by Abe Asher
I hate telling people I go to OES.
Owning the fact that I attend an elite, hugely privileged, hugely expensive private school when not around other people in the same situation is uncomfortable territory for me.
I live in Northeast Portland, attended public middle school — just like my parents and their parents before them — I’ve got a brother at Cleveland, another probably on his way there in three years, and many of my friends go to public school as well.
I don’t feel guilty that I go to OES. I feel grateful. Extraordinarily so. But also uncomfortable. I’m no closer to running away from that now, in my fourth year at the school, than I was when I was shocked by the relative opulence of the school when I was a freshman.
Is there a certain nagging guilt, for lack of a better word, in attending or teaching at OES? Does it invalidate, to a certain extent, the work and accomplishments of its students and employees? Is that guilt, or invalidation, fair?
Molly Kemball, who graduated from OES in 2013, and whose father has served on the school board, said that she didn’t like to wear school apparel off campus. At this point, I’ve been on the receiving of enough insensitivity and resentment from some of my favorite people — family members, even — to understand why.
Elie D. said, “I play tennis at the Irvington Club, and I live in Irvington, so the majority of people go to Grant. They have a preconception of OES as a stuck-up, rich kid school.” Perhaps on the East Coast, this wouldn’t be an issue. But in “a public school town,” as English Department Chair Rick Rees called Portland, private schools are often already playing from behind in the perception game.
That’s why when I do say that I go to OES, I always slip in my public school background. I try to slip in the fact that I get considerable financial aid too.
Josh C. has done that too. “I’ve been here for fourteen years. For about half of that time, there have been times when I’d say I was getting more financial aid than I was to justify myself to people outside OES. I felt guilty that I could actually pay for it,” he said.
The culture around money cuts both ways. Josh went on to say, “My family lives very frugally as a result of us going to OES, and I’ve pointed that out to people inside OES to justify why I’m not pulling up in a new car each year.”
“People at OES generally feel they deserve to be at OES. But there are definitely people who deserve it just as much. I feel embarrassed to be a part of a system that’s so much about money — but it’s more a personal embarrassment than anything.”
That’s a common theme. “I don’t feel guilty that I got this opportunity,” said Yinka L., but personal questions remain about the decision to go to OES — and the costs.
“I feel like there are certain opportunities that I missed out on,” said Josh. “I have no connections in my neighborhood. I feel, to a certain extent, disconnected from the people around me.”
Josh has been at OES for fourteen years. Rick, on the other hand, is grateful that his education set him up differently for teaching at a private school.
“On a personal level, I’m grateful that I went to a big public high school and feel like I have an insight into both worlds. I’ve always felt like that was a formative and valuable part of growing up. When I say that, I often think of things that aren’t academic — more social and being aware of the world,” he said.
Teaching at OES is possibly even a more complicated choice than attending OES. Students are often placed at the school — and almost always placed into a life of privilege — but teachers, who have devoted their professional life to helping kids, have slightly different demons to fight.
Rick said, “I came to independent school teaching because it’s a good place to work. On a more societal level, I’m not completely resolved about it. There are kids out there who need more resources, more attention, and more adults teaching them.”
Mike Gwaltney, History Department Chair, told me, “I spend a lot of time asking myself the question, when it’s all said and done at the end of my career, did I make a difference helping the richest kids, who are always going to do fine anyway, do better?”
Robin Schauffler, Service Learning Coordinator and English teacher, has similar concerns. “I would say that many of us who work in independent schools, and work with a population that is very privileged, carry a certain amount of embarrassment,” she said.
“There is an element of guilt. I do a lot of self-examining about this, because I’ve basically been working with the privileged since 1975. I go back and reexamine, is that the best place to put what I have to give?”
Robin added, “I have a good friend who works in the Reynolds School District. Some of those kids don’t even have a parent at home, or don’t have a home to return to, and when I say to that friend that a lot my students complain that they have to park their cars that they own in a particular place and walk a certain distance to get to those classes, he says to me, ‘what’s wrong with the world?'”
The parking issue, Kara Tambellini said, has, “brought out the worst in people.” Awareness of the outside world — the real world, in many respects — is key, and, from time to time, lacking inside the OES community.
Robin said, “The biggest class I ever taught here was nineteen students, and people thought it was an outrage because of the size of that class.” Some public school teachers, of course, teach upwards of 200 students. A deep respect for those teachers was clear in every conversation I had with faculty members.
On the other hand, teaching at OES provides a unique opportunity to change the world in a different way.
Mike said, “All young people deserve a high quality education regardless of who they were born to, and, it is probably the case that people that people who find their way to OES have a higher need for an education that requires them to think of others first, and requires them to think about how people of power can use their power for the betterment of the world.”
“It’s become clear to me that you guys are going to be in the most powerful positions in the world, and I want to help create people who are going to be in those positions and can do a good job.”
Robin said, “All I can say is, any time I can work with a student here that comes from a background with a certain amount of privilege, and that student goes and out in the community and helps right wrongs, I feel like that’s my biggest contribution.”
“But,” she quickly added, “that doesn’t feel like a permanent solution.”
And that’s nothing against OES. It’s just a reality, for many, not all people, of being at a place like this one.
The bottom line in this. Everyone who goes to school here, and everyone who is connected to this school, is incredibly lucky. If there’s any obligation attached to an OES education, it’s to take this opportunity and make the world happy you had it.