By Erin Dringman
Money is something that, whether we like it or not, dictates a lot of our life. Where we sleep, what we eat, where we go to school, what we do in our free time — it all relates to money. But money is not something you hear talked about a lot, especially at Washington & Lee.
Sure, your next-door-neighbor on your Graham Lees Hall might whisper to you that so-and-so’s dad is the CEO of such-and-such a company, but you don’t really get in any deeper than that. It’s not that people at W&L don’t think about money. It’s not that people don’t worry about it.
But, in my experience, rarely does anyone talk about it. I think that, in many ways, money is one of the hardest things to talk about — especially at a place like W&L. Point in case: I was asked about writing this weeks ago, and I’ve been putting it off because I’m honestly not sure what to say. I know how I feel about money, and I know my own experiences with money. But how can I talk about it without minimizing other people’s experiences?
I want to write honestly about my perspective, while recognizing that it is just one of the many perspectives that make up the W&L community. With that being said, let me introduce myself. I’m Erin, and I’m a junior from Montana. I am very solidly middle class. Depending on your own perspective, my middle class may look more wealthy or less wealthy than your middle class.
My parents are both lawyers in Big Timber, MT, population: 1,800. My dad is our County Attorney, and my mom has a private practice. My dad is a salaried full time employee, and the only prosecutor in the county. He also coaches football at our high school — a job he loves, but not a particularly lucrative one. My mom is the fifth generation of her family to live in our little town, meaning that she knows literally everyone. It is not uncommon for her to get paid “after shipping,” when people sell their cows in the fall and have a return of cash-flow. In addition to her law practice, my mom is the city-county planner for two counties in Montana.
My parents also own and operate, with my grandparents and aunt and uncle, our guest ranch. The ranch has been in our family for six generations, and is a complete labor of love. It’s a business they have because they are passionate about sharing our way of life. As owners, when your business needs to cut back on costs, the first place it does is in your own pockets.
As you might be able to tell, my parents are always working. I have never gotten in my mom’s car without perching on top of a precariously stacked pile of legal files. I have also never had a single sporting event or speech and drama meet that my mom wasn’t at. After my dad gets off work, he goes home and fixes fence and re-routes pipes and pulls horseshoes. And then he cooks us dinner, and wakes up early to bring us breakfast in bed.
My parents are definitely workaholics. There’s no other way to put it. But I have never meant that as an insult. They have provided the most incredible opportunities for us. They have spent more time with us than any parents I know. Their work is our life. The ranch is our home. I work for my family at the ranch during the summers. I manage the corrals, organizing horseback rides and caring for the horses. I have worked in the corrals since I was 11. I have worked full time in the summers since I was 15. I am used to working, and I enjoy it.
When I got ready to go to college, however, my parents told me they didn’t want me to get a job. I was baffled; I had always imagined myself a cool barista in my college town (I didn’t know about LexCo at the time, but oh how I wish my dreams could have come true there). My parents wanted me to treat school like a job, because it was paying for itself. I hate when people announce this about themselves, but it is impossible for me to talk about money at W&L without explaining that I am a Johnson.
Despite my parents’ crazy work schedules, there is no way that I could have come to W&L without the Johnson. I don’t mean we would have needed to be tight with money for a few years. I don’t mean I might have had to take out a few thousand dollars in loans. I mean I could not come to a school like Washington and Lee without a full ride (or very near to) scholarship — something that I know is true for many other students at W&L.
I remember sitting in my pickup truck in front of my high school after track practice, looking at the email from W&L in my inbox. The minute I opened it, confetti started falling and I started sobbing. I would be able to go to the caliber of school I wanted, all because of this amazing scholarship. It sounds sappy, but it’s true.
Yet, to be honest, I haven’t always been super happy at W&L. Especially during my freshman year, I often felt I didn’t fit in. At the same time, though, I felt guilty. I was incredibly grateful for my scholarship, but despite the money being given to me, I still wasn’t happy. I felt like everyone around me was way richer than me, and I couldn’t relate to them about anything. People had Canada Goose jackets and Gucci shoes — things I had only seen on T.V. while wearing my American Eagle clothes and well-worn cowboy boots. People wore Cartier jewelry and Hermès belts — words I didn’t even know how to pronounce. People summered in the Hamptons or Nantucket, things I didn’t know existed outside of Gilmore Girls. None of these are in any way a bad thing, but they were so unfamiliar to me that I didn’t know where I belonged.
I know that many of my peers at W&L wear nice clothes and volunteer tons of their time. I know people’s parents have nice homes and are incredibly philanthropic. It was never that I saw wealth as a flaw, but I did see it as a divide. For months, I felt incredibly lost and alone. Eventually, though, I began to see things a bit more clearly. Not everyone was wealthier than me. Some people were less wealthy than me. Some people were right by my side. I had never before seen the kind of wealth that exists for some people at W&L, and so, for a while, I was blinded by it. In public high school in my little town, I was more wealthy than many of my friends and peers. During my senior year, my family went to Belize for a week. I remember a girl in my grade remarking, “Wow, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be that rich.”
