The letter was waiting for me when I arrived home, lying unassumingly in a dark corner of my desk where my mother had left it. Impatiently I opened it, thumb tearing through the seal in jerks, mutilating the envelope as I pulled out a crisp sheet of wide ruled loose-leaf paper, neatly folded into thirds. I unfolded it with that wide-eyed zeal with which a young boy regards the rare letter addressed to him, noting with satisfaction the strong creases, the words engraved clearly and methodically in blue ink, the perfection of the left edge where the page had been carefully torn from a perforated notebook. The letter’s tidiness appealed to me at once, and I knew, too, even before I read the first word, that it was the last of many drafts, a collection of sentences carefully worked out in someone’s hidden diary, a letter to be kept as some sort of memento.
Eagerly I began to read, and as my eyes scanned the lines before me I felt my teeth clench involuntarily and a cold rush of adrenaline shoot down my spine. Frozen in time, I called my mother’s name in a voice that, quavering, betrayed my sense of living nightmare. Four years later, a near-forgotten specter had returned. I pinched the letter by the corner so as to touch it as little as possible, and ran from the room as if I had seen a ghost.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my parents made the dubious decision to send me to public school. In retrospect, given our income at the time, a private education may seem to have been an inappropriate extravagance. But I maintain that my parents’ choice was specific and intentional. There are two types of public schools in New York City: middle-class schools and lower-class schools. It was not an accident than I ended up at an institution from the latter category (and then there is P.S. 6, but that hardly counts). By exposing me to real-world social problems at the age of five, my parents were attempting to perform a kind of social service, echoing that liberal ideal that a public school education should be good enough for all. Yet the effects of their choice were far subtler than they anticipated. They did not understand that our family occupied a strange and vast middling ground, the weird, foggy gap between the poor and the very rich. In their attempt to keep me from feeling entitled, they placed me in a universe in which my seemingly inestimable wealth let me pass for a kind of royalty. By the standards of my public school, my family’s vacations were luxurious and our Riverside Drive apartment was a veritable mansion. My mother was active in the school’s PTA, and while I never felt privileged, exactly, I knew that I benefitted greatly from some great unspoken advantage. I was never bullied in the schoolyard. The gruff, fat old principal was always kind to me, though he probably never knew that I feared him just as everyone else. I was just another kid, I felt. And in my innocence, everyone was my friend.
Time has done quite a number on my memories from public school. As should be expected of early childhood memories, I suppose, it is images rather than narratives that I remember best. But these memories, the chronicle of three years of my childhood, are also somehow physical, real and gritty and pressing in a way that my other early memories are not. I recall most clearly the stench of the bathrooms, but also the books in their blue plastic containers, the dimly lit hallways that seemed perpetually grimy, the skinned knees and lighthearted brawls of our kickball games at recess in the asphalt yard. Public school has a taste for me, too—the slightly sweet-and-sour flavor of the chocolate milk in those small brown cartons that I would sneak back into class for an afternoon snack. Looking back, it’s surprising that out of my foggy recollections I can remember these few key moments and sensations with such clarity. But these memories are lies. They are tainted, impure, and maybe even fabricated. I know this because I have used them, exploited them for arguments and cocktail party conversation. Now that I am almost an adult, I have to sort through these memories and establish which were real, and which were distorted later on in service of narrative.
I say “fabricated” because mixed in with these random details and sensory memories, there are also images in my mind (and statistics, somehow) which cannot be my own. I know them from hearing my mother speak a thousand times on social justice, know them from having repeated them myself a thousand times again, if only to see the shock on my peers’ innocent faces. I know that seventy-two percent of the students were living below the poverty line, and I have conjured images to match: visions of my schoolmates going home to black and hellish dungeons. But objectively I know that in my three years at P.S. 163, I only went to five friends’ houses, and that each of these five friends was from the Gifted program and was distinctively white and middle class. The others would come to my house to play, and if they were ever impressed by the high ceilings or the French door windows that opened out on the park, they never let on. There was no art room, but never having had one before, I did not suffer from a lack of one. There were mice and rats running around the classrooms which I was very aware of at the time, but my only direct memory of vermin was the one baby mouse we caught in a sticky trap. In my memory the mouse was not quite dead, and my half-hysterical second grade teacher was compelled to thwack it to death with a hardcover book from the classroom’s small library. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this brutal incident never transpired. That mouse didn’t die in the open; it wasted away, immobilized in glue, in the dark and shadowy space behind the radiator. And we didn’t find it until it started to smell.
