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Special Report: Analyzing a material culture

Editor-in-Chief Ananya Prakash Media Director Quinn Whitman

Analyzing a Material Culture is a five-part special report on socio-economic class at ASL and its implications. The report examines classism’s presence at ASL and how it impacts students and the assumptions they have.

The first thing Social Studies Teacher Chris Wolf hears students asking each other after a vacation is ‘where did you go?’ Wolf believes that the question not only implies families must have enough wealth to travel, but also touches on disparities in transportation accessible to students, whether it be travelling economy class on an airplane or taking a private jet.

For Wolf, this simple question of travel is a glimpse into how classism manifests itself in the community. Wolf defines classism as “constructing a set of assumptions about wealth and benefit that stratify people, and then because of that stratification, determines how you interact with them.”

Through such preconceived expectations of financial situations, Wolf finds similar subtle ways in which classism is apparent. “I don’t find that there is a lot of overt classism, but I think a lot of it plays out in the assumed interactions or the meanings people interpret behind interactions,” Wolf said.

Part 2

With residential prices rising in many parts of London, living in areas close to the school is not always feasible for many, especially when accounting for factors such as transportation and convenience. Catering Manager Christine Kent knows firsthand how a person’s financial situation can dictate where in London they live. “My personal financial circumstances has meant that I can live in a nicer area and I live a long way out of town,” Kent said. “Although I have a long commute, I am in a position where I [have more choice] where I live.”

However, Kent recognizes that this flexibility in deciding where to live is not always given to other staff members at ASL. “The socio-economic constraints of some of [others], possibly means they don’t live where they want to live, they live where they can afford to live,” Kent said.

Graphic by Quinn Whitman

Director of Service Learning Brandon Block also is aware of how financial situations impact the location of one’s residence. “Faculty who have had the privilege of living in London longer have access to housing that can be permanent, while faculty who have been here a shorter time face these ridiculous housing prices,” he said. “You have the sense that for many, being in London is only possible as a temporary situation to live at the kind of lifestyle that they might want.”

Block believes residential location has a wider impact and influences other decisions a person makes financially, specifically travel and vacations. “Because people are under pressure in terms of housing, that may mean that they are under more pressure in terms of their options for how they spend their holidays,” Block said.

Part 3

Landon* (’19), a student receiving the highest level of financial aid, believes that his situation allows him to be more cognizant of the privilege that comes with the education that he is receiving. “My scholarship is based on my grades, so I feel like I have to work really hard, but it makes me appreciate what I have a lot more because I don’t come from a super wealthy background,” he said.

Landon believes that the disproportionate number of students that come from high-income families impacts student’s perceptions of wealth and the value of money. “I think ASL is known for [a material culture] because of the large population of wealthy people at our school.”

Alongside a growing materialistic culture, Maria Lancaster (’19) believes that the issues surrounding social class are deeply embedded in a student’s social life. She has noticed that wealthier students at times make assumptions of those who are not able to afford the same luxuries. “I think the kids that are from a higher social class have a judgment of who the people [of lower socioeconomic status] around them are, and that they aren’t at the same standard,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster believes that this judgment is also apparent through the clothes that people choose to wear. She has seen that student’s perception of their peers change based on the brand and style of clothing they wear. “I have seen students be put down because of wealth or the clothes they wear,” she said. Lancaster has noticed that the range of clothing at ASL can lead to “[comments] about the outfits that aren’t as expensive.”

Although Lancaster doesn’t believe materialism plays a defining role in the atmosphere of the school, she has noticed students flaunt expensive items. “I have seen girls with shoes that are $2,000 and a $3,000 backpack. I think that material items that are very expensive are definitely present in our school,” she said.

Alum Jake Perelmuter (’18) believes that the idea of showing off social status has transgressed into the realm of social media outlets as well. “I think that because there is so much pressure now to uphold a certain character on social media, people flaunt things on Instagram as they do in real life,” he said.

Perelmuter also agrees with Lancaster that there is an underlying material culture present. He acknowledges that all schools have their own own customs that students partake in, but realizes that at ASL, costs can be extreme. “Having a Halloween party or ski trip is a tradition that is ingrained in the ASL culture and it is a tradition that costs a lot of money,” he said. “It definitely pushes a culture of materialism.”

