On Education While Living in Poverty by Alyssa Baquera
I was raised in southeast Austin, in a neighborhood called Dove Springs, notorious for being predominately latinx and poor. Men standing against their trucks with beers in hand while their children played soccer in the street, ice cream trucks making their rounds around the neighborhood, graffiti on abandoned buildings, pitbulls tied up behind a chainlink fence, barking wildly as someone walks by, and early Saturday morning yard sales were visions I quickly learned to love as a child. Being so young, I didn’t know any other life besides being poor, so living in the ghetto didn’t feel scary or threatening because it was home.
In 4th grade I found out my parents were getting a divorce. I had never seen my parents argue (then again, I may have been oblivious to it), so it was a shock. I was told they were unhappy together, but that we’d remain a family. They reassured me that our family would remain stable, but as a little kid, this seemed nearly impossible. Soon after, in 5th grade, I found myself living in a room at my aunt’s house, with my mom, sister and brother, and my dad started seeing another woman. All four of us shared that room, and we would alternate between sleeping on the floor, the couch, and on the bed with my mom.
Going to middle school was tough as well. It was here where I first saw drugs, the start of teen pregnancy, and violence. During my time there, all of the girls were called down to an assembly in the cafeteria, and a small woman told us that an all-girls public school was being opened. She urged us to apply to continue our schooling there. All of the girls hated the idea (I was indifferent) but I told my mom, and she said I had to apply whether I liked it or not. So I applied, and got in.
I started attending this school in 7th grade. Being so poor, I often had help from a counselor at school. She talked to all of the poorer students, including myself, and we were taken to a place where they would help underprivileged students. We were given a backpack, school supplies, clothes that fit our strict uniform, underwear, socks, etc. It was around this time when I started to realize what being poor meant, and the burden it was on my mom.
Meanwhile, my dad had already married the woman he was seeing; she already had 6 kids and I now had 8 siblings. At my dad’s house, my brother, sister and I felt hopeless. All of my stepmom’s kids were rowdy- they would often steal our stuff, engage in underage sex in the house, and invite the neighborhood kids inside and challenge each other to fistfights. One son was affiliated with a gang, and two of her daughters became mothers soon after I met them. Most of them had different fathers, some of which they hadn’t seen for years because they were in prison. My dad and stepmom would often leave the house for days at a time as well, and even though I didn’t necessarily get along with my step siblings, we all shared the frustration of never having food in the house. At one point, we all resorted to eating plain slices of bread.
Frustrations grew. My siblings and I dreaded going to my dad’s house, especially during the summer, and we would secretly use the dial-up internet to email our mom, telling her that we were okay, but that we missed her and loved her. I even wrote her letters, explaining all the terrible things that would happen, about seeing drugs and violence, but I never sent them to her. I was just trying to find a way to cope, and pretend like someone was listening.
Life at home with my mom wasn’t any easier than with my dad. In fact, it was harder in certain ways. During the previous year, in 6th grade, she got a boyfriend, who had 5 sons. I thought her boyfriend was almost childlike, since he didn’t seem troubled like my mom, and insisted on acting silly. My siblings seemed to love this, but I disapproved. Despite this, I did appreciate the fact that he momentarily distracted us from our troubles.
One day during that year, my mom told me she was pregnant. I stormed out of her room, and avoided her up until she had the baby. I was so disappointed in her; how could she possibly try and bring another life into this world if she couldn’t even fully support the lives that were already here? When my brother was born and I first held him, something inside me changed. I saw how fragile life was. He was so pure, so innocent. How could I hate this baby, even though he had done nothing wrong?
Even though I got over my anger, my predictions about the future, and the troubles in our family, turned out to be accurate. We faced homelessness a few times, some of which I don’t remember. I only remember the time our car get repossessed, and having to sleep on the cold tile floor of my mom’s boyfriend’s parent’s house. I now had 14 siblings in total, and I felt lost in a sea of cries for attention and love.
