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Pictures of Themselves: The 2020 College Essays on Money

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Consider these dispatches from the time before.

Before the coronavirus, before college students went home and stayed there, before protests amplified calls for racial justice, a whole bunch of teenagers did a normal thing at a normal time: They tried to say something meaningful about who they were to a collection of strangers who could give them access to a great education.

Reading their college application essays now, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit optimistic for the future. They hustle. They make do. They reckon with themselves, how they see the world and how they are seen in it, too.

Each year, I ask graduating seniors to send me application essays about work, money, social class or related topics. We adults don’t talk about money and our feelings about it often enough, so it only seems right to try to learn from the teenagers who have figured out how to do it well.

And so here, we meet the artist who works amid her immigrant parents’ construction projects, a Black man who uses poetry to provide a dose of perspective, an unlikely conveyance in upscale Connecticut and the maker of a blanket that stands for so much more.


ImageMaria Mendoza Blanco is attending Cornell University.
Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

If I had it my way, I’d never set foot in a Home Depot ever again.

Every Ace Hardware, every Lowe’s, every boutique tile place, every obscure little hardware store that only sells Phillips-head screwdrivers smells the same way: dusty. Sawdust, catdust, paint-flake-dust, laminate-dust, ancient-grumpy-cashier-dust. It’s post-apocalyptic, the shuffling shoppers dead-eyed from looking at a thousand identical refrigerators, fluorescent tube lights casting ultramarine pallor over their faces.

We kill tigers, you see.

“Where are we going?” I’ll ask, and my father will say, “Lowe’s. Hay que matar tigres.” Gotta kill tigers, gotta take side jobs to fill in the gaps where the money doesn’t quite reach. Where others might have taken up Uber, my family started building houses, with me and my brother in tow.

When we arrived, my parents caught the American dream like Tío Conejo used his rabbit tricksiness to outwit Tío Tigre in the fables: so artfully that they themselves hardly believed they’d pulled it off. We killed tigers in Georgetown and Langley, diplomat townhomes and tasteless McMansions alike. We moved seven times within the same ZIP code, as my parents bought ugly houses and sold them beautiful.

It isn’t much like HGTV. I spent countless hours searching for nonexistent cans of Spackle in the back shelves of Home Depot. My mother laid out carpet samples on the floor and paced around them, forever deliberating between ivory and cream. She’d be on the phone with some hung over subcontractor when she picked me up from art club. I’d sit in an abandoned corner and sketch as they haggled eternally over hardwood pallets at auction. I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent more time under the watchful eye of an orange-aproned paint mixer than a babysitter.

All this is to say that construction runs in the veins of the Blancos. My grandfather, after all, came out of nowhere to build a concrete empire on the baked dirt of Maracaibo. The mixers molder now in that hinterland, but the force of his success was what fueled our escape from Venezuela before things got bad.

What use would my grandfather have had for all the sketches I’ve sketched, all the paintings I’ve painted, I wonder? Could my parents paper their clients’ walls with pages from my sketchbook, could they tear up the canvas and use it for insulation? Probably not.

In art, there’s this fantasy of The Muse reaching down and the lucky artist’s paintbrush dancing with a press of her rosy fingertip. The truth is that I can have the most perfect concept handed to me by the ghost of Gentileschi herself, and I’ll still get in my own way. Perfectionism won’t let me pick a background color for weeks, envy will distract me with foolhardy attempts at others’ success, simple laziness will keep me in bed watching episodes of “Chopped” 15 times.

Whenever my still-white canvas stretched blankly into the infinite, I thought about that, about the long nights my parents must have spent thinking about their own parents. About the three hours daily my mother spends commuting to her day job. About my father’s lost stories, the jokes he doesn’t tell because English warps his humor. About the life they left behind in Maracaibo, all so that we could live here. All so that I could come here and be an artist, of all things.