Part 4

Due to perceived differences, Lancaster has noticed that students with greater economic privilege tend to distance themselves from others. “I think the people that [are wealthier] are being the judgmental ones and don’t take part in immersing themselves in the school culture,” she said.

Furthermore, Wolf remembers talking with former students, specifically seniors, about feeling isolated at ASL due to the ingrained financial expectations that Perelmuter also noticed. “Towards the end of their high school experience, the students started to feel really separated from their classmates,” Wolf said. “Their classmates would have these £1000 weekends where they would go to these clubs and they would unload all their money without even thinking about it.”

Landon has experienced similar situations to that described by Wolf, especially noting the challenge of finding enough money to spend with his friends. “It’s a little bit annoying sometimes when I see my friends drop £15 a day on food,” he said. “I realize that they don’t have to worry about making their money last.”

Despite the different experience Landon has from other students, he describes his friends to be supportive of him and his situation. “A lot of the time when I go out with a couple of my friends, I’ll say, ‘I can’t really go,’ because I don’t have that much money, but sometimes they will pitch in to help me go,” he said.

Alongside classism amongst students, World Languages and Cultures Teacher Lanting Xu believes that classism is present at ASL through other adult relationships in the school. “Something that really bothered me from the beginning was how we were treating the cleaners. I noticed that we ignored the cleaners and cafeteria staff when we saw each other in the hallway and in the cafeteria,” she said.

Xu acknowledges that while the relationship has gotten better over her time here, there is still an inequality in the treatment of staff by the faculty. “These sort of things are obvious, we treat people differently who we think occupy the less prestigious occupations on campus.”

Block has also noticed a similar divide within the school. “There can be social divides that exist between teachers, many of who come from or are living in fairly privileged circumstances, and some members of staff who may not have as much wealth at their disposal,” he said.

Something that Xu believes that could combat classism would be to implement a system that was in place at one of her previous schools. “We had a gathering at one of my previous schools right before Christmas, where we would contribute some sort of cash gift to the cleaners,” she said. “We don’t seem to have a system at ASL to do so.”

Part 5

Associate Dean of Admissions Ken Craig believes that students’ varying backgrounds provide unique differentiation in how tuition is paid. With the school’s high tuition costs, Craig has seen that many families have companies paying for the fees, or are families working in embassies and have their fees paid through that role. Although there are still families who pay tuition independently, Craig believes ASL “is out of reach for a lot of local families.”

Craig explained that the financial aid program is a needs-based program that families have to apply for. Currently, approximately 11 percent of students are receiving financial aid, which is around 140 students throughout the school. The extent of financial aid, however, differs significantly depending on the family. “We have some families that receive grants that cover 90 percent plus of tuition costs, and then there are some families that are maybe 10 percent,” he said.

The financial aid department has worked with these families to support the cost of various things ranging from lunches to trips abroad, to sports team gear.

Craig recognizes that the team gear that athletes are expected to purchase is something that has a great socio-economic impact on some students. “There [is] a culture where it was just kind of assumed that everybody could afford the fancy t-shirt or sweatshirt and jacket,” Craig said. “There has been an effort to not just assume that’s an easy thing for everyone to buy and to systematically keep those costs under control to some extent.”

To ensure students don’t feel the financial strain of purchasing athletic gear, Craig is working with the athletics department to institute a policy where a student wouldn’t be asked to spend more than £35 on team gear.

Despite the efforts in increasing financial aid opportunities, McGowan has noticed that there appears to be a stigma surrounding the subject as he has never heard it being brought up in conversation. “I’ve never heard high school students talk about [financial aid], I cannot think of a single time. It has not come up in academic classes and it hasn’t come up in any discussions I’ve had with students,” McGowan said. “In my experience, it’s all kept under the surface.”

In an effort to be more open in discussing financial aid, Lancaster believes there needs to be greater awareness and visibility of the financial aid program. “I think it would keep everyone at ASL grounded,” she said. “We’re so gifted with so many things and we get everything brought to our feet.” Ultimately, Lancaster recognizes the importance for everyone to acknowledge that students are coming from various socioeconomic backgrounds and that there is no one universal experience at ASL.

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