A Tale of One City

Loves history and politics almost as much as Kurt Vonnegut novels.

I have lived two lives in Syosset, New York. The first as middle class and suburban as one would expect in a top-tier school district in a top-price county. The second, completely unimaginable to my optimistic, five-year-old mind. In 2007, Mom and Dad bought their very first house; they were grown-ups now with two kids, a third on the way, and everything was on the up-and-up. For nearly two years, we sat comfortably in our American Dream paradise. I kept busy with little league, summer camp, and two(!) Disney vacations.

When I first heard about this “recession” the country was supposedly in, I was too young to realize it had absolutely nothing to do with the “recess” I had come to love at school. In December 2008, my parents sat the kids down to tell us that Dad had lost his job at a large law firm in New York City; “I guess no Hanukkah presents this year,” I cried to myself — of course, that wasn’t the biggest problem.

Over the next few months, Mom and Dad put the house on the market, or what remained of it at least. After touring some potential new schools across state lines, Mom, in particular, couldn’t imagine her children being educated with anything less than Syosset’s opportunities. So, making the sacrifice that defined my second life, the family stayed in Syosset, though no longer homeowners, renting and renting as the houses got smaller and smaller. All this happening in the town in which we had felt so secure just one year before.

But the problem cuts deeper than little five-year-old me not being able to go on Splash Mountain again. There is a clear problem of socioeconomic division amongst our public schools and nowhere is it clearer than on Long Island, where I am from. Affluent towns like mine are only a fifteen minute drive on the Long Island Expressway (L.I.E.) from towns where nearly 90% of students received free or reduced-price lunch. Meanwhile, I’m part of the just 6% on that list in Syosset and the 5% who have been covered by Medicaid.

At no other point was this division on Long Island more clearly spelled out for me than last year when I joined a group at my school called “Breaking Borders,” which was created to address problems surrounding my area’s de facto segregation. All this group really amounted to was visiting kids from poorer high schools who just wanted to chat about teenager things while the Syosseters smiled at them with a smug noblesse oblige attitude, wanting to help the “poors” with some kind of charitable glee.

In a discussion group, as is the Breaking Borders protocol, I sat with some Syosset students and a few from those schools fifteen minutes away. We eventually got to the topic of college applications and tuition. I was stunned by the lack of self-awareness and blatantly misguided judgment of the audience this one Syosset senior had as she complained to the group, “Oh, filling out the FAFSA is such a waste of time! I know I’m not going to get any financial aid.” Out of the students in the room, this one stood out like a sore thumb (or rather, like a Syosset kid receiving free lunch).

The next person to speak in the circle was a boy from another school who told his story of arriving in America at a young age after the earthquake in Haiti, currently holding DACA status. It would be completely understandable for anyone looking in on the group to think at first that I was the antithesis of this immigrant student. I’ve lived on Long Island my whole life and I’m one of the whitest guys you’ll ever meet. When I wear my hair short — distancing my hair follicles from their bushy, Jewish heritage— I could easily pass for your good ol’ clean-cut, All-American poster child. Definitely not a Latino Haitian DACA immigrant. But sitting in that group discussion, I was shocked to find I related more closely with the comments made by that student than with someone from my own school.

Clearly, where I live does not tell the full story of my experience. The days of idealized, post-war, suburban dreamscapes have passed. However, I would be remiss to not add the caveat that I recognize how inconceivably fortunate I am to live where I live and have access to the public education resources I have. Especially in a country with schools ranking thirty-eighth in the developed world and chronically underfunded districts, it is heaven-sent that I go to school in Syosset, even by the means of struggling. But conversely, why should anyone in the richest country in the world not have access to what I have? Why should anyone struggle to receive it, and why should some not even be able to afford to struggle to receive it? A solid, public education should be a given in this country. Take it from me, after all, I have two lives’ worth of experience.