So it’s not easy moving from concrete to canvas. But I must do it anyway, because the force of my ambition and, well, my talent demand it. Because my family’s risk deserves a risk of my own. A risk that I must fight my indolence and ennui for. A risk that will honor our sacrifice of all these years between two lands. I can’t let all those dusty hours at Home Depot go to waste. Hay que matar tigres.


Credit…Raymond Holman for The New York Times

Some challenges transcend time, constantly popping up in different forms

As a society, we strive to quantify success

“If you work hard, you’ll see results”

This phrase is constantly used to blame others

And a specific group of people have felt the brunt of this attack

Yes, slavery in the U.S. was abolished over 150 years ago

But let me paint a picture

Let’s say your great-great-great-grandmother was a newly liberated slave in 1863.

How free is she truly?

She might be free, but the world still doesn’t have to treat her equally. No one is obligated to give her a job. She is the same person that she was the week before.

And her kids

They are now growing up with a mother who can’t read or write while at the same time struggling to live in a society evolving to house a new race

Are her children supposed to immediately succeed?

And what about their children?

And their children?

We are so quick to look at issues

High rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment

And begin to point fingers

Yes, the civil rights movement won equal rights for African-Americans sixty years ago

But segregation is as prevalent as it’s ever been

So, who is really to blame?

It’s easy for me to look at some of my best friends from my middle school and blame them

“They chose to skip class” “They chose to fight in the hallways”

But did they choose to grow up in an environment that doesn’t value education?

Did they choose to grow up with one parent who is working two jobs?

Is something wrong with them, or am I just lucky?

Lucky to have two parents who’ve put education before anything

Lucky to attend a high school with plentiful resources

We no longer have laws in place that are made solely to hold back those of certain groups

But that doesn’t mean the effects aren’t the same

And as we continue along our journey

We must ask ourselves

“Whose choices truly created this outcome?” and “How do we fix this mentality and issue?”

Many solutions have been proposed

But one seems to be truly effective in both the short and long term

Education

Not just of the perpetrators, the ignorant, but as well as those who suffer from this society

We all need to learn more, not just the students but the teachers as well

Even as I spread awareness, I know there are so many who know more and so much to learn

But is he truly racist or did he grow up in a family that perpetrated those views?

An attack should not be our first response, rather, we need to teach

Show the history, the ups, the downs

The accomplishments, the breakthroughs, the struggles

Show why we are in the state we are in

And for me personally?

I’ll try

To break into homogenous communities and try to teach

To show my dreads, curls, and naps

To not wait for that next person to say something, but rather be that next person

To always be proud of who I am


Credit…Ike Abakah for The New York Times

My friends and peers don’t understand my relationship with Big Betsy. This is mainly due to the fact that Big Betsy is far older, louder, and larger than what is considered “normal” at my school. She is constantly surrounded by others who serve the same exact purpose, but are more elegant.

Big Betsy was always different. Every time I went out with her I could feel judgmental eyes wondering why a kid like me would even want anything to do with her. Despite this, I was always proud of her and what we accomplished together. She was made fun of relentlessly, but I always knew deep down that we had something special together.

It was like we had known each other for years when I first laid eyes on her. I was sure that we would stay together for a long time. Since the day I bought Big Betsy on Craigslist, I have loved her unconditionally. I still remember driving down the winding country road to the seller’s sprawling ranch and instantly falling for her. The way that she glistened in the sunlight beckoned me to her. I had no problem spending the money for her that I had accumulated over years of saving birthday gifts, doing undesirable odd jobs and babysitting unruly children. To me, she was worth more than my entire bank account.

Big Betsy has been loyal to me throughout the past couple of years. She even provided me with the opportunity to set up my own business, The Westport Workers. My friend and I realized that all the dump-run services in our town were grossly overcharging their customers, so we decided to provide an inexpensive alternative. We have worked countless jobs together, including transporting an antique bar counter 50 miles away for a Gilmore Girls fan club meeting and hauling a battered boat motor through knee-deep sludge to dispose of it at the dump.