Of course, even though her comment wasn’t meant maliciously, that made me uncomfortable. Me? Rich? No! I’m down to earth. I’m middle class. My grandparents are teachers and mechanics and ranchers. My parents have worked hard for everything they have. In my mind, I built up a self-defense against this term. I couldn’t possibly be rich.
But to that girl, I was. That wasn’t the first time I felt self-conscious about my wealth. Throughout middle and high school, I became aware that my friends didn’t have all of the same privileges as me. If my mom bought me a nice sweater and someone asked where it was from, I would be deliberately vague so they wouldn’t know how much it cost. I was careful not to talk too much about our weekends skiing or staying in hotels. When my parents bought a little house in town for us to stay in when the roads were too bad to drive home during the winter, I made sure my friends knew that we were renting the house out for most of the year — it was an investment, really.
I tried to craft myself in a way that was not ostentatious. I paid for my friend’s sandwich at our weekly dinner dates, and I left gas money in my friend’s console if we drove somewhere far, but I didn’t make grand displays of wealth. In truth, I didn’t think I was rich. I still don’t. But I shouldn’t have been secretive about my own life.
The only way to span the divide between privilege is to acknowledge it. I may not think I am rich, but to a girl who lives in a trailer house and whose mom works at a gas station, I am. To a girl whose dad was laid off at the mine and mom passed away, I am. To the boy whose dad spent half a dozen years in jail, who was too proud to ask for money for a winter coat, I am. To the boy whose parents move from ranch to ranch when his dad finds a new hired hand position, I am. To the girl who runs out of gas in her brother’s borrowed car and has to walk home miles in a snowstorm because she doesn’t have a credit card and who knows where her parents are, I am. To my countless friends who have never left Montana, I am.
I am rich, whether I like to admit it or not. I am also middle class. I had peers in my town. There are middle class families with two gainfully employed parents. There are ranchers with lots of land. I am also lower class. There are wealthy actors and stockbrokers who own summer homes in our county. There were people I knew growing up who were similar in wealth to me, or more wealthy. But there were also lots and lots and lots of people I knew and loved who were a lot less wealthy than me. I am an incredibly privileged person. I am currently traveling around Europe on my mid-semester break from my study abroad in England. I am backpacking and staying in hostels and so far I have used only my own money.
But my parents bought my plane ticket to England. They are coming, with my little brother, to visit me in a few weeks. I have nice clothes. I have a nice truck. I have a beautiful house. I have been all over the U.S., and to a handful of other countries. I eat out. I go to the movies. I stay in hotels. I spend an inordinate amount on gas.
I recognize my own privilege. I am aware that not all people — not most people — are as financially lucky as I am. In high school, I was self-conscious about having “too much” wealth. In college, I was self-conscious about having “too little” wealth. That was a hard adjustment for me, because I was moving out of the position of privilege.
Of course, at W&L I am still extremely privileged. I am getting a world class education for free. I still spend money, I still buy clothes, I still pay $4.00 for coffee every day. I am much more privileged than some people at W&L. I am much more privileged than many people in Rockbridge County, that beautiful, financially disparate place we all live in but never talk about. But yes, I am also much less privileged than many people at W&L. I was blinded by wealth when I first came to W&L. Since taking those blinders off, I have realized that the real problem is not in wealth itself. Our parents worked hard to bring us where we are today. We should be proud of that, and grateful to them.
Wealth is not something to be embarrassed about, but it is something we need to be conscious of. What I have the hardest time with at W&L is not that people have more money than me, but that people may not realize how lucky they are. People might know that they are wealthy, but many have never seen, in a personal way, the opposite of wealth.
Growing up in the epicenter of rural America, I came face to face with poverty. My friends endured situations to which my life cannot compare. Many people I love receive reduced or free school lunch, food stamps, and other government aid. For many of them, it is not enough. Real people, people with skin and bones and brains and hearts, do not have enough money to get by. In many cases, this contributes to domestic abuse, substance abuse, and personally-inflicted mental abuse. Montana has one of the worst suicide rates in the nation. It also has some of the worst cyclical poverty; people are born disadvantaged, and it can be incredibly difficult to move away from that position.
Growing up, I had many friends whose lives bear no resemblance to the lives of most of us at W&L. There are people in my town, there are people in Rockbridge County, there are people at Washington and Lee, who are all people just like you and me — except that, for them, privilege is a foreign concept.
I think the real wealth problem at W&L is not that people have too much of it, but that people are never willing to talk about it. Wealth disparity is something of a taboo topic at our institution. And by not talking about wealth, we perpetuate this culture of blindness. There are people right in front of our eyes who have none of our privileges, but we are often too blind to see them.
I hope that, in opening our eyes to their realities, we can begin to understand other perspectives. Even if we can never walk a mile in each other’s shoes, we might at least be able to see each other’s truths.