The Places Behind the Faces: Students Living in Unique Situations

Students living with unique circumstances often face similarly unique difficulties, and it’s important to recognize and provide resources for them.

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You wake up in the morning and go downstairs to eat breakfast prepared by your parents. You are driven to school on a yellow school bus. After a long, perhaps fulfilling school day, you go home, eat dinner, finish your homework, and go to sleep.

This is often what we think of as the “normal” student routine. However, for many Stuyvesant students, this is not the case. Some students deal with particularly difficult conditions at home that are often masked by their facade as students at an elite high school.

Financial situations can be a major cause of unstable living conditions. Anonymous junior A shared, “I grew up in Harlem and had to move because my family was almost caught in a shooting on my block. Then we moved to the Upper East Side, which is a neighborhood that is too expensive for us, where we had to live with five people in one studio in order to be in the proper school district.”

Despite moving to a new space, A still experiences difficulties from her living situation. “Most recently we’ve moved to a one-bedroom apartment […] [where] we live four people to one room [my mother, my two sisters, and I]; my father sleeps outside of the room,” A said. In addition to the sheer number of people the small space has to fit, the apartment is also unable to fit many of A’s family’s belongings, leading them to find different ways to reduce space. “The room is too small to fit four beds, three desks, and a piano, so we bought these little fold-out beds. Unfortunately, they had metal in them and broke within a month of purchase, so for around a year we just slept on the floor with pillows,” she described.

Crowded living situations like these lead to difficult working environments. “After around 10 p.m., my whole family has to be conscious of the fact that some people are sleeping, so I can’t have the light on, so it will be pitch black and I will be trying to finish studying and homework,” she said.

A often feels isolated from her peers because of her situation. “My friends will talk about throwing homecoming parties and having people over to their house and living really close to Stuy, or even complaining about their four to five-bedroom houses, and it makes me feel awkward sometimes because I know I could never have friends over to my house because it is so small and cluttered,” she said. Additionally, many of her peers are unaware of her struggles. “I think also people hear ‘Upper East Side’ and assume rich, but not a lot of them know that in order for my family to live here, we had to live with five people in a studio for several years, ” she expressed.

Similarly, anonymous junior B has described how her relationship with her parents has impacted her. “[My mother] can get pretty violent at times,” B said. She describes her mother as a “tiger parent,” which refers to a controversial style of parenting where the parent adopts an authoritarian method of parenting in order to ensure that their child achieves a high level of success and accomplishment.

B’s parents’ attitude toward her has led to extra pressure and stress. “My parents expect me to play the role of the perfect older sister who is not only academically successful, but also very active in taking care of her younger brother and contributing to the household, which is too high of an expectation for me, especially when combined with the unreasonably pressuring style of her parenting,” she expressed. Parents may sometimes even be unaware of their impact on their children’s mental health. B added, “Despite my mom acting like she isn’t a crazy tiger mom like many others, sometimes I feel like I’m doing more or trying to do more in terms of getting better grades and doing more extracurriculars just so she’d stop nagging.”

School resources are essential for students without an adequate home environment. Administrations often provide support with specialized staff such as guidance counselors, with whom students can talk about their issues, or academic resources such as study spaces or free tutoring. However, students who are disadvantaged at home still struggle with the effects at school. Certain school policies can be limiting to these students. B notes her frustration about Stuyvesant’s guidelines regarding when the school library closes. “I just wish the school didn’t kick students out after 5 p.m. because many students, including myself, don’t have a safe and/or quiet environment to work in at home,” she stated.

A’s and B’s stories are not unique to them. The New York State Education Department reported that during the 2017 to 2018 school year, 46 percent of the Stuyvesant student body was considered economically disadvantaged. More students than we might assume deal with difficult conditions at home that could interfere with their academics and mental health. While relief systems are in place to help these students, Stuyvesant and other schools across NYC can do more to provide equal opportunities and support these students academically and emotionally.