Big Betsy and I are constantly relying on each other to get things done. In the blistering summer heat she would wait patiently for me while I pulled weeds for hours on end. With sweat trickling down my face, I would take shelter from the sun in her soft embrace. She and I made a respectable living through our business, and I would always make sure to buy her the things that she required to keep her going.

In case it isn’t obvious, Big Betsy is my beloved truck, a 1998 Ford F-150 with over 230,000 miles. The first months I had her, I spent all my time between early morning football and work fixing her up, and it was worth it.

Not only has she been a great truck, she also helped me to realize how little other people’s judgments of me matter. I used to be shy and avoided differentiating myself from my classmates because I was very concerned about what others would think about me. In a school almost entirely minority-free, I was always uncomfortable with my ethnicity, and even my name. I felt extremely self-conscious every time that I pulled into the high school parking lot filled with Mercedes, Jeep Wranglers, and BMWs.

However, as time went on, Big Betsy became a bit of a local celebrity and I became more confident, and not only while driving. I found myself less anxious when voicing my opinions, applying for leadership positions, and challenging myself to do better in all aspects of my life. Big Betsy made me realize how damaging it can be to my potential when I become unwilling to stand out or take the risks required to achieve my goals. If it wasn’t for her teaching me how to be confident in myself and that it is good to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I would not be nearly as happy as I am today.


Credit…Chris Pietsch for The New York Times

Twist, bend, through the loop. Repeat.

It took me a month to crochet my first blanket. One month of twisting, bending, sending my hook through the loop, and repeating. It was an almost meditative pastime. I spent bus rides and evenings working on my blanket, determined to finish.

I learned to crochet so that I could feel closer to my mother. I poured my heart into every stitch. Each square of the blanket meant something different; the colors represented memories. It was a summary of my life.

Green double treble crochet stitches take me back to the smell of wet pine needles in the spring, laughter from my sisters climbing high on tree limbs, the curve of mountain roads. Green is the forest of my childhood, sheltering my first home. I taste the smoke from our old wood stove and see the oil lanterns flickering in and out. The cabin in the woods where my sister was born, water from the river that she took her first bath in.

Green fades into blue as squares meet, treetops brush the sky. I see myself, young and spinning across a playground with my classmates. I am at my one-room schoolhouse, holding hands with the two other children in my grade and lying with our backs on grass, looking up at the never-ending sky. We whisper dreams of becoming doctors, actors, artists.

I see the blue of California oceans as I leave for high school, finding my home away from home. Pine trees replaced by palm trees and sand between my toes. I recall beach cleanups and surfing trips, touching shy sea anemones in tide pools. Blue paint on signs for women’s marches and the sound of people beside me who want to be heard. We demand equality.

Purple is for my mother. It’s her favorite color. It reminds me of her strength and determination. I feel her calloused hands from work on the farm, work in the field, and chemical burns from cleaning jobs. I smell her earthy clothes as she studies at the kitchen table, determined to finish her homework so that she can finally graduate college after decades of trying. I see the violet sky at dawn; when the sun rises so does she. Mother up at twilight to start her day, breath released in freezing clouds as she milks the goats and feeds the chickens, never disappointing the hungry mouths that depend on her. Each day, I recall the things she has given up for my sake. Her sacrifice and desire for me to succeed encourage me to be better and work harder. Yet, I desire more. I do not want to live like her, I want better.

Red stitches are passionate outbursts. Angry shouts from Dad as he returns in the middle of the night, breath sour from drinking. Tears of happiness after receiving his first chip for a year of sobriety. Screams echoing from my biological father’s mouth as he hurls threats that sting like arrows as his disease makes him chase his family away. Scarlet stitches of fear during our six months without a roof over our heads after he forced us from our home. Pain in my sister’s eyes after she begged for help from friends with deaf ears. Promises that we will keep her safe, and check-in calls after I leave home.

Twist, bend, through the loop. Repeat.

Each stitch is a part of me. I rarely relive these aspects of my upbringing, but I call on them when I need to be reminded of my strength. When I completed the blanket, I cried. I was proud. I made this. This is me.

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