‘Miles Walked, Miles Driven’: This Year’s College Essays About Money

“Three hundred dollars,” Mama said proudly. “Two cemeteries.”

My mother works two jobs. I save coupons for school shopping. Why did it take me so long to notice? Maybe I want to see myself as something other than a stereotype. Another brown body living under the auspices of the low-income, first-generation cap. Maybe my mom was embarrassed that being another brown person couldn’t afford a good set of cutlery without the extra 20 hours.

But I never had to think about it, because she keeps the kitchen picturesque, and I never mentioned the bags below her eyes. It’s a dark, dirty secret that we hold tight to our chests, away from prying eyes. No one should know (not even us).

“Poor” is always a dirty word, like “homeless” or “beggar”. Generous donations, blatant indifference, unkind mockery, but there’s a quiet whisper, a “this is your fault” intrusion inside all of us. That’s why we say “out of poverty” is like some monster under our bed, not a symptom of a monstrous society. We all long to get out, and when we do, we don’t look back.

I’ve always had a deep yearning for more. I’m named Jaylen after a basketball player, but I tell everyone I’m named after blue jay. Inside me, a little bird, like my name, was desperately trying to fly. I wanted to leave, because I was ashamed, and because I wanted more for myself, I forgot to want more for others.

But standing there, I saw my mother for the first time. I see the pride in her purchases, her sunken face, the way her hands tremble and her hair turns gray. She works every day, so one day I can rest. She never swings her legs and enjoys the hive on a Saturday afternoon. She loves my future enough to give up her present.

We each have our little bird inside, but birds fly in flocks (and together, cages aren’t really cages). It’s our generation’s job to make sure the next generation has it a little easier. There’s no shame in that weight. Have pride.

We plant seeds so that our daughter and son can enjoy the flowers. We add a semicolon for the child to continue our story.


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