I went to a private Montessori school in Atlanta from preschool through the third grade that my middle-class parents were able to pay for with a scholarship that I got for doing extremely well on little-kid-level standardized tests. The majority of the families that sent their children there were very well-off.
There was a lot of excess around me but I was young, so I just took it all in stride. My earliest and most vivid memories are of school events and visiting my friends at their homes. At school, we went to the Ritz Carlton for high tea when we learned about England. For “France Day,” the school would hire fancy chefs who made fresh beignets for everyone and served them in a little café that the school set up outside. For “Italy Day,” we would make fresh pasta and pose for pictures in a real gondola. There was a yearly auction of the various crafts and paintings we had created that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school.
My classmates lived in subdivisions with golf courses and country clubs. One classmate’s dad was a neurosurgeon, and her parents threw her 10th birthday bash in their three-story McMansion complete with an elevator and labyrinth of a basement. They hired the local radio station to broadcast from the party, and commissioned manicurists to give all 100 or so child guests manis and pedis in their cavernous living room. I felt right at home in another friend’s house, which had acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, a huge swimming pool with waterfalls in the backyard, and a quiet, ever-present housekeeper. My best friend at the time lived in a huge old house that had a beautiful kitchen with heavy wooden beams crossing the ceiling and a wood-burning brick oven. Her parents would teach us how to make pizza with organic meats and vegetables, and then slide the pizza next to the fire to bake. I felt like I belonged to this world of luxurious sights, smells and activities.
But I didn’t belong. My family has never been wealthy. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who sometimes published freelance medical articles, and my dad was a computer programmer who got very sporadic contract work, usually in other states. The money would run dry between jobs. I have three younger sisters, and we all shared bedrooms. We owned our house, a medium-sized 3-bedroom, 2-bath located an hour outside of the city, but lived very frugally, wearing thrifted clothing sent in a box from my grandma in Milwaukee. We pinched pennies and ate sparingly. Some people would call this a middle class life—college-educated parents, a house, the suburbs—I do not.
I think it’s unacceptable that so many people delude themselves into thinking they’re a part of the middle class. My parents thought they were solidly in the middle class, but so did my classmates’ families. My parents thought my classmates’ parents were rich. Their parents thought my family was poor, and treated my parents with condescension for not dressing us in designer jeans, or buying us organic food. As I got older, and eventually went to public school with all the other kids in my income bracket, I realized that my family’s income level was not even comparable to my old classmates’ families, who earned multiples of what my parents earned.
My early childhood gave me expectations of wealth that were never fulfilled. I learned to expect that spending summers in France was normal, that Ivy League schools were realistic possibilities, and that one day I would have a beautifully restored 5-bedroom, 5-and-a-half bath home in a historic, tree-lined area of the city. My parents’ attitude toward money irritated me. They thought dinner out at a chain-restaurant steakhouse qualified as an indulgence, and their penny-shaving, coupon-clipping, cheap quality clothes-buying habits may have led to a delicately balanced, financial stable life, but they seemed very tacky, and embarrassing to me. Big spending led to guilt-tripping. Even buying name brand food at the grocery store was thought of as almost sinful, when a perfectly decent, 20-cent cheaper alternative was available. I don’t want to have to think that way.
I know class isn’t supposed to matter, but it does. My primary goal is not to become wealthy, but who can say they wouldn’t like to be rich? I will probably never reach the financial heights that my friend’s parents reached, and that’s fine on some level. I can have a fulfilling life without all the material benefits that come with having lots of money. But my earliest memories are of what I could have, and that immersion into wealth made me feel discontent with anything less. I am probably a card-carrying member of the middle class just for even thinking this, but what everything really boils down to is: Money equals freedom, and I want to be free.
Amanda Tomas still lives in Atlanta while she saves up money to move somewhere else. Photo: Shutterstock/1000 Words