Having Less Money & Stuff than Other Teens

I was the only person I knew when I started high school. Most of the kids I was in middle school with went to one of local public high schools, but I got a scholarship to go to a private prep school in a different neighborhood. Everyone told me I was really lucky to have such an opportunity, and even though I knew I was, I couldn’t help but feeling totally lost and suddenly out of place when I got to this fancy new school. Even though we had uniforms, other kids had designer bags and shoes and things my family couldn’t dream of affording. Sometimes kids would be mean about it (like commenting on the hand-me-downs I’d wear), and sometimes it was simply their unfamiliarity with how other people lived (like being visibly shocked when I told them that my family didn’t have a car) that would really sting me. I’d try to shrug it off, but those kinds of interactions really made me feel so small and worthless. I was mortified everyone would find out I was there on financial aid, and I isolated myself because of it. I was embarrassed to invite people over to my family’s house, and I’d make up excuses why I couldn’t hang out after school because I knew I didn’t have the money to eat out like they did.
For a little while, feeling so out of place because of money-stuff really messed with me. But I also learned that my reputation, so to speak, didn’t hinge on me having all the trendiest items my peers had. I worked really hard at school, and earned a reputation for being a serious student. And I tried to balance that with humor—like, if someone would comment on my ill-fitting shirts, I’d laugh it off, saying my career in fashion would be short-lived. I joined the swim team, too, and pretty quickly learned that when I would bring myself to interact more with other kids (just talking about classes and music and stuff on the bus ride to practice) we were able to connect about more than just what we did or didn’t have. Over time, I wasn’t “the poor kid,” but the 100 yard backstroker who hated chemistry and loved alternative rock music. By the time I graduated, I had a handful of good friends, many of whom I eventually told I was on financial aid (and a couple of whom told me they were, too!).
Since high school, the having/not-having has been a lot less prevalent. College was so much bigger than high school, and there were so many more types of people from all over the country. Most people were genuinely interested in meeting others who have had different life experiences than their own, and if they weren’t, chances are I’d never see them again (or would even want to!). It’s not like financial differences have disappeared for me—far from it—but now I know that my money situation doesn’t have to define me to others, or to myself. I wish I hadn’t separated myself or limited my interactions with others for as long as I did because I was worried people would judge me and my family.  I had more to offer than what I was wearing, and so did all my peers.

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