Views from the West Wing: A Story of Suburban Wealth and Student Necessity

In Kirkland, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, low- and middle- income students face unique challenges to learning effectively and fitting in at school.

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Stretches of beaches, streets lined with luxury cars, McMansions stacked for blocks at a time. Welcome to Downtown Kirkland. 8 minutes away from Bellevue, a city heralded for its cutting-edge development, 15 minutes away from the infamous Seattle, and 6 minutes away from my high school.

Lake Washington High School sits nestled perfectly between metropolitan Kirkland and Redmond. Its west wing overlooks the glistening Lake Washington. The school’s brand new math and science wing sits right in front of its expansive parking lot—filled with cyan Porsches that sits grandiloquently in the front row of the student section, tricked out BMWs, the ever-so-popular Kia Soul and Volkswagen buggies. And—if you sit in the right classroom, ignore the teacher’s instructions, and squint—you can see the outline of the Space Needle in the distance. The school fits right in and is mostly appreciated by the surrounding businesses and feeder schools, and alumni continue to return for the generational aspect of it all.

But, this is not the only reason why Lake Washington High School sits comfortably. Lake Washington High School is ‘comfortable’ in the same way that people use that word to replace ‘rich’ or ‘wealthy’ in conversation. Lake Washington sits on a pile of property taxes that have funded the wide array of resources available within its walls. The multitude of resources available was made apparent by the onslaught of COVID-19 in Washington State. The district was quick to offer Wi-Fi hotspots for remote learning, free meal pick up and other resources to guarantee student support. But, whether or not students take advantage of the resources available to them is another story.

A student having their basic needs met is one thing that seems like a given during the times of COVID-19. In fact it should be guaranteed, as outlined by the third Move School Forward principle. In wealthier districts like mine, the resources to satisfy this need seem bountiful—extraordinary even. But help cannot be given whenstudents do not feel comfortable asking for help, they won’t. As I look back on my years at Lake Washington, I think back to the times my friends said that they were scrambling to find money to afford AP Exams, field trip fees, the like. I wondered if they had ever tried to ask a teacher for support with this and if they had looked into other fee-waiving programs. But, as I was asking people the same questions over and over again, I realized that Lake Washington High School and its bubble of wealth, “comfort” even, had created an environment amongst students that didn’t encourage asking for help. 

Students who don’t have access to the essentials—that is, resources that ensure their physical, social, and emotional needs are met—don’t feel comfortable asking for assistance in obtaining them. This is especially true amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  Students were uncomfortable with asking their teachers for help. Students who couldn’t find resources for meal-pickup were too afraid to reach out to their friends and ask where to find them. A resolve to this issue does not lie within some grand scheme to reallocate funding to support these students. The funding is already there. The solution lies within changing the stigma behind being middle and lower class. 

The mindset that needing financial help is some kind of social suicide has plagued low and middle-income students for far too long. Needing financial help has been a point of self-loathe for students who need it. And I mean, what can I say? Seeing students walk around the building wearing hyped clothing items and leaving school in BMWs and Mercedes will do that to you. And I know that wanting to be those students will do that to you. I have yearned to blend in with those who never have even had to think about where the money for food, education access and necessities come from. To be able to live your life and navigate your education with such a mindset is a privilege that I have recently been able to relish, and the years of worrying about the costs of my lunch and fees have left such an impression—an impression that will change your strides down a hallway filled with kids who have spent their lives living “comfortably”. 

I think that now, when I get the chance, I’ll drive to Lake Washington High School and drive my blue SUV around to the west wing that, if you’re up high enough, overlooks Lake Washington, a glistening lake lined with Beach houses and McMansions. I’ll try to look up and see the Space Needle. I’ll squint and try to ignore the background noise, but I won’t see it. And, unlike Lake Washington High School, it’s not that comfortable when you can’t look out the window and see the Space Needle. Not being able to see such a symbol is unsettling. Not being able to see the lake or the money in the parking lot, it’s not comfortable at all—and it’s uncomfortable in the way that’ll make you feel like you don’t fit in.