Stuyvesant: An Equalizer?

The word “privilege” doesn’t capture the full story.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Jaden Bae

Many of us grew up with families who, through the heat of summer or the snowstorms of winter, drove us from our homes to prep schools with narrow desks and other straight-laced students. Many of us were privileged with families who were willing to teach us math three grades up, pay for overdue library books, and foster a love of learning, a culture of studying, and ultimately an expectation, and burden, that has brought many of us to the school we are at today.

After sending us to prep school, perhaps our parents drove straight to a 12-hour work shift. Perhaps half of the money from that day was spent on Kumon, AMSCO textbooks, or chess practice. Or perhaps all of that money, or as close to all of it as it got, was spent on you and your, as they’d call it, “future”: a concept that you would never fully comprehend, but instead have but a vague notion of. There were times when, late at night, your parents would be hunched over the secondhand dinner table, the kitchen light flickering dimly, their hands moving over a ledger, the sounds of pages and checks crinkling. You’d hear hushed whispers about overtime or cutting the “other funds.” Your funds. It would always be the former.

Or perhaps you never had that experience. Maybe you grew up in a place where money was never an issue, but an expectation: every action had a transaction. You had a “Sorry Jar” where you would take a quarter from a porcelain piggy bank and deposit your apologies every time you or your sibling cursed. You watched your neighbor’s Persian cat every time they went out for a vacation in exchange for a daily fee that would compensate for you having to scoop the muck off the litter box. You would give your violin teacher a check every week at a steep hourly fee that kept her Juilliard degree satisfied. You would learn about stocks, and later, Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, at a precocious age.

Sometimes you’d wonder about your parents. Your mother, with that permanent crease between her eyebrows; your father, his hair graying at not quite 45. You’d pledge yourself to never become like them, to never become old, to never become complacent, to always keep running and to never look back.

Now, at Stuyvesant, you feel old. We’ve aged, and not just in the metric of years, but in the full sense of physical and mental exhaustion. We’ve endured a pandemic with our metaphorical potbellies and still continue to run forward, faster, until we run out of everything. Until we look around and see our own weary faces on everyone else, but still trudging forward, still putting one foot in front of the next. There is comfort in not just the camaraderie of being a Stuyvesant student, but also in realizing that a school like this is ultimately, an equalizer: a meritocratic system in which we’re all dangling from the serpent’s maw.

In our classes, close to no one cares about who your parents are or the money they make. There’s a sense that we’re all driving forward on a plane proportional to the amount of effort we put in, the extent to which we push ourselves. And yet there’s no denying that the vast majority of us are privileged, albeit largely not in the traditional sense of the word. Unlike other “elite” schools, we’re privileged to be part of communities and cultures that encourage and help us seek out opportunities to learn; we’re privileged to the extent that we immerse ourselves completely in that expectation. We are a school of mostly immigrant children, Emma Lazarus’s huddled masses.

Once we step out from our school lives, however, we may as well be stepping out from an incubator into a world so much more terrifying and unknown than the one we have grown accustomed to. If Stuyvesant is the ultimate equalizer for us as students and nothing more, who are we in a world without grades as currency? Who will we become as people, driving forth aspirations greater than four years of high school leading to one definitive college? What will we do with our Stuyvesant “privilege” once our school walls crumble and the actual world starts closing in? Our parents whispered about tutoring bills over the dining table in the dark so we could focus on our education. We poured over history textbooks and memorized the equation of the asymptotes of a hyperbola, but we never learned how to manage the hundreds of dollars we spend on coffee every month. We were so ready to jump into linear algebra that we forgot to learn personal finance. And we were so focused on the Krebs cycle that we forgot about our sleep cycle. We were so caught up in everything Stuyvesant that we forgot about living life; we forgot about our futures.

There’s a scene from the future that my mother has constructed for herself. She tells me it in a way that’s so real, so vivid; it’s almost prophetic, in a way that I never once doubted that it would happen. We’re shopping at the Garment District, buying silks for a new dress she wants to make. She might tell me a story about her childhood, in a typical, offhand way that makes me wonder if it was the truth or something she read in a storybook. But today she’ll go to the shop, and pick out whatever she wants. I’ll cover the price.

Today I am a lawyer; a doctor; an engineer; or perhaps, miraculously, another career where I am able to make comfortable money while still being content with life. I look over at my mother. I suddenly feel five years old again, even though I’ve just come off work with red lips and high heels. We had been at a toy store, and I had just won the fluffiest stuffed bear from the claw machine. I remember my mother’s smile, so large and wide and happy, even though it had taken seven refills to get the bear I later named Bear, for all that it had taken. I feel that smile on my face today.