I’ve been thinking about my old friend “J.” He recently sent me a birthday message for my 25th. Days later, I sent him one back. I didn’t need a calendar to remember the date. Best of friends remember each other’s birthdays as well as they remember their mothers’ birthdays. J and I, however, ceased to be friends a long time ago. We haven’t hung out since we were 12. So goes the story of many kids in the United States, where children of disparate socioeconomic circumstances are brought together through school, but are then progressively distanced through the process of socialization and, eventually, by school itself.
J and I grew up in a Northeastern suburb. J is black and grew up in public housing. I was raised by a white father and an Ecuadoran mother, both of whom held advanced degrees, in a more affluent part of town, although I didn’t grow up wealthy. Barring socioeconomic differences, J and I were not much different. We were two kids who shared similar interests and childish aspirations. Never then could I have imagined, as we laughed and crashed our toy cars in kindergarten or ran through the woods behind my house, how much greater the privilege that was bestowed upon me the day I was born. I had won what sociologists like Peter W. Cookson Jr. refer to as the “birth lottery.” I was situated in a social sphere that offered me resources that would all but guarantee my academic and professional success. J’s prospects couldn’t have been more different.
As J and I grew older, our lives grew progressively dissimilar, and we grew further apart as a result. As our parents gave us more freedom to roam outside our homes, the more we sought the company of kids who lived nearby. It was simpler to ride bikes around the neighborhood than arrange play dates across town and have our parents chauffeur us to them. The thought of sleepovers and day trips to J’s became less exciting. I assume he felt the same as I heard from him less often. Around the same time, I became more involved in structured activities outside of school, such as travel soccer and Little League—activities largely taken up by kids from affluent parts of town.
Our youthful interest in the opposite sex also played a part. My friends and I worked to persuade our parents to let us have boys or girls over. Kids from across town were often left out of the gatherings, even if they had friends in attendance. The idea of my inviting J prompted my own worries that the host and his or her parents would feel uncomfortable in his presence. The thought was not without foundation: Friends and I witnessed moments when certain peers or their parents panicked when nonwhite kids arrived at their homes.
Then high school arrived. Arguably, it played a larger role in distancing J and me than anything else. As in many high schools in the New York suburbs over the past couple of decades, almost all our classes were effectively tracked. In theory, students were sorted by academic ability, but in reality those abilities were hardly more than a manifestation of our accumulated histories. The students I took advanced courses with in high school were the same group of students my 2nd grade teacher pulled aside on Friday afternoons to do advanced math problems. They were the same kids whose parents had gone to four-year colleges, whose confidence transcended subjects, who understood that they were more than capable of high achievement, and who were apprehensive about not following in the footsteps of their parents. They, like me, were socioeconomically privileged.
By 11th grade, as a result of intensified tracking, there were hardly any minority students in my classes, in spite of a school enrollment that was only about 50 percent white. We attended “schools within a school"—ability grouping wasn’t just about differentiated instruction. The distribution of students to “lower” or “higher” tracks influenced how we understood our academic prospects, as well as our future place in society.
Thus, our school conferred a set of low expectations on J. Not only did school physically separate us through our classes, it also encouraged us to think differently about our opportunities. In turn, it prompted us to develop different dispositions and behaviors—separating us even more.
I cannot describe what J was up to during high school; we’d grown too far apart by then for me to notice. My understanding of his whereabouts was limited to fleeting interactions and secondhand information. My clearest high school memories of J were of him saying “What up” in passing or asking to borrow money. It was through friends that I learned J had been missing from school and had become caught up in drugs.
Not only did school physically separate us through our classes, it also encouraged us to think differently about opportunities."
Today, my insight into his life remains limited. Former classmates shared that after I left for college, J spent some time in prison. His Facebook page indicated that he fathered a son at 22, around the same time I graduated from college.
Following the exchange of birthday wishes earlier this year, J and I caught up a bit on Facebook. I knew things had not gone great for him following high school but, bound as we are sometimes to convention, I asked him how he’d been. J replied that he had been “working every day, trying to survive.” I knew not to expect a cheerful response, but his answer still shook me. I couldn’t help but think back to our childhoods—to a more innocent time when our lives were similar and neither of us was aware of what the future held in store.
J’s chances of academic and professional success should’ve been as good as mine. He did not choose his circumstances, nor did he behave as a child in a way that should have hindered future achievements and success. I know because I was with him. I was with him as we did exercises in our phonics workbooks, filled out coloring booklets, and solved addition problems on the blackboard. I was with him while we waited in line for recess or for rectangular pizza and discolored hot dogs in the cafeteria.
Today, there is hardly any similarity between our lives. I am not struggling to survive. I have the time and privilege of writing this from a university library, unconcerned about whether I will make my bills or put food on the table. I’ve been free to move about the world, visiting four of the planet’s continents for personal enjoyment.
J and I live in separate worlds. Yet, as children we weren’t that different. It’s not easy to explain exactly how our lives turned out the way they did or why we became so distant, but a number of socialization processes, including those at school, help tell the story—a story that is by no means ours alone.
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Two Lives Diverged