Show Me the Money: Breaking the Last Taboo

At Nightingale, we freely discuss many difficult topics. Almost any cultural identifier is fair game, whether it is sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, religion, or gender, and the school celebrates these dissimilarities. However, we do not tackle economic differences.

One faculty member questioned this phenomenon in a response to a survey distributed by “The Spectator.” “Our school is always talking about being more ‘diverse.’ If in fact they are trying to diversify our concept of ‘diversity,’ why don’t they also publish a ‘pie’ of the incomes of NBS families (anonymously, of course) alongside the ‘pie’ for racial diversity?”
There is a certain irony in this faculty member’s call for a more frank admission of the wide range of financial situations at Nightingale, since, despite claiming to be comfortable talking about finance in the survey, he or she chose to remain anonymous.

In fact, out of a total of 61 respondents to the survey, only 18 provided “The Spectator” with their names. The survey consisted of ten questions, a mix of multiple choice and free response, with a slightly altered survey sent to teachers (although several teachers answered the student survey). 54.4% of respondents to the student survey said that they felt comfortable talking about economic status and finance at Nightingale. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being completely comfortable, the mean level of comfort was 5.61. Kate Krauss ’12 accurately reflected the overall outlook of the school in saying, “It isn’t debilitating, but I find myself stepping around the issue in conversation.”

So why do many of us avoid this topic? Some cited concern for others. “There is such a large spectrum of socioeconomic statuses that I feel like I have to assess my audience whenever I begin to talk about things such as vacations, for fear of being insensitive,” says Grace McLeod ’13. Zahra Ruffin ’13 agrees that this topic is a minefield. “On the one hand, you understand that most of the kids at Nightingale are privileged and must have the means to go to such a wonderful school; on the other hand, you don’t want to offend the minority of kids on scholarships.”

“The fact of it is,” Caroline Magee ’13, says, “there are large discrepancies between the super wealthy – a few of their children attend our school – and students whose families don’t have as much money. There is inherent awkwardness there, as with anything, when circumstances have left some with less than others.” Most seem to agree that it is safer simply to avoid the subject.

Several students said that their comfort depended on whom they might be discussing financial matters with. “I am comfortable talking about money to a select group– namely those with a similar socioeconomic status and very close friends,” Jennifer Lu ’12 explained.

Katie Quinn ’14 expressed a different perspective. “Since I am of a lower economic status than most at Nightingale, I find it pretty easy to talk about, though sometimes I think the girls who HAVE money are embarrassed by it.” Nikkie Ubinas ’14 also reported a high level of comfort, stating, “I am not ashamed of my economic status because it does not define who I am.”

Although some students are more comfortable discussing economic matters than others, there is a greater consensus when it comes to whether money factors into day-to-day school life. 74.1% of respondents say it does. In the words of English teacher Mr. Smith, “Yura. Need I say more?”

Mr. Smith was not alone in this sentiment. Almost every respondent who expanded on his or her answer listed lunch as a major way that money affects school life, with many also mentioning Yura, a popular but expensive nearby restaurant, as a specific source of tension.

But there are other factors as well. Magee also noted, “Our polo shirts seems like a uniform but can also differentiate; girls who wear designer-name collared shirts clearly have more money to spend than girls who are wearing less recognizable logos.” McLeod agreed, saying, “I have often been envious of people who have a Ralph Lauren polo in every pastel color of the rainbow.”

Some students got more personal. According to Ruffin, “When everyone talks about where they went for the summer, it’s always very awkward when you hear the names of lots of places that you wish that you were able to go, and then when it comes time for you to talk about your experience, it sounds lame in comparison. You know that there are limits to the things that you can do, and quite honestly, it’s uncomfortable and it sucks.”

Melissa Rios ’12, too, thinks that differences can cause discomfort, as not all students consider others when making social plans, for instance. “I’ve never been to a concert. I’ve never paid for a tutor. I try to keep birthday gifts really to my closest friends and even that’s a problem. And transportation would be a huge problem if I didn’t have my full-fare from the MTA.”
When students at Nightingale do discuss financial matters, they tend to focus on the two ends of the spectrum, on both the extremely wealthy and the far less affluent. Students in the middle often get lost in the shuffle. How does the “lost middle class” factor into all this? Magee expressed skepticism that such a group exists in large numbers at the school, while Krauss said, “I’m there [in the middle]. It’s not hard.” However, Lu strongly disagrees with both of them.

