In my track team, everyone in my group of friends wears long black athletic socks. It’s an unspoken ‘thing’ that we do, and it shows that you’re part of the cool, ‘fire squad’ (as some others on our team have dubbed us), as opposed to those who wear ‘normal’ socks (aka every other kind of sock known to man). However, there’s a twist. You see, to look the best of the best, you must have the Nike brand socks. These socks come at $6 for one pair—that’s 806.22 Sri Lankan Rupees.
For my family, $6 is a completely frivolous amount to spend on one pair of socks when we could get six pairs that looked almost the same for the same price.
So, I started wearing my Wal-Mart socks that developed holes almost every time I wore them. I ended up scrabbling through the laundry basket before every meet to try and find the pair with the least holes. Even after all of this effort, I never really belonged to my ‘group,’ because there was always a new thing to separate the extremely wealthy from everyone else. LuluLemon Spandex. Adidas shorts. Nike running shoes.
Why, you ask, did I just not wear normal socks, without holes? I was trying my best to ‘look the part.’ It’s crazy that, even after running the third fastest sprint-time on our team, I still couldn’t be solidified with the ‘in-crowd’ because they all had things I did not. Brands are the most important things to most kids at my school. It’s an immediate way to define who is on top of our social class. In many high-school movies, the cool kids are the ones that are pretty or in the right clubs.
In our school, the cool kids are the ones with money. The problem with that is that someone like me, who is part of a family with a house, a father with a steady job, a mother who writes for many prominent sources and has published two books, and an older sister in college across the country, still cannot afford the lifestyle of our district.
The wealth is not only in our students. Our kids and teachers complain about the fact that the District has put Smart Boards (an extremely expensive technological resource) in every single classroom, because they are ‘hard to use.’ Our high school students are provided with their own laptop the day they walk in.
It’s a stark contrast to the Philadelphia inner city schools a few minutes away that have students’ parents cleaning the toilets because the schools can’t afford a janitorial staff. The worst part is that most children are not aware of it. Yes, we do food collections and other charity fundraisers, but they’re for ‘those poor impoverished children far away.’ No one realizes that poverty is just around the corner.
So we flaunt our wealth, running around with the newest phones, posting about all the gifts we get for holidays, shopping every other week. ‘I have more than you’ is the inadvertent message we’re putting out into the world. Is there nothing else that we can think of to say? Are we really so dull that the only question we know how to answer is ‘How much?’
I have always envied the students of Sri Lanka, for school here is a place to learn. School in America is a place to pass without a failing grade. The culture here focuses on intelligence rather than being cool. The school uniforms that students are required to wear are a way to weaken the focus on who is rich and who is not. Yet, it still exists. My young cousin talks endlessly about Smiggle products, and when asked about what defines a ‘cool kid’ at her school, says immediately, “They have Smiggle backpacks and bracelets and stationery, Smiggle everything, and they have really nice earrings—new pairs every day!” finishing with a wide-eyed expression of wonder.
She herself owns a Smiggle bracelet, which she tenderly guards with the utmost protection. You can see wealth in other ways too. Certain children never use public transport—instead private cars arrive to pick them up. Children mock each other for not speaking English, even though, as someone whose native language is English, I am much more impressed by those who speak Sinhala and/or Tamil.
The discovery that the obsession with brands is everywhere is disheartening, but that should only give us more reason to try to change that. We should not strive to be like the kids that have the most material possessions, but those who succeed in their studies or athletics or other clubs. Work is what should be rewarded. We shouldn’t share the fact that we went shopping or stayed at a resort, but rather share the fact that we won an award or got top marks.
The minute we begin to celebrate wealth over success is the minute that we resign to a generation of people that are less driven, less intelligent and less likely to create a better future for each of our countries. Famous rapper The Notorious B.I.G. knew what was up when he rapped the line: “It’s like the more money we come across/the more problems we see.”