Not Just a Kid From the Projects

I want to become a teacher to help poor students fulfill their dreams.

by Meagan Zullo

Growing up, I didn’t know that I came from a lower class. Once, I even had a birthday party at a Build-a-Bear workshop! My dad was a superintendent at a movie theater, and we often watched movies there and got popcorn for free. My mom was a stay at home mom, and she often helped translate for Spanish speaking parents whose kids went to my school.

I come from a big family. I have four siblings, two nieces, two nephews, and more cousins than I can count. My house is always full of smiles and laughter that make the small space feel bigger. This was a haven to me. But school was a different story.

I went to my zoned elementary school, where the computers were old and constantly broken. We had hardly any books in our library. The books that we did have were stained or had pages ripped out. Our play yard consisted of a filthy jungle gym, and our teachers looked overworked because there were over 30 kids in a class. This class size also made it hard for me to understand what was being taught because it was hard to focus.

After that, my parents enrolled me in a middle school in downtown Brooklyn, hoping I would receive a better education. I quickly realized that I didn’t know as much as the other kids. I didn’t know my multiplication tables. I couldn’t sound out words, because my vocabulary comprehension was so far below grade level. In order to improve my vocabulary and speech, I listened to other people’s conversations and watched gaming videos on YouTube to learn new words. Although I wouldn’t know the exact definition of the word, I knew what context to use it in.

My classmates sighed loudly whenever it was my turn to read, because I had a stutter. They mimicked me when I couldn’t pronounce words with the sound “sh.” This made me feel self-conscious, and I still get nervous when I have to speak to a group. I felt embarrassed when my teacher asked a simple multiplication problem and the rest of my class yelled the answer while I just stayed quiet, because I didn’t know it.

This school had newer books, smaller classes, and better technology. Each classroom had its own computer cart and tablets that we could use whenever we needed to do research or had an assignment online. My teachers had more patience and time to work with students one-on-one whenever they needed help. They helped me overcome my stutter by giving me practice methods to improve.

“You Don’t Sound Ghetto”

It wasn’t until middle school that I began to understand through conversations with my parents that our apartment was in a low-income housing project, the food I ate was bought with food stamps, and the clothes I wore were bought on clearance.

This made me feel like I was lower or less than everyone else. But what bothered me the most is when my classmates said, “People from the projects are dirty.” Although they lived in my neighborhood, the projects were like a separate world to them. When they found out I actually lived in the brick high-rises, their eyes widened, surprised.

“You don’t talk like you’re from the projects,” they’d say. I knew that what they wanted to say was, “You don’t sound ghetto.”

Once, I invited some friends to come over, and their parents told them no because I lived in a “bad part of Brooklyn.”

There are so many stereotypes about low-income housing that are not completely false. In my building, at least one elevator is always broken or has urine on the floor; there are rats in the staircase, and there are seemingly shootings every other night.

However, I don’t believe a person’s environment should define who they are. Living in the projects doesn’t mean you are a criminal or dirty or not deserving of the same quality of education as richer people.

Feeling Less Than

I bounced from friend to friend because I didn’t feel like I belonged. I felt that I was less than my friends, so being around them made me feel insecure. In addition to where I lived, I had gotten such a lousy early education. Even though we were in the same social class, I convinced myself that these other kids had more opportunities to better themselves, when in reality we were all struggling to find ways to have a better future.

Other kids had the newest pair of Jordans or the latest Apple product. This made me materialistic, because my friends who “shared the same struggle” as me had items that my family couldn’t afford or just weren’t willing to buy because they weren’t necessities.

I convinced myself that these luxury items were necessary for a happy life. My friends had printers with colored ink, so their poster board projects were colorful and well decorated. I didn’t have a printer, so my posters were mostly black and white because I had to use my teacher’s printer. The students with the more colorful posters got the better grades.

I Deserve a Quality Education

Now that I’m in 10th grade and have been in a good school for awhile, I have gained more confidence. I still stutter occasionally but I know that my opinion matters. I take my time when solving math problems without feeling bad, and my vocabulary and comprehension are on grade level. Although I make spelling mistakes because I never learned how to sound out words, I still love writing and teachers have let me know I’m good at it. If my grades drop, my teachers ask me how they can help. Instead of being ashamed, I tell them what I’m struggling with. I no longer feel “less than.”

I Blame Society

For a while, I blamed my elementary school teachers for my academic struggles, but I now know that it wasn’t their fault. Instead, I blame society. Schools with mostly low-income students don’t get the same funding as schools with kids coming from higher income backgrounds.

According to a 2018 study by the advocacy organization Education Trust-New York, New York City schools with the greatest share of low-income students do receive slightly more funding. But that fact is misleading. According to Chalkbeat, in the neediest 25% of elementary and middle schools, “96% of students come from low-income families on average.” But by contrast, at the best schools, “45% of students are low-income.” So despite having more than twice as many low-income students, the “highest-need schools receive just 15 percent more funding.” Obviously then, the highest-need schools should be getting more money.

Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6% less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

College Bound

Because I was lucky that my parents moved me to a better school, I’m on track for college and I have a group of friends who support me. It’s my dream to get out of the city and live on a college campus. I’d also like to study abroad. I’ve recently learned that there are organizations like Options that help low-income high school students with the application process, and help them find scholarships and grants. They even continue to help them once they’re in college. I am meeting with them in a couple of weeks.

I know that I have a good future ahead, but I can’t help but think about people who are not as lucky as me. There are still schools like my elementary school, and some may even be worse. The students in these schools don’t realize that their voices matter and they have a lot to contribute. They are constantly feeling like they are less than everyone, so they become discouraged from trying to improve.

At a good school, you learn more than how to read and do math. You also learn time management, work ethic, and how to communicate well. Activities like oral presentations and Socratic seminars, debates, and overall open discussions help prepare you for college and your future career, because they teach you how important your opinion is and that not everyone is going to agree with you.

Without a good education, low-income children won’t be able to get well-paying jobs. This causes an endless cycle of the poor staying poor.

Until the system is fixed, maybe I can encourage kids like me who feel less than. So I want to become a high school ELA teacher. I want to help kids like me learn that they are worthwhile and that their address or test scores doesn’t define them. I want to show them by example that they have a chance at a better life. My ELA teachers have always been there for me and have pushed me to have more confidence in not only my writing, but in my everyday life. They saw me as a talented person with potential, not just some kid from the projects.

I began to understand through conversations with my parents that our apartment was in a low-income housing project, the food I ate was bought with food stamps, and the clothes I wore were bought on clearance.
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