School soon became my home, my escape. It was a place where I was guaranteed to have a meal, a place where I could distract myself from the chaos at home. I met amazing teachers at this all-girls school, who pushed me to do my best. I had friends there who would discuss bigger problems in the world with me, about religion, race, class, etc. This school was also incredibly diverse, since it gathered girls from all around the city, which was a huge difference compared to the demographics of all the other schools I attended. For a few hours a day, I forgot about my home life. The routine of school offered a sense of security, something I hadn’t felt in years.
Life outside of school wasn’t by any means enjoyable. I became cold and distant, almost void of emotion. I never cried, because I didn’t want to feel weak, and because my mom hated when I did. I never told anyone how I felt. I was the middle child and I felt invisible. The only way I figured to get anybody’s attention was through my schoolwork.
After 8th grade, I decided to go to a co-ed high school with my older sister, instead of staying at the all-girls school. At this high school there were different academies, which grouped students together who wanted to go into similar fields of study. I signed up to be in the STEM academy. Little did I know, I would be in an academy with only 13 girls, at a school that had 2,000+ students. This was by no means a better school than the middle school I attended, and I was ahead in course material for almost every class. For some reason though, I still felt inadequate. The boys in my classes made me feel inferior; I was so outnumbered by them that I felt isolated.
Unlike most of the friends I’ve made in college or online, high school was a breeze for me. Not because I was “super smart” but because the schools in Austin that are comprised mostly of minorities weren’t challenging. They lack funding combined with a huge turnover rate with teachers, a lot of them are often threatened by the idea that these schools have “difficult” students.
Austin is heavily segregated, yet everyone turns a blind eye. If you live on the east side of I-35, you are either black or brown; there are very few white people. Not only that, but if you live on the east side you are almost guaranteed to be living in poverty. In addition, there is almost no funding for schooling. Teachers in these schools have been known to pay for school supplies out of pocket, just to provide for basic classroom needs.
Everyone boasts about how good the schools are here, but the schools they talk about are all on the west side of the highway, and are almost entirely white. They brags about their good test scores, graduation rates, low rates of teen pregnancy, and college acceptances. But everyone has forgotten about the rest of us, we are invisible, and struggling.
If it wasn’t for the top 10% rule here in Texas (a rule that allows anyone graduating in the top 10% of their class acceptance into all state-funded Texas universities), I probably wouldn’t have been admitted into UT, something I still feel very guilty about.
I was excited to go to college, and get a good education, mostly out of fear of turning out like my stepmom’s family; but now that I’m here, I’ve found that I’m scrambling to play catch up, and pretend like I’m on par with the rest of the students. I’ve only met very few students who come from backgrounds like me. This is perhaps due to the disregard of poor people, and the guilt many poor people feel about their situation, which leads to our silence and shame.
Besides this fact, I do enjoy learning at a higher level, but I can’t help but feel inadequate in terms of my race, class, and gender. There are so many aspects of my life which have affected where I am today, and although I am thankful to be where I am, I can’t help but feel incredibly frustrated towards my circumstances. I have grown up in such a disorderly environment, surrounded by gang violence, poverty, violence against women, gentrification, and with a huge burden to make a better life for myself than my parents. Now here I am, after moving 20+ times, thankfully living in a more peaceful home life than before. But while I am attending a big name university, I can’t help but feel like I shouldn’t be here, as if people can see straight through me and see my past. Sometimes I can’t help but think I was only given this opportunity because of my background.
I know a lot of people have had very bad experiences with school, but if I hadn’t spent my time there, I wouldn’t have found the people that gave me the courage and support I did not receive at home, and I probably would still be in a very tough place right now.
Alyssa is a 19 yr old Mexican-American WOC currently attending UT Austin, double majoring in astronomy and physics. Besides her studies, her passions lie in playing drums, marathoning the LOTR extended editions, and consuming hot cheetos. You can find her on twitter and tumblr.
Illustration by Van Hong (website).