My family lived in poverty. For a long time, I hid that from my friends.

Here’s what happened when I finally opened up. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

When I was in eighth grade, my family had to move from Brooklyn to live with a family friend in Jersey City because we could not afford the rent. It was my mother, my 12-year-old brother, and me. We were provided one small bedroom, a tight living area with a half kitchen, and a dingy bathroom.

Enoch Naklen (Courtesy photo)

It was the middle of the school year, so my brother and I had to commute two hours to school in Brooklyn. To get there early enough for free school breakfast, we got up at 4:30 a.m., walked to a bus, then transferred to two trains. Because of the limitations on the school MetroCard, we often didn’t have enough money for the trip. Sometimes, my brother and I got lucky with sympathetic bus drivers who let us ride for free. However, this wasn’t always the case, so at times we had to pay the bus fare, and then jump the A train turnstile.

None of my friends knew I had moved or anything about my family’s economic hardships. I didn’t want to tell them because my friends came from middle-income families. Most of them lived in two-parent households where their parents worked stable jobs, such as correctional officers and sanitation workers. My mom had a decent job as a child care coordinator but it was low paying. My father was absent for most of my life, which contributed to my family’s economic hardships.

Wearing a mask to hide my hardships

I managed to stay popular even though I wore last year’s school uniform and shoes. I felt like my friends judged me for this, and on the few occasions they said something, I laughed it off. “Yeah I’m supposed to get new uniforms this weekend,” I told them. “Actually I’m just waiting on my mom.”

I couldn’t play for the basketball and flag football teams anymore because I lived too far away. But I had also broken my pinky, so I used that as an excuse.

Soon after I moved, there was an after-school party in the gym. I couldn’t go because in rush-hour traffic, it took four hours to get back to New Jersey. 

Since my friends thought I still lived in Brooklyn, I told them, “Let me go call my mom and see what she says.” And I moved away, pretending I was talking to her. I came back to the group and said, “My mom said I have to head home now. I have to do something.” My friends looked disappointed but said the usual: “Aight, safety, bro.”

My friendships began to feel artificial. Keeping the truth from my friends, I no longer felt that I belonged among them. I started to feel isolated.

Lunchtime dread

The disparities between my friends and me were hardest to ignore during lunch. As the clock struck 12 each day, my classmates fidgeted eagerly in anticipation, while I felt dread. Kids grabbed their brightly colored lunch boxes or deli bags. Of course I wasn’t the only one who got school meals, but that’s what it felt like to me.

Day after day, as my friends went straight to our cafeteria table, I stood on the line, waiting bitterly for whatever mystery food the school kitchen had for me. Then I’d sit down, wishing I had food like what my privileged friends brought from home.

Nothing made me feel more lonely and isolated than watching my peers enjoying their gourmet-looking meals. The classic meal consisted of a turkey and cheese hero, chips, from the local deli. However, others brought more elaborate meals from the deli. From the cheeseburger and fries combo to a grilled stuffed quesadilla, the delicious meals were oh so elusive to me.

I also lacked the newest Jordans, and without the latest gaming console, I couldn’t keep up with the guys online after school.

If my friends noticed any of these things, they never said anything to me. But I felt so dishonest. I consider myself an honorable, candid individual with a conscience. Yet here I was hiding where I was living and how we didn’t even have enough money to commute to school.

I wanted to tell them, but I kept fighting the urge to do so.

My ticket out of poverty

In the summer before eighth grade, my mom found out about DREAM, a program designed to get low- to middle-income students in New York City the resources and education needed to pass the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or the SHSAT. The program site was conveniently located a couple blocks from my school, and I really wanted to get into the Brooklyn Latin specialized high school and to be a part of their classical school culture. Getting into a specialized high school seemed like my ticket out of poverty.

So I attended the eight-week program in the middle of eighth grade for eight weeks; it ended days before I sat for the SHSAT. 

Time to expose the truth

On the second to last Friday DREAM session, my friends had plans to hang out in downtown Brooklyn. I knew I couldn’t go. So, once again I had to come up with an excuse. A lie.

With the SHSAT looming, I was stressed out. When my friends approached me, the pent-up frustration and stress from years of mental isolation and dishonesty bubbled up. I decided to expose the truth I’d been hiding.

I walked with my friends to the bus stop in nervous anticipation. I don’t have time for it today, I thought. I’m going to be late for class. We finally got to the end of the block. I felt my face heat up in a mix of embarrassment and frustration.

“I told ya — I have the program today,” I said.

“Oh that sh-t again,” my friend Taheen mumbled.

It made me so angry that they all had the privilege to enjoy their Friday afternoons while I had to go to DREAM. Not only for me, but for my family — my mother and brother count on me to succeed.

Then I realized I had no right to be mad at them because my friends didn’t know this. But now I was ready to tell them.

“DREAM is my way out. I don’t have the same money for school you have. Or get daily allowance and longer curfews like the rest of you guys. You guys may not get it, because you aren’t me, but this is an opportunity that I have to make the most of, to change my situation; not only for me, but for my mother and my brother. That’s why I go.”

The burden that I’d been holding for so long had finally been lifted. I felt free and expressive, but also afraid that if my friends knew the truth they wouldn’t stick around. I managed to hold back my tears.

But my friends dapped me up. “Damn bro, my bad. We didn’t know all that,” Taheen said. Then instead of going to hang out downtown, they got on the bus with me to go to the DREAM site. And one by one, my friends asked me questions on the bus ride to get a better understanding of what I was experiencing. “So wait, you were living in New Jersey the whole time.” And, “What time do you have to get up to go to school?”

I felt as if my friends cared about me and who I was as a person. I regretted waiting so long to tell them. When we got off the bus I walked into the site with newfound pride and confidence. My friends understood, and they didn’t judge me. Walking into DREAM, I was determined to study harder for my last day; because now I was doing it not only for my mother and brother, but to make my friends proud as well.

That was about two years ago. Now, in this unusual year amid the pandemic, I am a sophomore at Brooklyn Latin. My family has moved back to Brooklyn. In high school, my friend group is more diverse than it was in middle school, with kids from all income levels and walks of life. I’ve gotten comfortable conversing with people who are different from me economically and culturally.

I now appreciate the values of sympathy and sincerity in friendships, as that helped me feel more secure about my family’s economic challenges. If we can all communicate to each other that there’s no shame in being poor, nobody will have to hide anymore.

Once 15-year-old Enoch moved back to Brooklyn, he tried out for the school basketball team. He is only the second freshman in Brooklyn Latin history to make the varsity team. He plays both point guard and shooting guard. 

A version of this essay originally appeared in YCteen.