My family immigrated to NYC for a better life. For a long time, it felt worse.

In America, our poverty was isolating. Here’s how I finally found relief and connection at school. 

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

I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica.

Although we lived in an area that was poverty-stricken, our lives seemed luxurious to me. I thought our house was a castle since it had three floors that towered over the one-story houses in the neighborhood.

School wasn’t challenging, but I tried my best — always participating, maintaining good grades, and seeking out new friendships.

Parris Smith (Courtesy photo)

My parents didn’t think everything was so rosy, though. They decided one of them should go to America and try to set up a better future for me, my two sisters, and my brother. So my mom left when I was 7, and we weren’t reunited in the U.S. until six years later.

The day before we left, I walked through the house trying to take everything in one last time. These days, I often think back to my room with its light pink and beige walls, pink and purple curtains, and old Nokia TV. Sometimes I wish I didn’t take that walk; sometimes I wish I could forget how good life felt when I had my own room.

My sister came up from behind me and pried my hand away from the doorframe. We walked away with our hands tangled, crying for the memories we were leaving behind. Once we said our goodbyes to our family there, I fell into the back of the car, and the engine started. I looked back at our house and my chest tightened.

Once in America, we headed to the house my mom rented in St. Albans, Queens. When we arrived, I thought: Is this really my home now? It was nothing like my spacious, colorful house in Jamaica. 

I didn’t know much about my mother’s job, except that she was a nurse for old people. After long days of work, she complained about her hour-long journey on the bus; she dreamed of one day getting a car. Sometimes she worried about not having enough money for her MetroCard, but she said we would always be spared by God. The more I heard this, the less I believed it. We went from living what felt like a comfortable life to worrying about having money for a bus ride.

At school, I felt out of place. When I began classes here in 7th grade, kids stared, pointed, and laughed at me. We were supposed to wear uniforms, but most of the kids did not follow that rule. I did, though, and wearing a sweater over a shirt and tie seemed to give everyone the green light to make fun of me. I was no longer the outgoing, popular girl I was in Jamaica. I ate lunch alone, and I didn’t participate in class like I used to. I’m not me anymore, I thought.

It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in high school that I was finally able to crack my shell a little. I started making new friends, some of them from Jamaica. We’d talk about life on the island, telenovelas, roller skating, reading, playing the ukulele, and religion. We had a lot in common, but I was still too ashamed to share my anxiety over my mom’s financial struggles.

When my friends and I walked home from school together, I was afraid of them seeing me enter my run-down building. I wondered: Are they judging me? Do they think I’m poor? So I’d enter through a nondescript side door.

Only on special occasions, such as graduations or birthdays, were we able to eat out at a restaurant. I couldn’t attend school trips, buy name-brand clothes, or take family vacations like my classmates whose families had more money. This made me feel inferior.

Often, my friends asked me to hang out at the mall or the movies. I would nod and smile, knowing I would just make up an excuse that I was feeling sick or tired the next day. Then I started refusing invitations by joking that I was poor. Whenever I did this, it stung and hit at something deeper in my mind and heart. Because it was true. My mom could barely afford to pay rent. As time went on, my friends stopped asking me to hang out. Instead, I read about the fun they were having on their social media posts while I stayed home.

I have a tendency to look back and compare how good life seemed in Jamaica. When I think back to my colorful room with my TV, the drab apartment where I share a bed with my sister and mother seems even worse.

Although I miss my seemingly simple life in Jamaica, and we seem to be poorer here, I’ve started to realize there are positives to living in the U.S. For one, the school system is a lot better here. My grades have improved because of the many academic resources available.

One of these is a program at my school called GOALS, which stands for Grab Opportunities And Learn Something. Its after-school programming includes individual counseling, clubs, academic support, life skills, and college readiness programs.

I began the program during my freshman year. It was mandatory for all members to attend a club or activity three days per week. I chose cooking and art. There, I frequently interacted with a community of students with whom I finally felt I could confidently share — and vent about — issues I hid before. Being a part of this program helped me to slowly become comfortable talking about my empty-feeling friendships.

Since I’ve become increasingly open to forging deeper relationships, I appreciate teachers and staff more, especially those who show respect and love for me. They help guide me, teaching me how to take care of my mental health or providing space for me to talk about the stresses of school. They’ve also shown me that writing can be a helpful remedy in times of distress.

Reflecting back on what life was like when I first arrived in America, I used to stay up late thinking about how much school was a pain, and how it felt as though there was no one there for me to confide in.

During one of those nights, as my mom and sister snoozed quietly next to me, I got up, found a notebook and pencil, and began to jot down my feelings about school, my living situation, and feeling silenced.

As the hours floated by, I felt a sense of relief. I wrote until my fingers cramped and then proceeded to shove the notebook into a small crack of a cupboard and finally went to sleep.

Part of why I love writing is that it is easier for me to express myself on paper. I realize now it can be another way for me to finally let go of this burden of hiding my circumstances. Even though I feel a bit like I’m still hiding behind these words, I hope my writing can help other teens in a similar situation feel less alone. I hope it gives them the courage to let someone know what’s going on instead of keeping it all inside. I should have done that sooner.

Parris Smith is a junior at Queens High School of Teaching. Her favorite subject is Spanish because she has a deep passion for learning new languages. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, roller skating, and spending time with family. She hopes to graduate high school, attend college, provide financial support for her family.

A version of this piece was first published on YCTeen.