Editor’s Note: They were neighbors and childhood friends, but the writer of this 2015 essay, our latest Magazine Classic, would come to realize that the distance that separated them was “a very significant eight feet” encompassing a vast gap in opportunity.
“Can you play?”
I observed the girl at my door cautiously. It was the summer of 1999; I was 7 years old and in need of a friend. Although my three older brothers let me join in on their games, I could only endure so many defeats in pingpong, basketball and Super Smash Bros. before I was ready to quit. So when my 5-year-old neighbor showed up at our door, I thought that maybe she — dark hair springing, T-shirt stained — could be the sister I’d always wished for.
“Sure,” I replied.
Emmy told me she lived next door with her uncle Mike and brother Kyle. A sociologist could have predicted our outcomes from a handful of statistics, but as a child, I assumed there was little difference between her life and mine. Later I would learn terms like “race,” “socioeconomic status,” “welfare,” “white privilege” and “structural violence.” Later I would learn that Emmy’s white mother died of a heart attack a few years after Emmy was born and her black father was in jail for drug-related crimes. These things, I would later learn, mattered.
I knew none of this when I invited Emmy into our house for a Popsicle that humid day. But children are like prisoners and sorority sisters: They’re quick to establish hierarchies. When Emmy and I played School, I always got to be the teacher. When we played Barbies, I took the newer Barbie with the better clothes and gave her the one with the missing foot. My Barbie dated the Ken with real hair while Emmy’s Barbie was stuck with the cheaper, creepier Ken.
Looking back, I wasn’t exactly mean to Emmy, but I sensed that I had something she did not. I was two years older, yes, and we played on my territory with my toys, yes — but there was something else. A nebulous factor that slipped into my subconscious and surfaced in my autocratic attitude. A factor I wouldn’t begin to articulate until I understood the true distance between our homes: a very significant eight feet.
Even though we saw each other almost every day that summer, I only visited Emmy’s house three times. Her uncle worked odd hours and her older brother made himself scarce, which left 5-year-old Emmy alone most of the time, wandering the neighborhood and microwaving her meals.
“How do you know when to go to bed?” my alarmed mother once asked her.
“After my favorite TV show is done,” she answered.
Inside Emmy’s house, stuffing splayed from couch seams. A strong odor of dogs and cigarettes clung to the furniture. Black hair coated the carpet. A mound of trash clustered in the kitchen. The walls were unadorned; no photographs, no paintings. Outside, the yard was wild; tangled grass grazed my thighs, saplings sprouted from a makeshift deck. Everything — including the house’s 5-year-old tenant — appeared neglected. One day, Emmy told me her uncle kept a gun under her bed. I made the mistake of relaying this information to my mother, who subsequently banned next-door visits.
Even so, in the spirit of Catholic inclusion, my family embraced Emmy as a second daughter — my mother especially. Over the years, Emmy started calling her “Mom.”
“When’s your birthday?” my mother asked Emmy one evening before dinner. Emmy loved setting the table — another difference between us that I neither understood nor bothered to question.
Emmy thought for a moment. “I don’t have one.”
“ Everyone has a birthday,” I corrected. At home with my three brilliant brothers, I rarely had the chance to correct anyone.
“Don’t you do anything to celebrate your birthday?” pressed my mother.
Emmy scratched her head, bit her lip and said nothing.
My mother soon understood and offered a gentle smile. “Why don’t you ask your uncle when your birthday is the next time you see him?” she suggested.
The next morning, Emmy knocked on our door. “August 5th,” she said.
To this day, my mother bakes Emmy a double chocolate cake and takes her shopping every August 5th.
My friendship with Emmy was punctuated by tiny revelations, moments where the contrast between our lives glared.
Like the time she fled to our house, 10 years old, bawling because her brother Kyle had been put in jail. “Drugs,” she sobbed into my mother’s sweater. “Something about drugs.”
Moments like that.
We grew apart the way childhood friends often do: for no singular reason, just an intensifying awareness of our differences. I started to spend my summers at the country club pools of Catholic school friends. We played ghost-in-the-graveyard on sprawling emerald acres, went on bike rides in manicured suburbs, rode horses, made silly music videos. During the school year, I was too busy with soccer practice, homework, art projects and flute lessons to spend time with Emmy. By the time I was in middle school, Emmy stopped knocking on our door.
In high school, I grew ashamed of my neighborhood. By global standards, I lived in luxury — but perception of affluence is relative. Ours was the corner house. The turning point between highbrow professors and blue-collar workers struggling to obtain a GED. By the time I was 15, we had been robbed three times. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of drug deals, muggings and shootings within a three-block radius. I inhabited two contrasting environments: at home, surrounded by the underprivileged, I felt privileged. At school, surrounded by the privileged, I felt underprivileged. A theory of relativity.
My high school friends lived in gated communities where a lawn one-inch overgrown was cause for a fine. Thanks to their (parents’) generosity, I spent four summers riding jet skis at lake houses, swimming in backyard pools and attending complimentary music festivals in Chicago. But the charm and shimmer came at a cost, a shame that flared up like hives when I least expected it. My friends sometimes joked that I lived in “the ghetto”; I would laugh along, hoping no one saw me blush.
When I was 17, I conducted a neighborhood food drive and asked one of my best friends from school to help. She told me her mother wouldn’t allow it because my neighborhood was “shady.”
So this was what eight feet of separation looked like from the other porch.
As I transitioned from high school to college, my interactions with Emmy became scarcer and scarcer. Occasionally, I stopped by to offer her a trash bag of hand-me-downs. Sometimes I passed her as I was leaving for a rehearsal or a party.
“Hi, Emmy,” I would say.
“Hi,” she would respond.
And that was it.
