I was a poor kid at a wealthy private school. It gave me social mobility, but also a sense of shame (2023)

I can’t remember why or when I set my pre-adolescent sights on a fancy private high school. I certainly don’t recall being pushed into applying for scholarships when my time was winding up at the local state primary school. If anything, I was the one marching my slightly bewildered and sheepish parents around to open days, on a quest to fulfil my burning desire to make it among the Toorak set. I was an upwardly mobile 12-year-old.

I vividly remember their horror when, while touring us around her sprawling utopia for girls, one principal proudly proclaimed, “When our girls leave they’re shocked by what they find in the real world, because everything is so perfect here”. I turned down a scholarship in her promised land to take up another at a co-ed equivalent widely considered progressive ... on the spectrum of uppity private institutions anyway.

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In the podcast Three Miles, an episode of This American Life that looks at the divide between two schools only three miles apart, one super-wealthy and one ultra-poor, producer Chana Joffe-Walt explored what happened when kids from the poor school saw how green the grass was on the other side. She explained the “exposure” educational theory:

Right now there’s a popular idea in education – it pops up all over the place – about exposure, that exposure is particularly important for poor kids. Not just important – that it can change destinies. You know, you take a group of kids to tour a college campus, they’ll be more likely to go to college. Or if you just know someone who went to college, that’ll help. The idea is that if you want a kid to move from one social class to another, that kid has to see what it looks like over there on the other side. Exposure is a tool for social change and economic mobility.

I was primarily raised by a single mother with no formal qualifications who spoke English as a second language and survived by taking up various jobs, propped up intermittently by welfare. I was aware of her struggle but didn’t consider it particularly unusual or understand that it excluded me from certain opportunities. Until, of course, I encountered a new world of privilege that reframed my life as less than.

And so my high school existence became an immersive experiment in “exposure”.

As well as the formal curriculum, I learnt the language and mannerisms of wealth. As a result, unlike many poor people, I am generally comfortable communicating with rich people. I am not afraid of them; many are my close friends. In this sense, the exposure to wealth my private school education accorded me was a “success” in enabling my potential movement from one social class to another.

Unfortunately that opportunity for social mobility came at the price of a newly internalised shame about being poor, and an accompanying sense of isolation. It takes a certain strength of character to have perspective and form authentic personal values as a 15-year-old surrounded by kids who actually say things like “no one buys their own car, your parents buy it for you”. It was around this time that I started stealing my mum’s credit card to buy essentials like $300 fluoro jeans.

My school’s motto was “diversity opens minds,” but it was the kind of diversity available only to those who could afford to spend $20,000 a year on school fees. This slogan was apparently justified on the grounds that it referred to diverse teaching methods, rather than socioeconomic or cultural diversity.

The prestige of private schools is underpinned by highly strategic marketing campaigns. As students, we were treated as integral branding collateral. We weren’t allowed to eat or drink anything other than water in public, colour our hair, have piercings or tattoos; (technically) girls weren’t allowed to wear makeup, or have our skirts above our knees.

Strict aesthetic regulations were championed as necessary for teaching young people how to be “respectable,” but the classist subtext of expending copious resources and energy on ensuring teenagers don’t express themselves creatively through blue hair and a septum ring, or other “low class” trends, is hard to ignore.

I once witnessed a teacher telling a year 8 student that she could “see all her whore-ish make up” in the light. A well meaning sports teacher pulled me aside after I forgot to wear bloomers under my netball skirt to warn me not to reveal my Bonds underwear around boys again. Though it was never overtly stated, the message was clear: don’t present yourself sexually, don’t let your appearance signal that you are a slut, don’t be a slut. This is how young girls are taught to be ashamed of their bodies.

It would be unfair to illustrate my former school as an aristocrat factory without colouring in the nuances and joys of my experience.

I excelled at athletics, joined the debating team, achieved a final score that granted me access to my first university preference, and made lifelong friends. Many of my teachers were intelligent and passionate people who very clearly cared about their students. The school wasn’t oppressively conservative either; we had “body, mind and spirit” classes in place of religious education, and no one was shamed for being gay (at least not by teachers), or told that the only viable career paths available to them were doctor, lawyer or merchant banker. Quite to the contrary, which makes sense considering a creative and unstable career path is best suited to young people free to play around while they wait for their inheritance.

The school wasn’t exclusively populated by the children of haughty elitists who wanted their baby geniuses shielded from povo “flat rats” either, (although I suspect there was a bit of that). Many wonderful, open minded people sent their children there, including middle class families who struggled financially to secure that promised leg up in life.

New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has written extensively about racial and socioeconomic segregation in American schools, describes her own decision to send her daughter to a local public school as follows:

One of the things I’ve done in my work is show the hypocrisy of progressive people who say they believe in inequality, but when it comes to their individual choices about where they’re going to live and where they’re going to send their children, they make very different decisions ...

My daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools. I know she’s learning a lot. I think it is making her a good citizen. I think it is teaching her that children who have less resources than her are not any less intelligent than her, not any less worthy than her. And I truly don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t

As Hannah-Jones wrote: “True integration, true equality requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.”

Scholarships to private schools remain highly sought after because everyone wants to give their children the best opportunities, beginning with a “good” education and the “right” connections. The fear that their kids will miss out on these things is what causes otherwise progressive people to support institutions that are pivotal to the maintenance of structural inequality within society.

Private schools not only reinforce class divisions, but inhibit the cultivation of empathetic and well rounded human beings from all kinds of backgrounds.

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High school is a weird, hormonal time and my own experience is arguably only reflective of personal insecurities that would have manifested regardless of where I went to school. However, I’m not convinced they would have been as acutely aesthetically and financially driven had I been exposed to a broader cross section of society at such an impressionable age.

How are poor or rich kids meant to empathise with one another if their only opportunity to mix is by being or knowing the token scholarship kid?

An alternative might look something like my experience at a public primary school, where I was surrounded by children from truly varied backgrounds and we more or less got along. As far as I’m aware, the rich kids didn’t end up drug addicted and homeless as a result of being exposed to poor kids, and the poor kids weren’t saved from such a fate by exposure to wealth, either. But at least we knew one another existed.

Diversity really does open minds, just not the kind of diversity some schools are pushing.

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