That’s the pretentious nickname bestowed upon students and alumni of my tiny independent school district, referencing Marie Antoinette’s infamous quote (that she never actually said): “Let them eat cake!” The connotations of her elitist attitude during the French Revolution perfectly epitomize the climate surrounding my upper-class community.
Situated in one of the most affluent regions of Northern Kentucky, the Fort Thomas Independent School system has a reputation that boasts decades upon decades of excellence in academics, football, and beyond. We are perhaps most notable, however, for the epidemic of entitlement that has plagued our culture since Highlands High School first opened its doors in the fall of 1915.
Growing up, my mother was a freelance journalist and my father was the senior art director for a small magazine company based in Cincinnati. They moved to Fort Thomas as soon as they got married, using the little money they had to buy a house in a community where they knew their future children would be provided a top-tier education. We lived comfortably in the middle class, and I wanted for nothing. The same was true for the majority of my classmates.
I first started recognizing and reflecting upon my privileged environment when I entered middle school. My sixth-grade year, the district went through a “digital conversion” in which every single middle and high school student received their own MacBook Air.
Meanwhile, according to an article by The Atlantic, 61% of K-12 schools in America do not even have reliable wireless network access for their students. I had a wake-up call at that point. Instead of marveling at the incredible tools we had in our possession, many of my classmates — and even teachers — complained about the MacBooks. Constantly.
“They’re so difficult to get used to!”
“I don’t know how to work this stupid thing!”
“Things were easier with a simple pencil, paper, and textbook!”
I was appalled to hear the whining. Even considering my ignorance about privilege at the time, I understood that not every school district gave their students MacBooks; in fact, it was practically unheard of. The opportunities introduced with access to the Internet, as well as the plethora of resources, were endless. Listening to others actively taking those opportunities and resources for granted made me sick to my stomach.
There was a teacher in middle school with whom I strongly connected, but she ended up leaving her job at Highlands to teach at a school in a neighboring, low-income river city. The school in question was notorious for fights, gangs, and most memorably, its high African-American population. At Highlands, fights are nearly inconceivable and the student population is 92% white. Students at my school never have to worry about drug-deals or turf wars. Most of us could never even imagine a school environment with those types of daily occurrences. Despite our close geographic proximity to schools facing serious, long-term issues, we could not be more distant in terms of our awareness of these differing classroom cultures.
Despite our close geographic proximity to schools facing serious, long-term issues, we could not be more distant in terms of our awareness of these differing classroom cultures.
The dichotomy between Fort Thomas and the impoverished river town five minutes down the road is striking — and the contrast is evident. As I leave the city limits of Fort Thomas behind and drive deeper into the real world, the rose-colored glasses of my middle-class existence are quickly torn from my eyes. McMansions transform into run-down apartment buildings. Charming, family-owned businesses suddenly become Quickcash and Big Daddy’s Liquor Store. “Neighborhood Watch” signs pop up at every street corner. The implications of these discrepancies are wide-reaching, destructive, and highly indicative of the way a slight change in zip code truly impacts the ability of students and families to succeed.
When my teacher transferred, my classmates asked her why she would want to leave a place like Highlands for another (in my classmates’ eyes, inferior) school. They didn’t know better than to ask that question; what more can you expect when the African-American population in Fort Thomas is so shamefully scarce? When the racial divide is so polarizing that people on the other side of the gap become invisible to those that don’t know better? That are not taught to know better?
She responded solemnly, a slight glimmer of sorrow in her wide brown eyes.
“I became a teacher to help students succeed, but the students here have already succeeded in the lottery of life. I need to make an actual difference for kids that wouldn’t succeed otherwise.”
In those two sentences, she single-handedly shattered my worldview, led me to begin intensely questioning my own reality, and set me on my path to discovering youth activism.
Advocacy became an outlet, one in which I could share my deeply-rooted values while also continuing to grow and explore my own privileges. As my perspective matured, I realized that much of my personal success could be attributed to factors completely out of my control, such as race, income, and even zip code. It seemed that my response to this inequity was the only thing I could control. I connected with an entirely new community of people, expanding the diversity of my friendships beyond what I ever thought possible. I met teenagers that have undergone experiences I will never have to endure; teenagers that have persevered against impossible circumstances, and have devoted themselves to making the world an accepting environment for all. How much more empathetic would our society be, holistically, if all students were given these same opportunities for growth?
Oftentimes, discussion surrounding privilege misrepresents my generation’s predicament. The skewed perspective about privilege held by both myself and my peers is rooted not in prejudice, but ignorance. Raised in an environment where a malfunctioning MacBook is our greatest concern, many of my classmates and I live a life insulated from an acknowledgement of societal disparities.
By failing to teach students to look outside of themselves and recognize others’ realities, we build generations of close-minded, entitled students that inevitably grow into close-minded, entitled adults. It presents a dangerous dilemma for educators today — should we swaddle students in comfortable bubbles of ignorance? Or should we pop those bubbles, forcing students to confront their personal privileges, and in doing so, confront their own humility as well?
As a Cake-Eater myself, I’m a proponent of the latter.