Single-Minded: The Real Meaning of Privilege

Helena Andrews re-examines her privileged private-school education after seeing the documentary Waiting for Superman.


Gulping down the lump in my own throat, her tears reminded me of all the ones I must have avoided growing up. From eighth to 12th grades, I attended an expensive private school in downtown Los Angeles, and for years my mother, like Nakia’s and Francisco’s, fought hard for her magic.

Because a true professional never reveals her secrets, lunch money, new backpacks, bus passes, cheerleading uniforms and school trips simply appeared without my knowing how. I knew full well that we weren’t anything remotely close to rich (I arrived at class via the MTA, not a Mercedes), but somehow I still got to do everything all the other rich kids did, including being a smart-ass, with the grades to prove it.

Once, when I was a freshman in high school, I lost the $200 my mother gave me to pay off something important. Instead of getting mad, she got me a job, and from then on I realized that my charmed 8:00 a.m.-to-4:00 p.m. life wasn’t free. Small class sizes, computer labs, books I still own today, a nurse with Advil at the ready and teachers who were visibly outraged by mediocrity all came at a price. I was privileged, but only because I had a parent, who, like the ones featured in Waiting for Superman, considered it her right to exploit every opportunity.

When my mother turned 50, we threw a party for her at the Compton Baptist church the Andrews family has attended since 1960. I knew I was supposed to make a speech, but I figured that winging it would work just as well as reading off a napkin. With the mic in my hand, tears gathering and a mind swimming with every amazing thing this woman had done for me over the last two decades, my first sentence was clear: “Thank you for being so dedicated to my education.”

Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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