I wake up to a Christmas miracle. Lining the walls of my father’s hospital room are piles of wrapped boxes, the leftover paper and tape stacked near the window. He wants us to wait until Christmas, but he spends more and more of the day asleep, his skin and eyes yellowing over from jaundice. We open the presents early, so that he has the chance to see us act surprised. When it is my turn, I peel the tape off my box.
Inside are the $85 Nikes I earmarked on the website. The swoosh is clean white against black. These are the first unused shoes I’ve received in years and something about the frivolity of this gesture reminds me of who my father used to be. He is no longer the round, loud man, who wore his thinning hair in a stubbornly swinging ponytail and came home with swaths of salt in his armpits, the white remains of evaporated sweat after a fourteen-hour work day. He is so small now, crumpled under his blanket. He is only awake in brief, fitful bursts. He can form no words as we open our presents, but today we say thank you for providing; we wish we had said this all along.
It’s been a little over two years since that day. It’s hard to remember how I felt in that hospital room when I am here at Princeton. I wear my Nikes around campus, staring uneasily at the fraying toes of the shoes, and wonder what wealth is supposed to look like. I thought I knew. Even during times when I was the only one in my family with a consistent job, or when we used our EBT card in the grocery store, I thought I had experienced a lifestyle of plenty. I got to go to high school every day, the local public school of a wealthy suburban district. I attended this school even when we moved out of the district, sold the condo after Dad was gone. I flew to expensive summer programs. I applied for scholarships that I only knew about because I had the privilege of a college counselor. My family prioritized my education at all costs. Before Princeton, I not only didn’t feel poor. I felt blessed.
This winter, I have learned what wealth looks like at Princeton. The signs are subtle, yet so markedly different from what I thought I knew. Instead of gratitude for Christmas miracles and a view of City of Hope’s asphalt parking lot, there exists a more unassuming taxonomy of wealth. A red patch and fur hood indicate a $900 winter coat, the flights to different states or countries during one-week breaks suggest thousands in disposable income, and the insistent praising of one’s elite private high school signifies utter disconnect with the middle class. I know that these items or signifiers alone do not denote class privilege, because poor families find ways to disguise their young. But this campus is so saturated with these luxuries, wealth is assumed to be the norm. Against this standard, my background is first and foremost one of lack. On this campus, it is hard to remember gratitude and it is so easy to feel poor. If you catch me off guard, I may unwittingly state that my $85 Nikes are cheap and so, by extension, is my family.
Three weeks ago, the New York Times wrote that Princeton is one of 38 schools with “more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60.” If 72% of my peers come from the top 20 percent, and my family has wavered between the bottom 13 to 30 percent in the past four years, I guess I am supposed to represent economic diversity at this institution. While there’s no shame in this status, I grew up in a middle-class environment for much of my life. If I represent a “poor family” at this school, there’s something seriously wrong with Princeton’s perception of wealth and its role in producing seemingly successful golden stars of academia.
We all want to know why we are here. We think we know the answer. We deserve to be here because we are smart, talented, and passionate. We earned it – this is what administration tells us and what friends reaffirm. Indeed, I have met some of the most intelligent, hard-working students at this school and I count myself as one of them. But the way wealth works at Princeton proves that the vast majority of us aren’t here because of individual merit. We’re here because the people in our lives provided for us.
Despite the worth I reserve for myself and my experiences, I know I’m really here because my mother worked an extra job to send me to a college counselor. I’m here because my family friends helped lie to my school district about my address. I’m here because even when he had absolutely nothing left, not even a solid lock of his previously treasured hair, my father tried to provide the extravagant privilege of having a box to open on Christmas and new shoes to wear to school.