The elevator was rising higher and higher, and my ears started to pop. When we reached the top we had a beautiful twilight view of the London skyline. Someone ushered us to the hostess stand, and a neatly-dressed man led us to our table.
I teetered on my three-inch heels as we passed the kitchen. With only a waist-high wall to separate the coiffed guests from the gritty tumult of the kitchen, I realized I was terribly out of my element.
Growing up, my family didn’t have a great deal of money. We lived comfortably, but at a certain age my brothers and I learned to stop asking for candy in the checkout line or for extravagant presents at Christmas.
But I was lucky enough to attend a local private school with the help of scholarships and financial aid. I’ve been around wealthy families my entire life. I struggled for a long time between desperately wanting to fit in and also knowing that if my mom bought me the new shoes I wanted, the money would have to come from somewhere else.
When I was 14, my mom made me get a job. I worked in her office putting together employee handbooks. I filed and shredded my way through the entire summer, and since then I’ve held jobs consistently.
When high school started in the fall, I was invited to houses with basketball courts in the basement or indoor pools off of the garage. I knew a lot of people who boasted their wealth, but I gravitated towards people who didn’t have their parents annual income stamped across their forehead. Our friend group was economically diverse, but it didn't matter — we were all friends first.
At Elon, instead of seeing Jeeps in the parking lot, there were Range Rovers, BMWs and Porches. I wasn’t surprised — with a southern private school, it was to be expected. I’ve grown so accustomed to constantly being reminded of my economic status at this point that I hardly notice anymore.
For Spring Break, I spent all of my saved up birthday money and bought a ticket to London to visit my best friend who is studying abroad with New York University.
I met her friends immediately upon arrival. They were all so sweet and welcoming. We got along so well from the beginning that somewhere along the way I forgot how much money a family needs to have to send their child to NYU.
It wasn’t until we were being served Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor of a London skyscraper that I felt my economic status so deeply. Should I have covered up more? Am I wearing too much makeup? I awkwardly checked my phone, waiting for the time to pass.
I smiled a little extra at the waiters, thanked them sincerely for filling up my water glass and stared almost longingly into the kitchen.
When I woke up the next morning this experience was nearly forgotten as my friend, her roommate and I all reverted back to our usual goofy selves.
That day we went to have tea at Harrods. We walked around for what felt like hours in what seemed like some kind of fantasy land. There were real life people casually buying shoes from Armani, handbags from Gucci, baby clothes from Dolce & Gabbana and perfume from Prada.
Again I felt out of place. The attendants seemed to be staring at me — wearing my mom’s old college sweatshirt — daring me to touch something.
We wandered for a while until we found the furs. One coat was made of chinchilla and — I’m not kidding — cost 44,500 pounds. That converts to just over 55,000 US Dollars. That is more than one full-priced year of Elon tuition. I simply could not comprehend the kind of life someone would have to lead to be able to shop at Harrods, let alone work there.
I’ve been in communities with widespread economic privilege my entire life so I’m used to feeling out of place, but I try to remember that there will always be someone who is richer than me and who is poorer than me.
When it comes down to it, economic privilege is just another social identifier that separates people instead of bringing them together. I’ve had good friends at both ends of the spectrum. And while judgement is a part of our biology and it is foolish thought to think that we will stop judging one another based on a superficial label, we can still get to know somebody before we permanently categorize them as inherently “other” from us.