In 2013, I went to prom.
It was my junior prom, to be exact, at an art gallery on the outskirts of downtown San Antonio. I wore a black dress with a heart-shaped neckline, tasteful floral lace on the back and dangly black and white earrings. My date was a boy I loved who loved to dance and loved me for me even though I couldn't walk in the heels I bought on the clearance rack. We posed for pictures. We went to dinner. And if it's between you and me, it was my first time not wearing a bra in public (the dress didn't call for one, you get me ladies) and for an insecure 17-year-old, that was a big step.
It was everything a prom should be, funny, emotional and riddled with teenage blunders that can only happen in high school. Someone cool won the titles, I tripped a few times, and then for the first time in my young life I went to a boys house after midnight and we watched "Across the Universe" and talked about The Beatles.
The night was carefree- or as close to it as it could be with his mother's bedroom door cracked open. It was a night where I could order the pasta from Chili's and feel okay about the bill. A night where my earrings glittered when the light hit them just right and a night when a boy's smile made me realize what love was.
It wasn't perfect, but nothing is. It was beautiful in its own way. A celebration of adolescence. As close to carefree as we could get.
I don't use that word very often. Even typing it just now was odd. I'm not sure if I've ever really known a time where there hasn't been something to worry about, besides the speckles, like prom night. Growing up in a single-parent household with a mom who worked 40+ hours a week, a family where someone was always in-and-out of the hospital, and my own insecurities come teenagehood, the words "...maybe you shouldn't..." often played on repeat in the back of my head. I erred on the side of caution, always, because it was easier to afford.
The thing is, I didn't realize my life was different from other peoples. Not really, at least. Kids that I called my best friends came from situations that were similar to mine, with moms they'd see only sometimes because they were working so much or dad's who they hadn't heard from in years. We were the kids who shopped at thrift stores because it was what we could afford, not because it was trendy. You could get three or four shirts for less than a dollar on Tuesday's and by the time you hit your first decade your eyes were laser-trained to search for the day's colored tags at Goodwill.
It was a good life, I think. My mom understood the power of saving and with savings came trips to the mall for back-to-school shopping. We teetered on the left edge of middle-class, never paying full price and never taking family vacations. Had I not been tall for my age, the people at Denny's may have believed I was under 12 when I was wasn't because kids eat free on Wednesday's. Money was always a concern ticking away at the back of my neck, but we just learned how to live with what we had.
I didn't mind, not really. That's just how things were. But, I think it's because I didn't know what carefree looked like outside of a spinning dance.
I never really knew rich people that were my age until I arrived up North. I knew people with big houses and nice cars in San Antonio, but the levels of wealth of some at my university is greater than any wealth I have ever known. I never really understood the division of the 1% and the rest of us until I met people who fall into the first category. And, with that, my first semester of college was a culture-shock of pink whales, Canada Goose and Starbucks gold members. In the first week I met a girl who's father owns a yacht that she spent her last days of summer partying on. I spent mine working fast-food.
I had no idea this world existed.
No matter how many movies you watch about a rich businessman or a CEO, you won't really understand them until you meet his daughter in person.
She's a girl who seems carefree. The type of girl who goes out on Tuesday's and flutters around in pretty dresses that cost hundreds of dollars, with jewelry that always seems to sparkle, even during math class. The type of boy who racks up bar bills because he can and deals drugs on the side to feel some kind of self-importance. He knows he'll be okay if he does another line of coke, though, because his dad got him an internship in New York City this summer. He'll refuse to take the subway, he never has, because it's dirty and he has a driver.
To me, initially, it seemed like these kids were always living on prom night. It seemed like their whole lives were built on the definition of the word "carefree." I'd like to say that for a second I wanted to be just like them (I think that would make this story better), but I don't even think I can afford the thought of that, haha. I think what I struggled with understanding was why my situation was different. How did I get dealt this card when life can be so easy if you just have so much money? I don't know.
But, on a night where buying textbooks is a struggle, it would be nice to be carefree. It would be nice to have family vacations and pasta from Chili's, but that's not my reality, not right now at least, and I'm okay with that.
Every day shouldn't be prom night. If it was, I wouldn't be writing this blog post. I think everyone should know financial struggle because it tests what makes you human. It tests what it means to fall in love and to stay up late talking about The Beatles. It makes things hard and it brings out emotions you didn't even know could be felt. It weakens you, in a way, but only to make you stronger.
It would be selfish to think that these kids I know are completely carefree. We're all human and with being human comes a natural instinct to worry. Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy a good time. But, so can good people and I like that much better. I've found my little diamonds in the rough in college and I'm really happy about that.
I think in acknowledging my own worries, financially and otherwise, I've learned to acknowledge other peoples. Though some have never learned the struggle of money, they may know the struggle of a parent they never see because they're working so much or a dad who left when they were young. There's always more to someone's story and you can't blame someone for how much money their family makes, that's just the card they were dealt. You can only accept people for the things that make them different and be cognizant of those differences. Just because someone doesn't have to care about something doesn't mean it's not important and impactful on others, and that should be acknowledged. Ignorance shouldn't be blissful and instead awareness should be encouraged.
If you're living a life that is financially carefree, that's awesome. Utilize that. But remember, there are kids out there that only see speckles of nights as shiny as prom sometimes. We are all people. It's important to know we exist, too.
So, you can call me the 99% or you can call me Katherine. With education and hardwork, though, hopefully one day it can feel like prom night again. Not perfect, because nothing is, just as close to carefree as we can get.
This post first appeared on The Whitest Brown Girl Blog.
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