Despite our waning friendship, my mother kept an eye on Emmy, updating me when I came home on breaks. Kyle’s girlfriend had a miscarriage. Emmy’s friends robbed Mike. Emmy was kicked out of the house for associating with the wrong people and skipping school. For a few months, she was placed in foster care. When Emmy turned 16, she dropped out of high school.
My mother told me she found Emmy one night on the porch of Mike’s house, crying. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Emmy reluctantly explained that a male friend had hit her because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She was 17.
As my mother recounted the conversation, I thought of a friend from Notre Dame whose boyfriend had recently broken up with her for the same reason. I realized that some conflicts are universal, and no amount of privilege guarantees exemption. The difference was that Emmy had no one to turn to.
The summer before my senior year at Notre Dame, my mother and I sat in the kitchen sipping coffee and discussing the glittery turmoil of my life: studying for the GRE, deciding what to include in my personal statement, selecting graduate schools. We chatted about how much I missed the friend who left for a doctorate at Cambridge, how much I missed France. I wasn’t looking forward to living at home senior year while my friends’ parents paid for their expensive, gleaming apartments, but I had to fund my own room and board and couldn’t justify another $10,000 loan.
As our conversation trailed off, my mother finished her coffee and placed her mug in the sink. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she said, looking out the window. “Emmy’s pregnant.”
I’ve received many benefits from my education, and I was fortunate to attend a university that stands for social justice. But after 19 years of Catholic school, the inevitable occurred: a lifetime of private American education distorted my sense of reality.
It’s no surprise that a university with a costly tuition might attract a disproportionately wealthy student body. To reside in such a population for four years can easily blind students to their own advantages — I know it blinded me.
Sometimes campus felt like a sea of designer rain boots, generous monthly stipends, graduation trips to Europe and $400 sweaters. A place where the young elite gathered to secure postgraduate suburban mansions, purebred Samoyeds and beachfront villas. On campus, “comfort” and “stability” were usually euphemisms for six- or seven-figure salaries. Dining hall dinners were spent swapping “how I got my first brand-new car” stories. “Just because my family is in the top 1 percent doesn’t mean I don’t deserve scholarship money,” a friend complained to me freshman year.
Not everyone I knew at Notre Dame was like this, of course; many of my closest friends came from very little fortune and opportunity. Some of my peers — first-generation college students, undocumented immigrants and refugees — had faced adversity beyond my grasp. And when I grow cynical about my classmates’ tendency to use estimated income as the main criterion for selecting majors, internships and careers, I remember other classmates. I think of the co-worker who was offered a high-paying, prestigious consulting position but instead chose to teach through ACE. I think of the friend who was offered a dream job on the campaign team of his favorite presidential candidate, but turned it down when he learned he would have to lobby for nuclear weapons. Instead, he chose to work for a small nonprofit, accepting a salary below the poverty line. These are students who forfeit comfort in favor of core values — values articulated in the Notre Dame mission statement. “The aim,” it says, “is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”
Still. Despite the exceptions I encountered on campus, it was difficult to ignore the rule: for the most part, the student body was far removed from poverty, injustice and oppression. Exposure to such realities was readily available for those who sought it out, but internalizing those realities is difficult — especially when affluence is the norm.
The extent to which my environment had normalized opulence became clear to me last spring when a large portion of my senior class booked week-long tropical getaways. The prospect of staying in slushy South Bend while most of my college friends sipped cocktails on a beach made me depressed. It didn’t help that I was nursing a recent breakup and had nothing but an unfinished thesis for company. Why couldn’t I afford to drop $2,000? Why couldn’t my parents? I felt unfortunate. Disadvantaged.
When I relayed my juvenile chagrin to my mother, she gave me a firm but compassionate look. “There will always be people who have more than you and people who have less than you,” she said. “Look at Emmy. She would love to have the life you lead.”
And there it was: a childhood friend reduced to a reference point. A reality check.
This past May, I arrived home from commencement, spirits high. I had made it: magna cum laude, a perfect summer job and the best fellowship at my dream graduate school. Behind me, my brother carried a tray of coffee to compensate for the 8 a.m. ceremony. I noticed Emmy on her porch, sitting in one of the old wicker chairs my mother had given Mike. She waved to us.
Suddenly, everything I had learned in my Poverty Studies courses, Black Skin White Masks class, Poverty and Politics seminar — all the manifestos, lectures, books, articles, statistics and theories — converged into this one image. This poignant manifestation of the unjust and tyrannical power of chance.
There was my brother, holding a carrier of pricey cappuccinos and iced lattes. There I was, holding a $216,466 Notre Dame diploma. And eight feet away: Emmy. A single, low-income, biracial, high school dropout holding her baby daughter.
One summer day after my graduation, 15 years after I first met Emmy, I arrived home from work to a familiar scene: Emmy on her porch with the baby, staring into the street.
“Hi, Emmy,” I said.
“Hi,” she replied.
My hand was on the door knob, about to turn. But I stopped. “Your baby’s adorable,” I said. “What’s her name?”
“That’s really beautiful.”
A beat. I shifted my weight. “How — how old is she?”
“She just turned a year yesterday,” Emmy replied. She beamed, and for the first time I realized how happy she looked. Perhaps I had been too busy pitying her to realize how unwarranted that pity was.
“Wow,” I said. “A year.” I stood on the porch for a moment longer, then remembered I would be late to rehearsal if I didn’t grab my script and dash. But I lingered, watching Emmy cradle her little lilac bundle, thinking about the 15 years, countless opportunities and eight feet between us.
Wondering what it might take to cross the distance.
The author is using a pen name to protect the identities of the people in the article. A 2015 Notre Dame alumna, she attends graduate school on the East Coast.