As I held the letter, I felt these memories swept over me in a wave of bitter and conflicted emotion. Dear Eyck, the letter read, I am writing to you because I need your help. My mother works very hard, but we are passing through a hard time and she cannot afford Christmas presents for me and my sisters. I love my sisters and I love my mother, and I want to find presents for them…I don’t recall the exact words—every time I think of the letter I remember them in a different order. But it was the closing that struck me hardest: Thank you for your generosity. Many thanks, Jonathan. Generosity, generosity—had that been my reputation at 163: a walking checkbook? It couldn’t have been. I myself had never even had pocket money, rarely had candy, always just brought a crappy tuna sandwich from home. My mother donated games and school supplies from her toy company, but I was never one to buy my friends’ favor. No—this letter’s strain of thinking went deeper, cut to the core of my growing self-awareness and sense of general liberal shame. I felt guilty for leaving, for abandoning the public school where my family had played such an important role. I felt guilty for never returning to visit, and feeling too awkward to announce to the class what school I was leaving for. I felt guilty for having Christmas presents and a mother who could afford to buy them. I was overcome by the kind of self-loathing that hits you when you think too hard about the homeless man with an outstretched arm on the sidewalk. Even to my seventh-grade mind, the outline of the letter’s politics began to swim into focus. My individual choice to leave P.S. 163 would not singlehandedly cripple the public school system, nor would a donation of toys, however generous, affect national poverty by one iota. What was my responsibility, then? Where did my loyalties lie?
As I shoved the letter before the startled eyes of my parents, I turned away and racked my brains for an image of Jonathan. He had come new in the first or second grade, I remembered, a welcome addition to a class with too few boys. He was a skinny Latino kid who wore shirts slightly too small for him, and whose mother was often to be seen at school events, plying him with food. I had been friendly towards him but had never truly known him, never exchanged more words with him than the few needed to swap candy at lunchtime or call a foul in a soccer game. Try as I might, I could not remember his face. Goddamnit, why couldn’t I? It was almost as if he had no face, as if he were more symbol than person. Four years after we parted ways for good, here he was again, bursting back into my consciousness with this brazen, wretched letter. Naturally, my parents were concerned. “Do you know this boy?” they pressed me. “How did he get our address?”
Immediately I regretted involving them. “No, I don’t think I know him,” I lied. “I knew a Jonathan back at 163, but this can’t be him. Look at this—it’s girls’ handwriting.” This placated my mother slightly, but father was still perturbed. After a minute or two of wild speculation, he gave me the excuse I had come for. “You know what? This is begging through the mail,” he said in a comforting voice, resting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “If you’re friends with the boy and you want to respond, we can do that. But if you don’t want to open a can of worms, don’t feel that you’re obligated to write him back.”
I nodded gravely, momentarily unable to voice a response. And then I grabbed the letter, holding it again by the corner as if it were infected with plague, and threw it crumpled in the garbage can.
Three years passed before my parents decided they had had enough of New York’s public school system, but one day, after a fight with the principal over the ethnic makeup of the Gifted and Talented class, my mother’s resolve cracked. Under no circumstances would I be educated in an elite white program within a black and brown school. And so as quickly as I had come, I was plucked out of my life among the masses and whisked away to a new, hermetically sealed universe. I could only bear to tell my best friends where I was going, and I never told anybody why.
The first thing I noticed about my new school, aside from the stone façade and “Great Hall” (which reminded my fanciful imagination of Hogwarts) was an overwhelming feeling of cleanliness. Everything about Trinity was pure and innocent and clean and bright and sanitized. I had never heard of Purell before I came to Trinity, but it was soon introduced to me as a magical substance, good for cleansing all things. My peers rejected food left and right, this bagel because it “smelled funny,” that apple because it had a brown spot. The floors were carpeted or shone with polished tile. The walls were whitewashed and the windows free from soot. No one puked in the cafeteria, and when I walked into class in the morning, rather than a mix of tans and blacks and browns, I was met by sixteen white and smiling faces.
Over the past ten years at Trinity, I have come to recognize that I fit the mold no better than I did at P.S. 163. Incredibly, I am the only white student in my grade that I know to have come from public school. I enjoy standing out and feel no great desire to conform, and I have always enjoyed telling stories of my public school life because I know its power to shock and amaze. My experience gives me an instant authority whenever conversations turn to education policy, and it gives me great pleasure, even for a moment, to take a friend who has grown up in a sealed and sanitized universe and show him the lovely grit and physicality of real life. Even if he doesn’t believe me—which I know he doesn’t, really—even if he assumes I am exaggerating to prove my point, I feel that I owe it to him to tell him, somehow. I continue with this madness because one day he may receive a Jonathan letter of his own, and I want him to be prepared to be thrown backwards by a sudden, brutal realization that the world does not see him as he imagines it does. I am happy to be this gadfly.
