fucking terrifying to walk into when you’re used to seeing the same 20 kids year after year. I didn’t know what to do with myself, or how to relate to all of these strange new people, and it was even tougher to navigate because my mom was already working there.
She was a cafeteria worker, and had been for several years before I arrived. It was a good job for what it was: Leftover pizza, boxes of snacks, and bags of frozen food fueled our household, and she was always home on time to meet my little sister after school. My dad worked construction (my mom liked to tease him by saying he was a “ditch digger”), and all my friends’ parents had similar blue-collar jobs, so my mom’s gig seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Work was something you did with your hands, something that could sometimes be dangerous but needed doing nonetheless. Someone had to dish out lukewarm chicken fingers and crusty mac-n-cheese, and it may as well be my mom.
The first few friends I made at school had other ideas, though, and I could tell that they thought it was weird to see my mom in the lunch line every day. Their mothers were lawyers, or doctors, or worked in offices doing arcane grown-up things we couldn’t possibly parse; some of them stayed home, which I found utterly bizarre (“How in the world could they afford to do that?” I’d wonder). When I’d go over to their houses after school, I’d be silently bowled over by how manicured their lawns were, how clean and shiny the kitchens were, the fact that their houses even had multiple floors(!). They had SUVs and cable, and lived on pretty little streets, and had garages. I always felt awkward and out of place, afraid of breaking or smudging something, or somehow giving away the fact that I clearly didn’t belong there. It made me feel small.
My own house was a modest, beat-up rancher that my parents had bought as newlyweds in the 1970s. We had a few acres of land out back and the wilderness surrounding our house was beautiful, but that didn’t really resonate with my teenage girl friends, who did everything they could to avoid coming over. I had my own room, the house was cozy thanks to our wood stove, and we had a few sweet old hunting dogs flopping around, but it was way out in the woods, and their parents never wanted to make the drive. Maybe it was a matter of gas and mileage; maybe they didn’t want their kid spending time out in the boonies with someone like me.
Whatever it was, I soon found myself gravitating towards the other weird kids. Goths, punks, stoners, skaters, and assorted oddballs had a distinct presence at our school, and since I was already into heavy metal and black clothes by the time I got there, it was a natural fit. When you’re an angsty, angry teen and find yourself surrounded by preppies decked out in pricey mall brands like Abercrombie and Hollister, you don’t really have the option of fitting in, even if you wanted to, which I didn’t. I reveled in making my normie friends’ parents blanch when I came over after soccer practice, spiked bracelets jangling and eyeliner dripping halfway down my face. If I was going to be their little angel’s weird friend, I was for damn sure going to be their weirdest friend.
Even then, though, there were barriers to entry to outcast chic. Hot Topic—the holy grail for any early 2000s baby goth—was expensive, and my parents refused to spend their money on what they saw as poorly made garbage (they were right, but try telling 14-year-old me that). A lot of my friends were in the same boat, so we made do with what we had (or shoplifted what we wanted). I really only ever got shit from school officials who took umbrage at my pentagram T-shirts and miniskirts, but still remember the white-hot flare of shame that burst in my chest one day when Bill—who was a sort of leader in my little group—walked by, eyed me up and down, and derisively snorted, “Poser.”
When I asked him what he meant, he sneered, “Just look at you,” and walked away, his retina-searing UFOs swishing triumphantly in his wake. I was wearing black pants, a blue top, and a little studded belt—none of them were name-brand, but I thought I looked cute and spooky. All he saw was someone trying—and failing—to fit in, and that he passed judgement while wearing $80 day-glo parachute pants added insult to injury. “Who has $80 for pants?” I’d mutter to myself, still stinging.
It was only long after that I realized that music taste and sartorial misadventures weren’t the only things that bound my freak friends and me together. More than anything else, it was class. I got along with most of my peers, but the people I felt most comfortable around, who accepted me without question, who I’m still in touch with now, were from poor or working-class families like mine. My homecoming date lived in a mobile home park, and he thought I looked beautiful in my $30 dress. Even now that I’m an adult with a decent resume and far less annoying taste in fashion, I still don’t feel comfortable in “classy” or outwardly wealthy spaces, because I remember standing there in so many marble-countered kitchens feeling like a redneck charity case. These things shape you, and the lessons you learn as a child are impossible to shake. Like Ocasio-Cortez, that long bus ride gave me a lot of time to think.
After my freshman year, the county built a brand-new high school for the rural kids, and made all of us transfer over there. I was devastated to leave my hard-won friends at the big high school, but again had no choice. My year of being bussed into civilization was over, but that freshman experience was formative to what would eventually become my class consciousness. Seeing how much some of my peers had, and how much others lacked, didn’t feel fair then, and it still doesn’t—but connecting what I saw and felt then has been instrumental in my understanding of the bigger political picture. When I’m chanting “eat the rich” at anti-capitalist demonstrations now, those marble countertops and Bill’s stupid fucking pants are always at the back of my mind.
In a broader sense, it’s incredibly frustrating to see the way that the right wing tokenizes the working class while ignoring our struggles. My mom kept working at the cafeteria for years after I transferred, eventually moving over to my new high school. If she’d been in a more worker-friendly environment—one where she wasn’t on her feet constantly, already exhausted from the second job she’d had to take to keep up with the bills—maybe she wouldn’t have kept coming home with burns. Maybe her blood pressure wouldn’t have spiked, and she wouldn’t have suffered the brain aneurysm that robbed her of her ability to function and landed her on disability—that other favorite conservative bugbear. I’d personally have at least a modicum less disgust for Republicans if they spent their time focusing on the lunch ladies and ditch diggers of the world, instead of trying (and failing) to troll someone who actually knows what struggle tastes like.
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Kim Kelly is on Twitter.