Evaluating the privileges of attending private school

Sophie Rukin and Neeva Patel

Sophie Rukin and Neeva Patel

Sophie Rukin and Neeva Patel

Attending a private school is like entering a new world of opportunity. However, the privileges we have at our school are not norms — rather, they are the exception. We could not comprehend the significant differences after we left our public schools and entered Horace Mann in middle school. Whether it is the conversations students have in and out of the classroom, the resources we can access, or even the free food trucks during a tough week, private schools like ours are extremely unique.

The typical school day we were accustomed to lost its relevance when we stepped foot on the school’s monstrous campus for the first time. Lunch no longer meant cold pizza, music class no longer meant watching “The Sound of Music” on repeat, and homework no longer meant 15 minutes of online math games. We had to adjust to an entirely new way of life as we prepared ourselves not only for the infamous workload but also for the social scene, which sometimes featured students flaunting exorbitant wealth.

Contrary to the public schools we had attended, many kids at HM had a lot of money and were not afraid to talk about it. During our sixth grade orientation at Dorr, we heard classmates discuss visits to vacation homes or designer purchases as if they were common occurrences across the student body. We, on the other hand, just felt lucky to embark on a three-day long nature retreat — a luxury our public schools could not afford. In seventh grade, we remember a day when people in the grade would “twin” or wear the same clothing as other students. We heard a group of girls decide on Golden Goose sneakers, Free City sweatpants, and a plain white tee shirt; there was another girl who did not have those sneakers and could not twin with the rest.

These discussions were entirely unfamiliar and difficult to navigate. Our families did not buy us designer clothes or teach us about expensive things — we were only 12. However, after just a few months at private school, everything changed. We asked about Cartier rings and begged for the starred sneakers that everyone had. Our demands did not come from a place of entitlement, but from a place of discomfort; it felt like we did not fit in. We hope students think about the conversations they have and recognize that they are not everyday topics in most schools.

For us, the craziest realization was that it did not seem like private school kids even realized that their everyday lives might be unusual for others. In public school, nobody talked about expensive personal finances because we knew people had different socioeconomic statuses. Although the same applies for private schools, too many students still have these conversations because there is an expectation that everyone is wealthy.

Not only were the conversations a shock when we entered private school, but the freedom within our classrooms and curriculum also shocked us. Public schools must follow stricter city-wide rules, so students are not exposed to the niche courses that our school offers — Voices of Protest, Math Seminar, and Man’s Search for Meaning, to name a few. Students at the school often take these classes and open conversations for granted. Although many might not think much of this opportunity, we have the privilege at HM to dive deeper into our own respective interests instead of being forced to take certain classes.

Beyond academics, the school provides an abundance of opportunities to pursue extracurriculars and nurture passions — you can find people and resources for almost anything you want to do with just an email. In our old schools, arts and music classes were barely invested in because they were not taken seriously. However, here we can borrow a $1,000 digital camera from the photography studio or book a private music room. Since we did not have as much freedom to pursue our artistic interests at public school, we try to take advantage of these resources whenever we can.

Our academic experience during COVID-19 was also very different to that of public school students. Although COVID’s impact was apparent in September 2020, students safely returned to in-person schooling just six months after the pandemic began. Conversely, many public schools did not reopen until September 2021, meaning their students had an extra year of online learning. Our friends from public school told us their learning and social lives suffered during their year online. In comparison, our school had enough money to create safe learning environments in the midst of a global crisis — we put up plastic barriers in classrooms, converted the cafeteria food into a takeout system, and set up tents so that students could eat and have classes outside. Still, we have heard students complain about how our school handled COVID. It is okay to think that, but we hope students realize how much worse public school students had it because their school could not afford these changes.

Even our understandings of wealth have been skewed since arriving here. Sometimes we forget the privileges we have: we are as guilty as anyone of thinking, “we deserve another waffle truck soon” or “I hate how we have to walk across the field to get to the science building.” We do not want to blame students nor call them privileged for taking their resources for granted since not everyone here has the same amount of wealth. However, we hope that students who have attended private school their whole lives understand that few are fortunate enough to have such vast opportunities. 

It is not a given that your peers have gone to an expensive sleepaway camp, owned a designer pair of shoes, or attended a school that pours opportunity over their students.

Entering the “real world” means stepping outside of Horace Mann’s wealth bubble into a society where people’s financial circumstances lie on a much broader spectrum. Although some may think they enter the “real world” only after they have graduated, students enter it every time they leave campus. Acknowledging that we are lucky to attend a school with so many resources when most kids do not is a necessary first step, but we want students to take that acknowledgment further and form a clear understanding of their positions in society.

As students at HM, we have all been given the tools to make the world a better place. The first step is understanding our privilege and using it for good. Maybe you can expose yourself to the greater world by joining the school’s service learning team or volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Maybe try to widen your social circle and make friends from other schools. Whatever the action may be, we hope you stay in touch with reality.