“The idea that Nightingale doesn’t have many middle class families is hilarious. Depending on one’s personal situation, there can be pressure to not admit you’re on financial aid and additional pressure to ‘keep up appearances’ and not admit you can’t afford to go the movies, etc. Then there’s the obvious – for example, there are students who can afford tutors for everything, and Prep for Prep students often have access to free or cheaper tutoring. What about those who fall squarely in the middle? Not to say woe to middle class families, but there are a number of small things that add to the burden of being middle class at a private school.”

Does Nightingale try to obscure these differences, to make it seem as if we are all on an equal economic footing? 56.9% of students who responded say yes. “There is only so much that Nightingale can control, but it does make a well-meaning effort to level the playing field as much as it can,” said Lu. Krauss agreed that such an effort exists and added, “It’s effective for the most part, but it all falls apart when the school offers something like a Cambodia trip with no financial aid.” (Note: It was later announced that financial aid would be offered for the trip.)

Not everyone agrees. According to English teacher Ms. Schutt, “It would be impossible and ridiculous to so pretend, especially when there are more important things to feign.” Art Department Head Mr. Travanti, too, said, “We don’t try to make it look like that, but we also don’t address the issue, because it’s a complicated and sensitive one.”

Rios thinks that while Nightingale doesn’t try to gloss over differences, “it does help to accommodate students who have troubles. I remember in 8th grade when I joined basketball and thought I wouldn’t be able to continue with it because I couldn’t pay for basketball sneakers. Ms. Smith, the athletic director, pulled me over and told me that I shouldn’t have assumed that and told me to buy the shoes and bring her the receipt the next day. I did, and I felt so grateful that she did that for me. But I’ve learned that Nightingale does that often. Nightingale does its best to help its students achieve their goals, not pretend we all live happily ever after.”

Nevertheless, in the end, the question remains – is there a taboo on talking about money at Nightingale? 63.8% of student respondents believe there is, although Quinn commented, “I’ve never felt uncomfortable talking about money until now with this article. It makes me wonder if there are people at Nightingale who do think it is taboo.”

Mr. Whitehurst, an English teacher, also did not characterize discussion of finance at Nightingale as under an actual taboo. “It is true that a pervasive sense of propriety and politeness at Nightingale makes it difficult to speak directly about any challenging, deeply personal topic like money.”

Those who believed that there is a taboo, however, were split (19 students to 18) as to whether it was a positive or negative phenomenon.

Alison Tilson ’14 said, “I think it’s obnoxious to talk about how much money you have, so it’s nice that people don’t really talk about it at school. Also, if someone is talking about money who is more well off than you are, it makes the situation very uncomfortable and awkward.”

Rios, too, said that this taboo was a good thing. “I particularly don’t want people to know my situation and assume that I can’t do or achieve certain goals because of money. If I feel it’s a problem, then it’s only my right to say so, not anyone else’s. We can say people at Nightingale won’t do that and all that good, peachy stuff, but that would definitely not be reality.”
Magee thinks that the lack of dialogue is harmful. “Eventually, we leave the schoolhouse. We can’t forever feel uncomfortable discussing money, because it’s crucial to our society.”

Lu is also adamant that this is negative. “Some people believe money is the one taboo that shouldn’t be broken, unlike those of race, sexual orientation, etc, the prevailing belief being that there’s nothing we can change about our financial situations, so why talk about it? That’s absurd. We don’t talk about race or sexual orientation because we can change such things. We talk about them to change our preconceived notions, biases, etc.

“Nightingale needs to have socioeconomic diversity for a reason. By being open about money, students on both sides can become comfortable with respecting and understanding the lives (in regards to money) of those who were raised differently from them. And isn’t that the whole point of education and diversity in the first place? People are reasonably worried about offending people on a touchy subject, but that’s what we’re learning to deal with in regards to sexual orientation/race in the clubs Spectrum and CAFÉ. We learn what are good terms to use and how to be respectful. Why can’t we learn to do that for socioeconomics?”

However, Krauss disagrees. “I think that the taboo about money is qualitatively different than the ones that might exist about race, religion, or sexual orientation. The discomfort that people might feel when discussing these other issues will fade with dialogue. Given time and freedom to discuss their opinions and feelings, people will generally find that a divide they had initially perceived may be narrower than they thought. Perhaps it does not exist at all.

“However, money disparity is a divide that does exist. It is not a social construct. It is objective and quantifiable. Talking about it a lot would tend to highlight it. Perhaps allowing it to remain undisturbed is best. I understand the value of getting people out of their comfort zone in order to have constructive dialogue. But what if the dialogue isn’t even that constructive? Is it worth it to make people uncomfortable for it’s own sake?”

Olivia Stovicek, Age 17, Grade 12, Nightingale-Bamford School, Silver Key

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