I look to all the world like I belong here, among the ranks of the privileged. But perhaps because of my upbringing, I am physically repulsed by ostentatious displays of wealth. And boy, have I seen some of these. One bat mitzvah in particular stands out in my memory, an affair of Gatsbian proportions that sticks in my mind perhaps because it was soon after I received the letter from Jonathan. The event took place at one of Manhattan’s most expensive restaurants, which was fully rented out for the occasion. We dined at carefully selected tables with custom-designed chandeliers hanging over our heads, and the table linens had been changed at great expense at the last minute because a rival party planner had discovered their pattern. On stage some famous rapper, hired for the evening, danced with the birthday girl. But for some reason, despite the pounding beat and the girls’ shouts and the activity on the dance floor, my eyes were drawn upward to a moving, shimmering thing hanging from the ceiling. It was a human disco ball—a woman covered from head to toe in a skin-tight suit of circular mirrors, hung from a trapeze far overhead as she flipped and turned and did her tricks. “Oh God,” I found myself muttering to no one in particular, “Oh God. I have to record this. I have to write this down”
I did not have the vocabulary to express myself, but I was fascinated and appalled. This spectacle, this instantaneous evaporation of millions of dollars, in the same city as Jonathan and his sisters sat by an empty Christmas tree! But from above, I mused, from the height of the trapeze, I was no different from any of the other prepubescent children who danced and milled awkwardly around me. I was just another rich boy in a Brooks Brothers jacket and khaki pants. And it was then that I realized who Jonathan is. Jonathan is the human disco ball and the men and women who scrub and polish when I go home at night to keep Trinity clean and white and shining. His disgust at me is theirs, and theirs is his. And it is more than disgust—it is hatred and resentment and envy and also some special, twisted kind of love, the hope that such opulent things do exist to aspire towards. How can I tell them that I am not what they think I am? That I understand and empathize with their plight? That I have not been presented with a choice and chosen to abandon them? Oh God, Jonathan, what have I done?
In the five years since I received Jonathan’s letter, not a week has gone by when I have not thought of it. At first I did everything I could do to escape it. I changed my route walking to Trinity in the morning so I did not have to pass the public school. I fell out of touch with my old friends. Something about the urgency of that letter, which I could never quite identify as either innocent hope or clever emotional manipulation, aroused all these old demons in me, feelings of fear and guilt and betrayal. I know today that I was but one drop in the flood of moneyed and talented students that leaks incessantly out of the New York public school system. Besides which, I was an innocent in the decision to abandon ship. Ultimately the call fell to my parents. But I know, too, that I was party to that decision, and it is the innocence that constitutes this crime. I could have gone back to P.S. 163, volunteered, tutored, helped out how I could, but I was and still am too ashamed to walk through its doors again. It sounds utterly narcissistic to assert that the school suffered for my leaving it; perhaps I should say that they lost not only me, but what I represented: an upper-middle class white family willing to practice what it preached and help reform the system from within. When I moved on to prep school, the school became that much more economically homogeneous—that much less desirable to other families that shared my parents’ old quixotic hopes.
Only through time—I had hoped—I could separate myself from this guilt and confusion, and discern through my cloudy memory only the occasions when I had felt at home, those idyllic images of childhood innocence. But Jonathan’s letter cut through this fog like a searchlight, revealing me for what I was (whatever I was) and blinding me to his intentions. I could not forget, so I had to rationalize.
I do not feel guilty that I ignored Jonathan’s letter. My guilt is the fear of what would have happened if I had responded. Would I have become a friend? A patron? A kind of master? In any case, the transformation would have been complete; a happy myth would have died. We would no longer have been able to pretend that we were merely old classmates, buddies from our old school days. Above all, I would have had to relinquish my claim to my own version of the truth. But for now, knowing that this is all a hypothetical, I feel comfortable shelving it in some dark, deserted corner of my psyche. I will come back to it one day, and maybe then I will be able to confront it with something like honesty.
Ten years after leaving P.S. 163 I am now a pompous, prep school-educated adolescent, preparing applications for some of the world’s most prestigious and selective universities. God knows what happened to Jonathan. And yet, to use a horrible and imprecise metaphor of Tom Friedman’s, the world is “flattening.” No one mainstream speaks of social class anymore. We are all, apparently, now equal opportunity members of a globalized world. There’s no telling what wonders this orgastic future might bring. And so recently, when I received a Facebook “friend” request from Jonathan, I accepted it. I hope that one day we will meet again in person, and I would prefer that encounter to be as pleasant as possible. He might catch my eye, and for a brief moment we might exchange a silent message of understanding. For I do forgive him, for everything, and I sincerely hope that he will forgive me too. And then, without uttering a word, we could become as two old school friends who walked diverging paths, equal now, as always.
Age 17, Grade 12