The current story in the radio show This American Life illustrates through an individual experience the reality of the gap between rich and poor in the United States as played out in education. It tells the story of New York city high school students participating in an exchange in which they visited each other’s schools. Both schools were in the Bronx and just 3 miles apart, but as put in the story, it took the equivalent of a foreign exchange program to bring them together. One school, University Heights High School, is a public school and is 97% black and Hispanic. The other, Fieldston, is one of New York City’s elite private schools, 70% white with an annual tuition rate of $43,000. The story follows several students who participated in the exchange visits and in particular one girl, Melanie, from University Heights, who reacted to the visit to Fieldston with shock and dismay. She was a bright student who seemed sure to go on to college and be successful in whatever career she would take up. But after managing to track Melanie down 10 years after the exchange between the schools, Chana Joffe-Walt, the producer of the episode, discovered that she had in fact not followed that path. In conversations with Melanie, we learn of the dream she had to attend a prestigious university and her struggles to get by working in a grocery store and her profound shame over her situation. Melanie had been close to winning a scholarship to attend an elite college (Middlebury) but was not selected. A student who did win a scholarship through that same program is also followed in the episode. The young man, Jonathan, attended Wheaton College, but dropped out. Although he had a full scholarship, he had no money to buy his textbooks, and felt out of place among the other students. Their stories demonstrate in poignant ways how difficult is to cross socio-economic boundaries, even with the support both students received from teacher-mentors.
In interviewing Melanie, Joffe-Walt went back to that initial visit to Fieldston and her shock at seeing the radically different environment:
It was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have. I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.
So that’s what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we’re all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability, she just didn’t know what to do with the idea that she might be alone in seeing that.